The primary building material in Mesopotamia was the alluvial clay soil, which was shaped into oblong bricks that were dried in the sun. Native trees, such as date palm and poplar, served as roof timbers, as well as for doors, window frames, and shutters. Imported hardwood was used to span larger spaces in monumental buildings. In Assyria, locally available limestone was used to line interior walls within palaces and temples and was often engraved with reliefs showing ritual or military scenes. The basic plan of a domestic building consisted of an enclosed, rectilinear courtyard and one or two rooms, each with a doorway. A growing family would add more rooms at the periphery of the courtyard and eventually enlarge the compound with additional courtyards. In periods of economic decline, the reverse process by subdivision was also practiced. In urban areas, individual houses were built closely together and little attention was paid to the exterior appearance of the building. The wealthier members of society had bathrooms waterproofed with bitumen, as well as toilets and clay-pipe drains. The housing of the poor is typically poorly documented archaeologically, but it is known that they would have been housed in flimsily built reed huts and similar shelters. Mesopotamian monumental architecture began in the Chalcolithic period, with buildings that combined several purposes: to safeguard and store agricultural surpluses and accumulated artifacts, to facilitate the exchange and distribution of these goods, to serve for social gatherings, and to express superior social status of the ruling elite. The buildings are characterized by the size of the main rooms and the height and thickness of the mudbrick walls; the careful orientation and planning, often showing symmetry and axiality; and the decorative features on the facade. In the historical periods, more specialized functions are discernible, partly because of written evidence in the form of foundation records, or because of characteristic features.
   Temple buildings, for instance, were on the one hand large households, with many courtyards, dwellings and workshops, storage rooms, and kitchens, and as such share the same general layout as domestic architecture, but the ritual requirements of the cult also dictated a particular orientation and spatial sequence. Temple hymns describe that such buildings were considered endowed with vigor and vitality, that they “bellowed like bulls” and dazzled like the sun, perhaps a reference to the use of musical instruments during the liturgies and the whitewash of the walls, which were also typically corrugated by a series of vertically running niches. The maintenance and endowment of temples by kings was a means to legitimize their exercise of power, and royal inscriptionsof all historical periods refer in more or less detail to projects of construction, renewal, and general fitting out with doors, statues, and ornaments. Dilapidated temples were as a rule not destroyed but were carefully leveled and rebuilt on the same foundations, with the result that the temples were often on a higher level and rose above the city, serving as a landmark. A particular type of structure, a stepped pyramid accessible by ramps, was developed as a “high temple,” to serve for special rituals and possibly also for celestial observations (see ZIGGURAT). In southern Mesopotamia these were detached from the temple proper and set within a walled precinct, whereas in the north they could be accessed from the temple buildings. Palaces were essentially large households and consisted of a more or less complex assortment of courtyards and surrounding rooms, some of which served the particular requirements of the palace as a center of political power, with representative spaces (throne rooms), women’s quarters, offices, and fortified and well-guarded access points. The palace of Mari is the best-preserved example, although its careful planning was unusual.
   Funerary architecture was never as important in Mesopotamia as in Egypt, because Mesopotamians did not believe in being able to reproduce elite living conditions after death. Some kings of the Third Dynasty of Ur were buried in vaulted graves, while Assyrian monarchs were laid to rest in subterranean chambers in the old capital of Assur.

Historical Dictionary of Mesopotamia. . 2012.


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