The White Temple and Ziggurat (c. 3200 B.C.E.) was built in what we know now as the Ancient Near East. The temple is more specifically located in the Sumerian city of Uruk, also known as Warka. Wedged between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, the Fertile Crescent had a fairly unpredictable climate. The Sumerians kept very strict records of their affairs including political occurrences, accounts, and transactions. These records are found inscribed into nearly indestructible clay tablets. Hundreds of thousands of these tablets have been found. Not only do these tablets give us detailed information on the city-states, but they are evidence of what is thought to be one of the earliest forms of writing.
The natural occurrences in this region are believed to have contributed to the religious beliefs of these people. Religion is thought to have been a major aspect in the lives of ancient Sumerians. It is even theorized that it is in this region that the concept of religion emerged. Due to the climate and such the people of the ancient Near East believed in gods and goddesses who personified the forces of nature.
The region was not unified but instead made up of independent city-states. Each city-state was under the protection of one of the nature gods/goddesses. It is thought that the sky god, Anu, was the protector of the urban city where the White Temple and Ziggurat is located.
In addition to its religious function the temple also served as a center for political matters. This exemplifies that religion was a part of everyday life including the economy and administration.
Even though the region was very fertile it lacked some essential natural resources such as metal, stone and wood. The ancient Sumerians did a great deal of trading (made a bit easier by its location near water) in order to obtain these materials. Since stone was not abundant the White Temple is made from mud bricks. The walls of the temple are whitewashed lending to the nickname by which it is now known. These bricks, although somewhat eroded, have survived more than five millennium. The fragile building materials, however, did not prevent the ancient Sumerians from erecting massive structures centuries before the Egyptians. The construction of these buildings reinforces modern belief about the role religion played in their lives. The desire to create grand temples in which to worship deities must have been quite immense in order for such effort to be placed in building these types of structures.
Studying the location of the White Temple has also enhanced knowledge of the role of religion in ancient Sumeria. The temple and ziggurat are located in the direct center of the city. The temple is the center of the lives for the Sumerian people.
The temple is perched atop a platform known as a ziggurat. The height of the ziggurat reaches to 40 feet above street level. The grand height serves two purposes: one to stand out among the other structures and therefore appear the more important; and two to get the temple closer to the sky where the ancient Sumerians believed the deities existed.
Staircases were located in the sloping sides of the ziggurat as well as a ramp. Worshippers climbed the stairs, possibly as a sort of pilgrimage, and the ramp was used to bring sacrificial animals to the temple. Doors to the temple were not located at the top of the staircases, but instead one additionalangular turn had to be made in order to enter. This alignment, known as bent axis, was the standard for Sumerian temples. (Alignment of Egyptian temples in known as axial.) The corners of the White Temple are oriented with the cardinal points of a compass.
The White Temple contains a shrine that is thought to have been dedicated to Anu. The shrine is fairly small in comparison to the surrounding structures. The modest size (61 by 16 feet) could hold only a select few, most likely these people were the priests and/or leaders of the city. The central hall, known as the cella, was set aside for the divinity and housed a stepped altar. The ancient Sumerians believed that the gods/goddesses would descend from the heavens into the cella and meet with the priests. It is because of this belief that the temples were referred to as waiting rooms.
Gardner's Art Through the Ages Tenth Edition