Sunlight and Shade in the First Cities - A Sensory Archaeology of Early Iraq

Posted in: Ancient Near East Today, ASOR
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By: Mary Shepperson

There are two periods of about five days each, one in the Spring and one in the Autumn, when the weather in southern Iraq is quite nice. Outside of those brief pleasant interludes, it’s either cold, windy and rainy, or roasting, windy and dusty. In the past, before electric heaters and air conditioning, the only thing standing between human beings and great physical discomfort was architecture.

Shepperson Cover

The sun setting over the Ziggurat of Ur

Sunlight and Shade in the First Cities explores the interaction of sunlight and architecture in the urban landscapes of Bronze Age Mesopotamian cities. Starting from architectural principles of climate adaptation and the specific sunlight conditions of the Mesopotamian plain, this volume shows that the urban architecture of ancient Mesopotamia relied on carefully applied principles of design to create buildings and settlements which were liveable and protected their inhabitants from the extremes of climate outside.

Excavated Isin-Larsa period housing at Ur

Adaptation to regional sunlight can be directly linked to most of the characteristic features of Mesopotamian settlements, from the distribution of courtyards and the positioning of doorways, to the density of housing and the orientation of roads. At a larger scale, sunlight can be linked to tell development and even the direction in which cities expanded.

The interaction of sunlight and architecture also has considerable influence over how people lived in these cities. The timing and location of activities is shown to be strongly related to how buildings provide shade to urban space through the day and at different times of year, providing insight into the schedules of daily life. The provision or exclusion of light is also deeply connected with visual privacy because it determines what can be seen and by whom. Lighting thus plays a part in defining the social character of architectural space and influencing how it’s used.

People make buildings, but buildings also make people, to trot out an architectural cliché. Climatically adapted buildings and cities created distinctive social and sensory environments which affected how people interacted with each other and their surroundings.

For instance, a house which is sealed against heat and dust by having few external openings will unavoidably limit both light access and human access, making it a very private space, with a rigid boundary between the house and the city outside. The adaptation of ancient architecture to climate can in this way be related to key characteristics of ancient Mesopotamian society, such as the importance and cohesiveness of households as society’s primary organisational unit.

Aerial view of the dense courtyard housing of old Marrakesh

Similarly, the high-density, close-packed housing of ancient Mesopotamian cities, which stimulated the need for sophisticated new legal systems and unprecedented levels of social complexity, also happens to be the ideal settlement form for Iraq’s hot-arid climate. A city in which the houses are clustered closely together reduces the total surface area exposed to the sun, and allows the buildings to provide mutual shading.

Sunlight itself was not simply a physical phenomenon in ancient Mesopotamia but was a substance filled with meaning. Textual sources indicate that sunlight was considered to be both a negative, destructive force and a manifestation of sacred power. Most celestial light sources were also major Mesopotamian deities, the sun being high among them as Šamaš, the god of justice and judgement. Brilliance and radiance were associated with the divine and sunlight was employed in ancient Mesopotamian architecture in highly symbolic ways.

Seal impression showing the goddess Ištar surrounded by radiance.

In the sphere of sacred architecture, sunlight was used in both general and very specific symbolic ways. Sacred space was visually and sensorially very distinct from the domestic sphere. While domestic architecture aimed to reduce sunlight to a cool, comfortable dimness, sacred architecture dealt in the extremes.

Temple exteriors were bathed in light and heat; a physical embodiment of the shining and radiant temples described in sacred texts. In stark contrast, the sanctuaries of temples were kept in near total darkness, often insulated from outside light with double sets of doors. These contrasts of brilliance and darkness were used as a complex theatre designed to invoke the presence of the gods.

Lighting seems to have been a major factor in a wider reorientation of temples that happened around the Ur III period at the end of the third millennium BCE. Most temples of the Early Dynastic period faced northwest, the orientation that receives the least solar radiation. But from the Ur III period on temples are overwhelmingly oriented towards the southeast, facing the morning sun.

Orientation of Early Dynastic Temples. Blue sectors receive the least sunlight, orange sectors receive more.

Orientation of Ur III and second millennium BC temples

As well as bathing temple façades in sunlight, this reorientation seems to have had at least one element of specific sunlit significance. Temple gateways were the location for legal judgements to be made, and by orienting these gateways towards the morning sun it allowed Šamaš, the god of judgement, to be physically present to oversee each case.

The architecture of palaces, just like that of temples, shaped a carefully contrived sunlit theatre. The aim was to manage the way in which the king or his representative was presented to visitors through manipulating visibility, symbolism and sensory experience.

In outlining some of the key issues considered in Sunlight and Shade in the First Cities, I hope to give an idea of the multi-layered significance of climate and sunlight in shaping ancient Mesopotamian architecture, society and ideology. Sunlight is both a physical phenomenon that enables and restricts human activity, and a highly symbolic phenomenon rich in social and religious meaning. These divergent aspects of sunlight in human life are fundamentally interwoven in the ancient city, their relationship mediated through architecture.

The sun setting behind the ziggurat of Ur

*All photographs courtesy of Mary Shepperson

Mary Shepperson is a professional archaeologist currently working in Iraq.


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