Mesopotamian temples combined several important functions. Cities were primarily identified by their tutelary deities, and the temples were the houses of the godsin a specific place. They provided continuity across time. Rising above the plains, they served as landmarks that could be seen above the low-rise skylines of Mesopotamian cities. In temples the gods were worshipped with sacrifice and rituals, and a large staff looked after the daily services (see PRIESTS).
   Temples were also very large households and owned extensive tracts of agricultural land. They were therefore important economic entities. The yields of the fields and pastures, as well as the products of workshops attached to the temples, were primarily used to “feed the gods.” In fact, they also sustained a large number of people attached to the temple as lifelong or temporary personnel. Temples, much like monasteries in the Middle Ages in Europe, were also centers of learning and scribal training. Agreat number of cuneiform tablets were discovered in temple ruins. The forecourts also served to administer justice before the symbols of such deities as Shamash, Marduk, or Enlil (see LAWS).
   Mesopotamian temples were thus complex institutions that played a vital role in Mesopotamian society since a substantial proportion of citizens either depended on the temples entirely for their livelihood or had regular involvement in their economic and/or cultic activities. Temples were able to give loans at lower rates than the private sector and took certain responsibilities toward the destitute. The relationship between the state and the temples was marked by mutual dependence. The king derived much of his legitimacy from divine approval that was ratified by the consent of the leading temple authorities (e.g., those of Assur or Babylon). It was a royal duty to repair and maintain the architectural fabric of the country’s major sanctuaries, and they also received a share of wartime booty. In turn, temple estates could be taxed and more or less heavily supervised. In some periods major appointments at the top end of temple hierarchies were made by the king.
   Temples were sometimes a source of economic and social stability at times when there was political upheaval or during periods of foreign occupation (such as in the Achaemenid or Seleucid periods). Architecturally, temples can be distinguished from other monumental structures by the elaborately recessed facades and the furnishings in the cult rooms, which included one or more niches for the divine statues with an altar in front of them. The entrance to the cult room was placed in the long wall of the rectangular chamber, with the image placed against the short wall (the “bent axis” approach) or, as often in Assyria, with the doorway in the short wall opposite the god’s statue (“direct axis”) (see ARCHITECTURE). Like palaces, the temples were composed of one or several courtyards, subsidiary buildings grouped around them, and they had strong perimeter walls. Major temples could also boast a ziggurat. Because the building and restoration of the sacred “house” was a potentially dangerous undertaking due to the possible anger of the disturbed gods, temple architecture was inherently conservative. The solution most frequently adopted was to rebuild directly on the razed walls of the previous building while incorporating the rubble within a platform, above which the renewed structure arose. Only when a sanctuary was severely dilapidated could any deviations from the original plan be considered. All such undertakings, even minor restoration work, could only begin once positive and unanimous omens had been received through divination. Due to the practice of interring inscribed pegs or tablets within the brickwork or beneath the wall, we can ascribe successive restoration phases to particular kings, who also mentioned their building activities in their year names or annals.

Historical Dictionary of Mesopotamia. . 2012.

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