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Differences Between Mesopotamia and Egypt in Architecture

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Astonishing structures in ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt truly showed their values in society and their outstanding capabilities as a civilization. In ancient Mesopotamia, ziggurats were constructed by kings to show their devotion to the city-state’s god. A ziggurat is a massive rectangular stepped-tower that is sometimes surrounded by a temple. They were constructed in ancient Mesopotamia, beginning in 2000 BCE (Head). One of the most famous ziggurats is the Ziggurat of Ur constructed in the Sumerian city-state of Ur. The Ziggurat of Ur and the temple on top were built around 2100 BCE by King Ur-Nammu. Reigning for eighteen years, he was the king of the Third Dynasty of Ur. The ziggurat was also constructed with the help of Ur-Nammu’s son, Shulgi. He completed the construction of the ziggurat, which was one of his greatest accomplishments, when his father, Ur-Nammu, died (Head). An equally important structure was the pyramid. They were built in ancient Egypt to function as a tomb for the pharaoh. A pyramid is a monumental structure with a square or triangular base and sloping sides that meet in a point at the top. Most pyramids were constructed during the Old Kingdom of Egypt. One of these pyramids was the Great Pyramid of Giza built in Giza Necropolis. A necropolis is a large area, similar to a cemetery, designed with elaborate tomb monuments. Pharaoh Kufu began to construct the Great Pyramid of Giza circa 2550 BCE and completed this pyramid around 2560 BCE. Khufu was the second pharaoh in the Fourth Dynasty, preceded by Sneferu, and he reigned for about twenty-three years. Hemiunu was the vizier during the reign of Khufu. As vizier, he was one of the most important members of the court and he was responsible for all of the royal works. He served as the architect for the Great Pyramid, therefore he designed, planned and developed this pyramid from the ground up. While both the ziggurats of Mesopotamia and the pyramids of Egypt attest to the incredible wealth, power, and intelligence present in ancient societies, they were constructed and used for very different reasons.

The ancient Mesopotamians and Egyptians had very different societies which were clearly displayed in their architecture. Mesopotamians were polytheistic. They worshipped several major gods and thousands of minor gods while each Mesopotamian city had its own patron god or goddess (Woolley). The king and nobility made up the highest class, followed by the priests and priestesses. The next was the upper class, the lower class and then the slaves. The government in Sumer was ruled by kings who only ruled a single city, rather than the entire civilization. This government was a combination of a monarchy and a democracy; consisting of a king and nobles who made the laws, declared war and decided how to honor the gods. Furthermore, there was an assembly of wise men, elected by the people who could overrule the king. Each city-state had its own king and its own assembly. Similar to Mesopotamians, Ancient Egyptian religion was a complex system of polytheistic beliefs and rituals which were an integral part of their society. It was centered around gods related to the forces and elements of nature. Ancient Egypt was divided into two kingdoms, Upper and Lower Egypt. Lower Egypt is to the north and is where the Nile Delta drains into the Mediterranean Sea. Whereas Upper Egypt is to the south from the Libyan desert down to just past Nubia. The pharaoh ruled all of this land and was located at the top of the social hierarchy followed by government officials, nobles and priests, soldiers, scribes, merchants, craftsmen and farmers, and slaves. Their government was a theocratic monarchy. The pharaoh ruled by a mandate from the gods and was supposed to represent the gods will through the laws passed and the policies approved. They owned all of the land, made laws, collected taxes and defended Egypt against foreigners. Although Egypt and Sumer were diverse from each other, both represented aspects of their societies through architecture.

The Great Pyramid of Giza or the Pyramid of Khufu is a massive piece of architecture that still amazes scholars to this day in relation to its construction methods. It was completed in the fourth dynasty (2560 BCE) in Giza Necropolis, which is located in modern Cairo, Egypt. The Great Pyramid of Giza has more than five million blocks of limestone that were cast with agglomerated limestone concrete. At its largest it was 481.4 feet in height and 755.55 feet in width. These pyramids were built for the pharaohs that were reigning at the time, to serve as their tomb when they died. Moreover, Egypt’s pharaohs were expected to become gods in the afterlife. To prepare for the next world they erected massive pyramid tombs for themselves. These were filled with all the things each ruler would need to guide and sustain themselves in the next world. The pyramid was built by moving huge stones from a quarry and dragging and lifting them into place. Building a pyramid required thousands of workers (20,000 to 30,000). The Egyptians built a giant ramp against each pyramid and workers would use this ramp to bring up stones and used levers which helped set the stones in place. They transported the stone by boat from the quarry to the building site by the means of canals and also used sledges. A sledge was excavated by the Egyptian Expedition of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It was made circa 1961-1917 BCE during the Middle Kingdom under Senwosret I. The sledge was used to build the pyramids and shows the tools used during this period. Sledges were first used in the Old Kingdom to build pyramids, such as the Pyramid of Giza, and used through the Middle Kingdom as demonstrated by this sledge. The stone blocks rested on sledges (like modern sleds) and their runners were designed to run on wet mud that was scattered on tracks built from wooden frames. A wooden lever beam was also used which enabled the user to lift heavy weights attached to the shorter arm with relatively little force by moving the longer arm of the lever. The stones were conveyed from one layer of blocks to the next by means of ramps which grew higher as the building increased in height. To build the pyramids they needed exact schedules, sophisticated infrastructure, yielding adequate material and finding sites for shipping of material and building the pyramid. All of these tasks required an experienced and well-organized team. They had a leader whose job was to plan out the pyramid and give orders to the workers. The most common type of worker out of three, which were miners, stone carriers, and the builders, were the carriers. The carrier’s job was to transport the stone from the quarry or port using sledges. Another popular job were the scribes. They recorded the materials used, days required to build certain parts of the pyramid and write down the orders of the pharaoh. The techniques in building the Great Pyramid of Giza are still fairly unknown to this day. But scholars are aware that this pyramid required immense planning, skilled workers, and complicated techniques, to be the spectacle that it is today.

The Great Ziggurat of Ur has a rather simple design, but it required thorough preparation and meticulous constructing procedures. The ziggurat and the temple on its top were built around 2100 BCE in the city of Ur near Nasiriyah in present day Iraq by the king at the time, Ur-Nammu. Kings would build ziggurats to prove their religious dedication to the community and the gods. The entire building was made of sun-dried bricks in all the interior areas, with glazed fire-dried bricks facing outward with each step being slightly smaller than the step below it (Head). A ziggurat would have anywhere from two to seven levels, and a series of staircases led to the top of the ziggurat that was only accessible by priests. The mud bricks were stacked using wet mud and bitumen to seal them together. Bitumen is a black liquid material that is acquired naturally or as a residue from petroleum distillation. It is similar to a modern-day asphalt. If the bricks were stacked with only mud between them, they would not have lasted long. They used tools such as copper axes, chisels, knife blades, early hammers and axe heads. They even used the material tin for saws, goads, axes and daggers. Goads were spiked sticks that were traditionally used for driving cattle, but also served the purpose of stacking bricks in construction of the ziggurats. The ziggurats began as a platform that was usually oval, rectangular, or square. It began to resemble a Mastaba-like structure with a flat top as it was constructed. Mastaba refers to a type of Ancient Egyptian tomb that was rectangular in shape with sloping sides and a flat roof. Mastabas were constructed around 3000 BC, whereas Ziggurats were constructed around 2000 BC, therefore Mastabas were created first. When fully constructed, the Ziggurat of Ur measured 210 feet in length, 150 feet in width and over 100 feet in height. The ziggurats built in Mesopotamia truly showed their capabilities as builders and as a society, as well as their culture values.

The ancient Egyptians built pyramids as tombs for their pharaohs and queens’ afterlife, while the ancient Mesopotamians built ziggurats to honor their local god. The Egyptians were one of the first civilizations to believe in an afterlife. They believed that their soul, or ka, enjoyed eternal life after their physical body expired. They had to pass a test, called the Judgment of Osiris, which either allowed them to live comfortably in the underworld or get brutally eaten by a monster. To successfully pass the test, the Book of the Dead was required. It contained spells which allowed the person to successfully enter the western paradise of Osiris, or the underworld. The Book of the Dead could only be acquired by royalty or wealthy nobles due to its high cost. Along with this book pharaohs and queens were buried with their most prized possessions in their tombs. This was because the ka could enjoy these items in the afterlife. Each pyramid was built for a specific pharaoh or queen. The Great Pyramid of Giza was built as a tomb for the king Khufu. The king’s chamber was located in the center of the pyramid with the queen’s chamber just below it, accessible by ascending passageways. In the tunnel leading to the king’s chamber was the grand gallery which is large in height but rather small in width. All of the efforts of building this pyramid went to creating a grand tomb for the king who, as the mediator between the gods and the people, was thought to be deserving of the finest of tombs. The culture which produced this monument would have regarded it as a tomb or an eternal home for the king. The Ziggurats in Mesopotamia were built to honor the main god of the city. Each city-state in Mesopotamia had a specific God. Ziggurats were meant to directly connect the community to their God. They were a stepped tower with a temple located at the top. The ziggurat itself is actually the base on which the temple sits. The purpose is to get the temple closer to the heavens and provide access from the ground to it through steps. The temple was such a holy place, only the priests were allowed there. The Great Ziggurat of Ur was built for the God Nanna who was the divine patron of the city state. Nanna is the Mesopotamian god of the moon and wisdom. The Ziggurat of Ur had a long staircase from the ground to the entrance allowing people to enter. The ziggurat did not only contain the temple, but it also was the economic, social and political center of the city. This was the place for people to trade, taxes to be collected and supplies for the city to be stored. While the pyramid at Giza was centered around the afterlife pleasures of king Khufu, the Ziggurat of Ur provided religious benefits for the whole community and also served as the center of society.

Mesopotamians and ancient Egyptians both clearly displayed their culture through means of architecture. The Mesopotamians were polytheistic, worshipping multiple gods simultaneously. Whereas the ancient Egyptians beliefs centered around elements of nature, they also had an intricate system of polytheistic rituals. The government in Mesopotamia was ruled by kings. However, each king only ruled a single city-state, rather than an entire civilization (Head). But, the government in ancient Egypt consisted of a pharaoh ruling the whole kingdom and a vizier, or royal advisor. The great Ziggurat of Ur was built by Ur-Nammu in 2100 BCE for the city’s local god. The Great Pyramid of Giza was built in 2560 BCE by Hemiunu, an Egyptian architect, serving the purpose as a tomb for Pharaoh Khufu. The main building techniques for the ziggurat were constructing sun-dried bricks and using mud to seal them together. To do so, they used copper axes, sickles and early hammers. This gradually became to resemble a structure similar to a step pyramid. Methods for the Great Pyramid are still unknown to this day; however, scholars have developed knowledgeable theories. These are based on the pyramids that are still intact to this day and excavations done to past pyramid remains. They have suggested huge limestone blocks were moved from a quarry by the means of canals and were then dragged and lifted into place through sledges. Moreover, wooden lever beams allowed workers to precisely layer the blocks on top of each other. To continue to stack the limestone, ramps on the outside of the pyramids gradually got taller as the pyramid grew. Although the reasons for constructing these astounding pieces of architecture differed in purpose, they equally showed the culture of their time period and will continue to for generations to come.

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