The culture and the religious beliefs were very different between the Sumerians, the people that built the ziggurats, and the Egyptians, who are well known for building the great pyramids of Giza. The ziggurats and pyramids had differences in structure and in function, but they did share similarities in the symbolism of the structures.
The first ziggurats of Mesopotamia were built by the Sumerians circa. 3300-3000 BCE. The Anu ziggurat and the white temple is one of the earliest temples built, while the Nanna ziggurat of Ur was built by the Sumerians after they had forced out the Guti and the fall of the Akkadian Empire, circa. 2100-2050 BCE. The Egyptian Pyramids of Giza were comissioned by three successive Egyptian kings: Khufu, Khafre, and Menkaure in the Fourth Dynasty, 2575-2450 BCE.
The architecture and scales are very different from one another. The ziggurats were big stepped structures that often had a temple or shrine on top. The base was rectangle shaped and had three platforms and stairs that converge on the first platform. The Egyptian pyramids at Giza were massive structures and formed a perfect pyramid shape with a square base and four sloping sides that perfectly meet at a point at the top. There was also a huge difference in scale. The Nanna ziggurat at its base was 205 ft. by 141 ft., (28,905 square feet) and might have been a 100ft. tall. The largest pyramid of Khufu takes up an area of 13 acres (566,280 square feet) at its base, and would have been 481 feet tall.
The ziggurats are solid structures with only the temple at the very top providing an covered structure. Since there were no burial remains found at the ziggurats it is assumed that were used only for worship and not for burial. The pyramids were mostly solid but they did have burial chambers and passages. One important function of the pyramids was as a burial site and tombs for some of the kings of Egypt.
The structures were made of different materials, but because of the mud bricks used by the Sumerians, it helped to create some of the similar lines seen in the pyramids, but also created difference in the outward appearance as well. The mud bricks might have been more susceptible to erosion than the limestone and granite that the Egyptians used to create the pyramids. The platform walls slope outward which might have been to prevent rainwater from eroding the mud brick pavement. These sloping lines reflect the sloping walls of the pyramids and draw the eye towards the top of the structure.
Symbolism played a very important role in the ziggurats and the pyramids and they both shared similar meanings to the people and the message the kings were trying to convey. King Urnammu commissioned the Nanna Ziggurat be dedicated to the moon god Nanna. Ziggurats provided a place of worship and glorification of a particular god and a way to proclaim a ruler’s wealth, prestige, and stability to its people. They often rose high above the flat plains around them and were symbols of “the bridges between the earth and the heavens – a meeting place for humans and their gods”. The pyramids too were the Egyptians claims to wealth and prestige. They required a huge labor force for the building and construction of the structure, the quarrying and transportation of the 2.5 ton stones, and the skilled designers and overseers of the pyramids who would have needed to do complicated calculations. It shows a huge wealth that would have been necessary to pay for the workers over the period of time that was needed to build the structure and to pay for the materials, such as the gold to cap at the top of the pyramid. The angled sides could have been to represent the rays of the sun, and it was believed that deceased kings climbed the rays of the sun to join the god Ra, thus the pyramids too provided a meeting place of man and god like the ziggurats.
Even with the difference in structure, the Sumerians through their building of the ziggurats and the Egyptians with the pyramids, share a belief that their structures symbols of their kings’ power and prestige and symbols of their gods.