The Common Temple Ideology of the Ancient Near East

By John M. Lundquist

John M. Lundquist, “The Common Temple Ideology of the Ancient Near East,” in The Temple in Antiquity: Ancient Records and Modern Perspectives, ed. Truman G. Madsen (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 1984), 53–76.

The Common Temple Ideology of the Ancient Near East

John M. Lundquist


Historical understanding of temples is one thing; typological analysis is another. In the present paper John Lundquist presents a scholarly account of common elements that permeate temple traditions throughout the Near East. This framework or set of categories, “an undergirding pattern or process,” has eighteen facets. Four of these are presented in detail here: (1) the idea of the cosmic mountain (compare Clifford’s paper); (2) the idea of the emerging of sacred space from the creative waters; (3) the idea of the waters of life, the sacred spring, or the waters of creation; and (4) the association of the temple with the tree of life. These themes or motifs can be found, all of them, in the Old Testament. But Lundquist shows that they are also part of a larger pattern which can be traced throughout literature and buildings of the ancient Near East. The discerning reader will recognize them in a variety of expressions in the literature unique to the Latter-day Saints—the Book of Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants, and the creation narratives of the books of Moses, Enoch, and Abraham in the Pearl of Great Price. This discussion also gives a more expansive meaning to Joseph Smith’s 1843 statement, “Jerusalem must be rebuilt, and the temple, and water come out from under the temple, and the waters of the Dead Sea be healed.”

T. G. M.


The underlying thesis of this work is that in the ancient Near East up to approximately late Hellenistic times, there was a common ritual language and praxis centered around great temples, a common “temple ideology,” which transcended language and cultural and political boundaries and which survived the rise and fall of empires. [1] Although there can be no doubt that there were broad areas of cultural and religious uniqueness which distinguished one ancient Near Eastern culture from another, this temple ideology would have been largely understood across cultural boundaries. Peter Brown has written that “ancient religion revolved around the great temples.” [2] And Jonathan Z. Smith would add that “the old imperial cosmological language was the major mode of religious expression of the archaic temple.” [3] This paper will attempt to lay the foundations for a more elaborate description of the basic elements of the “old imperial cosmological language” of the religion that “revolved around the great temples.” It is assumed here that we are dealing with a remarkable manifestation of cultural continuity in ancient times. Jacob Milgrom has written, “Presumed is that the ancient Near East was a cultural continuum where forms and ideas were exchanged without resistance unless they clashed with the value system of the borrowing culture.” [4] It is my contention that the temple as an institution and the cult associated with it constitute one of the most interesting examples of such continuity.

The central result which this and the above-quoted studies hope to achieve is the construction of a model that can be tested by other scholars on Near Eastern examples as well as on temple complexes in other parts of the world, ancient and modern. As one scholar has put it, “Model building is the cutting edge of current social science theory: models identify the interaction of parts in an on-going structured process.” [5] This same scholar has suggested a five-point procedure for the construction of a model which can be used to illuminate a given problem in civilizational studies: “(1) identification of the key unit of study, the largest functional whole; (2) construction of model; (3) identification of a large number of empirical examples of the key unit; (4) testing of the model against those empirical examples; and (5) refinement of the model.” [6] In the present paper the temple represents the key unit of study; the typology presented in these pages is the model. My earlier studies (see notes 1 and 10) contain large numbers of empirical examples which validate the individual points of the model, and this paper will attempt to summarize the most important and compelling evidence for its first four points. The step of model refinement will be left to future studies. It is the model, the typology, that attempts to define and describe “the old imperial cosmological language . . . of the archaic temple.” The existence of such a model will then hopefully “stimulate empirical testing and refinement” on the part of other interested scholars. [7]

I am convinced that the typology herein presented can be applied far beyond the geographical and chronological boundaries of the ancient Near East. One of the potentially most fruitful fields for the application of the typology is American Indian myth and ritual. My own preliminary study has demonstrated the relevance of applying the model to Lakota (Oglala Sioux) ritual practices. This application, however, will be left for a later phase of this research (see note 7).

It is very difficult to accurately comprehend the complete range of ancient Israelite temple traditions. The reasons for this difficulty are the exceptionally difficult nature of the Old Testament textual evidence and the almost total lack of archaeological evidence that can unequivocally be related to the Bible text. Most remarkably, of course, there are no archaeological remains of the Temple of Solomon or any of its successors. There are, however, very pronounced traditions in the later Jewish sources about Israelite temple practices and architecture, the judicious use of which, along with the Masoretic text itself and comparative archaeological evidence, does allow us to place the Solomonic temple within the “common temple ideology of the ancient Near East.” This I will attempt to achieve in the present study.

Snyder states that the ultimate value of a good model rests in its “explanatory power in dealing with a set body of data.” Such value is ordinarily lost when the model is based on a single a priori idea which is used to explain all phenomena, as in the astronomical determinism of various past authors. The explanatory power can also be lost if the model is based on the “laundry list” approach, “because the items on such lists are chosen arbitrarily and do not reveal the on-going historical processes behind them. A properly constructed model will point beyond the surface to the underlying patterns and processes; it will explain as well as identify.” The typology that I have constructed attempts to avoid both these dangers. It is neither guided by a single, all-encompassing leitmotif that attempts to explain all phenomena, nor is it merely a “laundry list,” an ad hoc or hodgepodge list of motifs that “seemed to fit.”

The typology that I present in this paper was generated empirically from a study of the cylinder inscriptions of the Sumerian king Gudea, of the city of Lagash, which have long been recognized for the invaluable light they throw on ancient temple-building practices. On this subject Arvid Kapelrud has written that “his inscriptions give a vivid picture of the ideology behind the temple building, and they are the best examples which can be found on Sumerian soil.” [8]

Another very valuable series of studies on the temple have appeared over the past two decades from the pen of Geo Widengren. In 1960 he published a study of the basic elements of temple worship in the ancient Near East. [9] This article touches on a number of the points I develop in the typology, among them an interpretation of the symbolic meaning of the ziggurat, the importance of the determination of destinies, the cosmic orientation of shrines, the importance of the abyss, the tree of life and the ritual reproduction of the primordial landscape, and the importance of sacred space.

The Temple: A Prelimi​nary Typology

1. The temple is the architectural embodiment of the cosmic mountain.

2. The cosmic mountain represents the primordial hillock, the place which first emerged from the waters that covered the earth during the creative process. In Egypt, for example, all temples are seen as representing the primordial hillock.

3. The temple is often associated with the waters of life which flow from a spring within the building itself—or rather the temple is viewed as incorporating within itself such a spring or as having been built upon the spring. The reason that such springs exist in temples is that they were perceived as the primeval waters of creation, Nun in Egypt, abzu in Mesopotamia, tĕhôm in Israel. The temple is thus founded upon and stands in contact with the waters of creation. These waters carry the dual symbolism of the chaotic waters that were organized during the creation and of the life-giving, saving nature of the waters of life.

4. The temple is associated with the tree of life.

5. The temple is built on separate, sacral, set-apart space.

6. The temple is oriented toward the four world regions or cardinal directions, and to various celestial bodies such as the polar star. As such, it is, or can be, an astronomical observatory, the main purpose of which is to assist the temple priests in regulating the ritual calendar. The earthly temple is also seen as a copy or counterpart of a heavenly model.

7. Temples, in their architectonic orientation, express the idea of a successive ascension toward heaven. The Mesopotamian ziggurat or staged temple tower is the best example of this architectural principle. It was constructed of three, five, or seven levels or stages. Monumental staircases led to the upper levels, where smaller temples stood. The basic ritual pattern represented in these structures is that the worshippers ascended the staircase to the top, the deity descended from heaven, and the two met in the small temple which stood at the top of the structure.

8. The plan and measurements of the temple are revealed by God to the king or prophet, and the plan must be carefully carried out. The Babylonian king Nabopolassar stated that he took the measurements of Etemenanki, the temple tower in the main temple precinct at Babylon, under the guidance of the Babylonian gods Shamash, Adad, and Marduk, and that “he kept the measurements in his memory as a treasure.”

9. The temple is the central, organizing, unifying institution in ancient Near Eastern society.

a. The temple is associated with abundance and prosperity; indeed, it is perceived as the giver of these.

b. The destruction or loss of the temple is seen as calamitous and fatal to the community in which the temple has stood. The destruction is viewed as the result of social and moral decadence and disobedience to God’s word.

10. Inside the temple, images of deities as well as living kings, temple priests, and worshippers are washed, anointed, clothed, fed, enthroned, and symbolically initiated into the presence of deity, and thus into eternal life. Further, New Year rites held in the temple include the reading and dramatic portrayal of texts which recite a pre-earthly war in heaven; a victory in that war by the forces of good, led by a chief deity; and the creation and establishment of the cosmos, cities, temples, and the social order. The sacred marriage is carried out at this time.

11. The temple is associated with the realm of the dead, the underworld, the afterlife, the grave. The unifying features here are the rites and worship of ancestors. Tombs can be, and in Egypt and elsewhere are, essentially temples (cf. the cosmic orientation, texts written on tomb walls which guide the deceased into the afterlife, etc.). The unifying principle between temple and tomb is resurrection. Tombs and sarcophagi are “sacred places,” sites of resurrection. In Egyptian religion the sky goddess Nut is depicted on the coffin cover, symbolizing the cosmic orientation (cf. “Nut is the coffin.”). The temple is the link between this world and the next.

12. Sacral, communal meals are carried out in connection with temple ritual, often at the conclusion of or during a covenant ceremony.

13. The tablets of destiny (or tablets of the decrees) are consulted in the cosmic sense by the gods, and yearly in a special temple chamber, ubšukinna in the temple of Eninnu in the time of the Sumerian king Gudea of Lagash. It was by this means that the will of deity was communicated to the people through the king or prophet for a given year.

14. God’s word is revealed in the temple, usually in the Holy of Holies, to priests or prophets attached to the temple or to the religious system that it represents.

15. There is a close interrelationship between the temple and law in the ancient Near East. The building or restoration of a temple is perceived as the moving force behind a restating or “codifying” of basic legal principles, and of the “righting” and organizing of proper social order. The building or refurbishing of temples is central to the covenant process.

16. The temple is a place of sacrifice.

17. The temple and its ritual are enshrouded in secrecy. This secrecy relates to the sacredness of the temple precinct and the strict division in ancient times between sacred and profane space.

18. The temple and its cult are central to the economic structure of ancient Near Eastern society.

19. The temple plays a legitimizing political role in the ancient Near East. [10]

Summary of Evidence for Points 1 to 4 of the Ty​pology

1. The temple is the architectural embodiment of the cosmic mountain.

This point on the list is so commonplace that it has become a cliché within Near Eastern scholarship. The theme is extremely common in ancient Near Eastern texts, as I pointed out in “What Is a Temple? A Preliminary Typology,” and, for the Old Testament, in “Temple Symbolism in Isaiah.” Characteristic phrases from the inscriptions of Gudea of Lagash call the temple that Gudea was commanded to build “a temple (Sumerian é, ‘house’) like a mountain in heaven and earth which raises its head to heaven,” [11] “like a mountain of lapis-lazuli, standing on heaven and on earth,” [12] “the temple, its facade was a great mountain founded in the earth,” [13] and “the temple, like a great mountain is built up to heaven.” [14] The persistence with which the Old Testament tradition associates the Temple of Solomon with Mt. Sinai and all the sanctity that it represented is quite remarkable. One of the most archaic epithets applied to the Lord in the Bible is zeh sīnay, “the One of Sinai,” appearing in Judges 5:5 and Psalm 68:9. [15] Dr. Freedman further writes of the Sinai phenomenon that “the preservation of the terminology and its adaptation to other sanctuaries in other places is typical of the conservatism of all religious groups, and only serves to emphasize the antiquity and tenacity of these original traditions. Parallel to this phenomenon is the persistent assertion, found in several early poems, . . . that Yahweh came from Sinai.” [16]

The cosmic mountain can thus be a natural mountain that is transformed into the cosmic sphere, as in Israel and Canaan. As such it would correspond to the definition given by Andrzej Wiercinski that the cosmic mountain “may be externally represented by a distinguished natural mountain on which the archetype of the Cosmic Mountain has been socio-culturally superprojected.” [17] Richard Clifford calls the cosmic mountain “a place set apart because of a divine presence or activity which relates to the world of man-ordering or stabilizing the world, acting upon it through natural forces, the point where the earth touches the divine sphere.” [18] The cosmic mountain can also be, as in Egypt and Mesopotamia, a manifestation of the primordial mound or hillock of creation, that is, in Wiercinski’s words, “Primary earth which emerged from the waters of primordial Chaos due to a creative deed of the Highest Deity.” [19] As such, it fits the description of Maurice Canney, who called the cosmic mountain the “mole hill which grew into a mountain.” [20] And this brings us to the second point in the typology.

2. The cosmic mountain represents the primordial hillock, the place which first emerged from the waters that covered the earth during the creative process. In Egypt, for example, all temples are seen as representing the primordial hillock.

The Eninnu Temple, built by Gudea of Lagash, is depicted as arising out of the primordial water (Sumerian abzu, English abyss) and raising its head to heaven. [21] This same temple is called the “foundation of the abyss,” a phrase that connects it with the most ancient, sacred temple in the Sumerian tradition, the temple of the abyss of the Sumerian god of the sweet water abyss, Enki, at Eridu, on the southernmost reaches of the Euphrates River. [22] Sumerian building traditions make it clear that it was necessary to sink the foundations of the temenos or temple platform deep into the abzu or primordial abyss. [23] The temple was thus founded in and rose up out of the primordial waters of creation.

A number of Neo-Sumerian temple hymns employ the terminology du6-kù, “holy mound” in reference to several chief shrines, including the Eunir, or ziggurat of the city of Eridu. [24] The hymn to the aforementioned temple shows a most interesting poetic juxtaposition of the first two words of lines 4 and 5. Line 4 begins “Abzu, shrine” (abzu èš), while line 5 begins “House, holy mound” (é du6-kù) where èš and é are synonymous pairs and abzu and du6-kù are synonymous. [25] Thus the abzu is also called “holy mound,” which I believe supports my contention that in the Sumerian tradition the temple/mountain is seen as arising from the primordial mound.

Another hymn, to a temple in Ur, uses the phrase “Shrine, pure place, earth of An” in reference to the temple. The same phrase, “earth of An” (i.e., Anu, the chief deity of the Sumerian pantheon), occurs in a lexical text where the phrase, in Akkadian, is equated with Uruk, the Sumerian city where a great temple/ziggurat to Anu was built beginning about 3400 BC. [26] The phrase “earth of An,” when connected with the proto-ziggurat built in the Anu precinct at Uruk, capped by the White Temple about 3000 BC, gives yet further support to the equation primordial mound (which arises out of the abzu) = mountain/temple. [27] Along these same lines Henri Frankfort wrote of “the ziggurat, the massive temple tower, which stood for the ‘mountain,’ as a symbol of the earth, the Netherworld, or the place of sunrise.” [28]

The conception that temples are the architectural representation of the primordial mound is quite clearly expressed in Egyptian documents and architecture from the earliest times. According to Frankfort, “Everywhere the site of creation, the first land to emerge from chaos, was thought to have been charged with vital power.” And thus “each and every temple was supposed to stand on it.” [29] The step pyramid introduced by Djoser in the Third Dynasty was an architectural realization of the primordial hill, which was then modified into the true pyramid in the Fourth Dynasty, “the specific Heliopolitan form of the Primeval Hill, the Benben.” [30] Egyptian cities in which prominent shrines stood were called names which hearken back to the belief that they originated in the primordial mound: “Memphis was called ‘The divine emerging primeval island,’ Thebes ‘The island emerging in Nun [Egyptian Nun is the god which represents and embodies the waters of creation] which first came into being when all other places were still in obscurity,’ Hermonthis ‘the high ground which grew out of Nun.’” [31] Other Egyptian texts speak of Thebes as “Thou art the primordial mound, which was placed in Nun in the beginning, of whose earth all land was made.” The primordial hill itself is described as “the divine hill,” “the great hill of the first time,” “the hill which was given from Nun at the beginning when there was neither heaven nor earth nor underworld,” “the emerging island which stretched its head out of Nun,” or “the island of flames.” [32]

This same ideology is graphically portrayed on the walls of the Ptolemaic period temples at Edfu and elsewhere in Egypt, where, according to A. J. Spencer, “Practically every temple or shrine of this period was considered a replica of the first temple, built upon the primeval mound in the midst of the water of Nun.” [33] Most importantly, though, as in Mesopotamia, it is not the temple in general that is viewed as the incarnation of the primordial mound, but the holy of holies within the temple. It was the cult room of the Assyrian deity Assur’s main temple in the Assyrian capital that was called “house of the Great Mountain of the Lands” from the time of Sargon II onward. [34] Similarly, in the Neo-Sumerian temple hymns we read that the determination of destinies is carried out in du6-kù the “holy mound.” [35] We know from other Mesopotamian texts that there was a chapel in many if not all temples, called in Sumerian ub-šu-kin-na and in Akkadian parak šīmāti, “chamber of destiny.” It was in this chamber that the “determination of destinies” for the year took place. Van Driel presents evidence to indicate that the room in the temple complex at Assur, the Assyrian religious capital, designated “o” by the excavators was in fact the cult room of the god Assur, a room described in an inscription of Esarhaddon as “the inner cultroom, where Assur, my lord, lives.” Further inscriptional evidence from Esarhaddon demonstrates that there was a parak šīmāti or ub-šu-kin-na in this chapel. [36] Thus I believe that we can establish for Mesopotamia the equation Primordial mound = cosmic mountain = holy of holies.

This same equation is even more strongly attested for Egypt, where it is documented both textually and architecturally. Mohiy el-Din Ibrahim writes:

The basic plan of an Egyptian temple is logical and comprehensible. The Holy of Holies was a small dark room in the central axis of the temple towards the back. It thus appears as at the end of a long road which passed through the forecourts and narrowed through porticoes and halls until the hidden shrine was reached. This road also mounted steeply in the case of the pyramid temples and the rock temples, less noticeably in other cases. But at every door we find a few steps or a ramp to mark the rise. For the Holy of Holies was ideally conceived as the primeval hill, the first land to arise from the waters of chaos on the day of creation. Since all that exists had gone forth from this spot, it was a centre of immeasurable potency well suited for the manifestation of a divinity. [37]

Professor Reymond, writing of the same temple complex, also notes that “the adyton of the historical temple at Edfu was regarded as the god’s ‘genuine Great Seat of the First Occasion.’” [38]

If we consider the ancient biblical and the Jewish traditions, we find that there are emphases on mountains, land, and the foundation rock of the Jerusalem temple as having come forth first from the waters of creation. We find reference to the primordial waters of creation, the abyss or deep, in Genesis 1:2, where the Hebrew word tehom is the functional equivalent of the abzu in Mesopotamia and the Nun in Egypt. Dry land appears in verse 9 of the creation account. Elsewhere in the Old Testament we see that the ancients viewed the mountains as the earth’s pillars, submerged in the waters of tehom, and that it was the mountains which first appeared as the waters of the abyss receded. We see this idea in Psalm 104:5–8, and in Proverbs 8:24–26, which reads, in the NAB translation:

24. When there were no depths (Heb. tehomoth) I was brought forth [speaking of Wisdom], when there were no fountains or springs of water:

25. Before the mountains were settled into place, before the hills, I was brought forth;

26. While as yet the earth and the fields were not made, nor the first clods of the world.

Wensinck, writing of this passage, states that “the sequence of the different acts of the creation is consequently this: the Ocean, the mountains being immerged in it, the earth and her ways. So the first solid spots in the Ocean [tĕhôm] are the mountains; after them the earth is created. The mountains consequently possess the characteristic, belonging to the navel, of being the parts of the earth which have been created before the rest.” And further, “It will be clear that the foundations of the earth are the mountains which were let down into the primeval flood before the creation of the earth.” [39] The mountains thus serve the same role in the Old Testament as the temple explicitly plays in the Sumerian tradition, where it is called the “foundation of the earth.” The Sumerian word for foundation is temen, which can probably be viewed as an historical predecessor of the Greek word temenos, which gives us the tem root of our word “temple.” [40] In the Sumerian tradition, the temenos or foundation of the temple is seen as being “sunk down into the abyss.” Elsewhere it is said that the temenos of the temple was sunk into the abyss, and stood “like great pillars.” [41] In the biblical tradition, then, mountains are viewed as the first solid structures to emerge from the waters of creation, and are viewed as the “foundations [pillars] of the land.” The sanctity of certain mountains in the biblical tradition, primarily Sinai, is transferred to the temple, particularly to the temple mount in Jerusalem. (Of course, not all mountains are assumed to possess such sanctity, as we read in Psalm 68:17: “Why look you jealously, you rugged mountains, at the mountain God has chosen for this throne, where the Lord himself will dwell forever?”) It is in this sense that the temple mount comes to be viewed as the first spot to have emerged from the waters of creation. And in this latter sense we have a match with the views described above for Mesopotamia and Egypt. As Burrows writes, “Palestinian stone takes the place of Mesopotamian reed-mat and earth.” [42]

The Jewish tradition makes explicit the connection between the temple and the first spot of ground to have emerged from the tĕhôm. A famous Midrashic passage states:

Just as the navel is found at the center of a human being, so the land of Israel is found at the center of the world. Jerusalem is at the center of the land of Israel, and the Temple is at the center of Jerusalem, the Holy of Holies is at the center of the Temple, the Ark is at the center of the Holy of Holies, and the Foundation Stone is in front of the Ark, which spot is the foundation of the world. [43]

The biblical tradition focuses thus not on the mound or hillock of creation, but on the rock, which rock is specifically associated in late traditions with the temple in Jerusalem and with the first ground to emerge from creation. W. Brede Kristensen has given a valuable summary statement of the theology behind the concept of primordial hillock or rock:

This is the background of the sacredness of the bamôth. Related to this is the notion of the hill of Creation, where life arose in the beginning. The earth height which came up out of the primeval waters was the place where the earth began to live. There life arose and from there it spread. The life of the cosmos is thus conceived as the life of the earth. The light myth is also connected with this notion of the creation of the world; from the (sun) hill the sun arose in the beginning. The Egyptian texts call the day of Creation ‘the day of the elevation of the earth’ [Book of the Dead 1:19]. The height or hill as a sacred place is thus the place where the life of the earth reveals itself, the place of divine revelation in general. Here the altar was built, the altar which according to ancient belief was sacred because it represented the dwelling place of God, the altar which itself was the image of the high place. [44]

3. The temple is often associated with the waters of life which flow from a spring within the building itself—or rather the temple is viewed as incorporating within itself such a spring or as having been built upon the spring. The reason such springs exist in temples is that they were perceived as the primeval waters of creation, Nun in Egypt, abzu in Mesopotamia, tĕhôm in Israel. The temple is thus founded upon and stands in contact with the waters of creation. These waters carry the dual symbolism of the chaotic waters that were organized during the creation and of the life-giving, saving nature of the waters of life.

If the basic validity of the above point in the typology can be granted, then it is obvious that water symbolism, in most cases connected with the underground waters of creation, is going to be very widely attested in ancient ritual, and especially in temple-associated ritual. I have given considerable documentation for this phenomenon elsewhere. [45] Here I would like to approach the evidence from a slightly different perspective. Hugh Nibley has given a description of ancient hierocentric shrines which I think captures the essence of the role that water would have played: “At every hierocentric shrine stood a mountain or artificial mound and a lake or spring from which four streams flowed out to bring the life-giving waters to the four regions of the earth. The place was a green paradise, a carefully kept garden, a refuge from drought and heat. Elaborate waterworks figure conspicuously in the appointments and the rites of the holy place.” [46] We have here a description of what another scholar has referred to as “a sort of landscape of ‘the first time.’” [47] In other words, we can expect temple ritual to incorporate and to celebrate, architecturally and ritually, those views of primeval beginnings that were transmitted in the cosmogonic texts of each tradition. [48] Water symbolism is perhaps the most central theme in these texts.

In the three major traditions that are under discussion here, the Mesopotamian, Egyptian and Israelite, lustration (“holy”) water is viewed as coming from deep springs of water that originate in the abyss, and, in the Mesopotamian and Egyptian traditions, the waters of abzu and Nun are associated respectively with the Tigris/Euphrates and Nile rivers. The latter are then channeled by means of pipes, ducts, or other water conduits, such as the famous Nilometers in Egypt, directly into the holy of holies of the sanctuary, there to be available for lustration or drinking. [49] Also in the Jewish tradition, post-biblical sources relate the waters of tĕhôm, trapped under the Rock of Foundation in the Holy of Holies of the temple, to libation festivals connected with the Feast of Tabernacles. [50]

One of the most interesting ancient expressions of the association of temple and primeval waters is found in the account of the temple of Atargatis in the north Syrian town of Hierapolis by the Syro-Greek writer Lucian. He reports that the inhabitants of the city believed that their temple had been founded over a “chasm” which, following the end of the great Flood, had opened up in the city and had swallowed up the flood waters. It was Deucalion, the Greek Noah, who then built altars and a temple on the spot of the chasm. In order to memorialize this event, the inhabitants of the entire area of north Syria would go twice yearly in formal processionals to the sea, where they would fetch water that would be returned to the temple and poured into the crevice inside the temple. [51] According to Albright, “The annual ceremony in which water was brought from the sea and poured into this fissure shows that some connection was thought to exist between the latter and the subterranean source of fertility—bringing fresh water in the Great Deep.” [52]

Finally, an image from a Neo-Sumerian temple hymn underscores both the centrality of water in temple symbolism and the interrelatedness of this theme with other temple symbols, in this case the cosmic mountain: “Temple, at its top a mountain, at its bottom a spring.” [53] Gragg’s note to this line explains that “the image of our present line would be then to the effect that the temple rises up like a mountain at its top, but reaches down to the springs of fresh water at its bottom.” [54]

4. The temple is associated with the tree of life.

The tree, like the water, is an integral part of the “primordial landscape,” and as such plays a large role in the mythology and ritual of ancient Near Eastern temple symbolism. It is important to note that, in Mesopotamia at least, we are not dealing with “a specific botanical species nor . . . a single mythic or cultic entity.” [55] Many different species or parts of trees are mentioned in ancient Near Eastern texts within the context of what we may call the “sacred tree,” or “tree of life.” Generally speaking, the tree of life grows up out of the primordial waters of the abyss, and thus there is an intimate mythological and cultic connection between the tree and the waters of life. A characteristic expression of this relationship appears in the inscriptions of Gudea of Lagash, in Cylinder A, where the temple that he is building is compared to the kiškanu [a tree of unknown botanical derivation] of the abyss, whose top was raised over the lands.” [56] Another famous Sumerian incantation text states:

In Eridu in a pure place the dark kiškanu grows;

Its aspect is like lapis lazuli branching out from the apsu.

In the place were Ea holds sway, in Eridu full of abundance

His abode being in the Underworld,

His chamber a recess of the goddess Engur

In his pure house is a grove, shadow-extending, into whose midst no man has entered;

There are Šamaš and Tammuz. [57]

As Widengren has demonstrated, we are dealing here with a tree, located in the temple, within a garden setting, the tree being cultically represented just as we know that the apsu or “sea” was cultically represented in the temple. [58] There is abundant evidence that ancient Near Eastern temples were conceived as fertile, green, well-watered paradises, as the quotation from Nibley above implies. The source of this fertility was the sweet water of the abyss, and it is natural that a tree that has the power to bestow life would be seen as growing up out of the waters. There is extensive evidence in the inscriptions of Gudea and elsewhere that gardens were grown in the temple vicinity. [59] One inscription calls a temple “the House of the Plant of Life,” [60] and elsewhere Widengren expresses the opinion that the two cult symbols of the abyss or sea and the tree would have generally been represented in Mesopotamian temples. [61] The natural extension of this idea is that the priest or king in the Mesopotamian cult is often referred to as a “gardener.” “This mythical conception receives its symbolical expression in the cult by means of a special cult tree, planted in a grove near the sanctuary. The guardian and waterer, the gardener and libation priest at once, is the king. He performs certain acts of libation with the view of revivifying this tree, which is also the visible symbol of the dying god, who is called back to life.” [62] According to Thorkild Jacobsen, the original purpose of the Giparu (strictly speaking, the residence of the en or entu priest or priestess in Mesopotamia), which in a wider sense stands for the cultic spot where the sacred marriage is carried out, was that of a storehouse of crops, particularly the date clusters. [63] To be sure, the date palm plays a large role in Mesopotamian cylinder seals that depict cultic activity, especially during the Akkad period, where, according to York, “A tree is frequently seen in adoration or worshiper scenes behind the major deity, providing a visual termination for the scene while at the same time corroborating the holy nature of the tree.” [64]

It is a twig from the tree of life that the king or priest holds as his sceptre. Late pseudepigraphal sources attribute Moses’ rod to a branch taken by Adam from the tree of good and evil before he left the garden of Eden.[65] In a different setting, Baal, the Canaanite deity, depicted on a stone stele found in 1932 at Ras Shamra just southwest of the Baal Temple on the acropolis, carries what might be interpreted as a budding cedar tree in his left hand, while below him on the stele are depicted the mountains, where his temple is situated, [66] and beneath the mountains the watery abyss. If this interpretation of this stele is correct, we would have depicted on it all of the main symbols discussed thus far in this typology, with the unifying principle of the temple represented by the find spot of the stele. [67]

Another symbol associated with the tree of life is the food of life. Thus in the famous Myth of Adapa we find this passage:

The food of life they placed before him, but he did not eat.

The water of life they placed before him, but he did not drink. [68]

In the Gilgamesh Epic Gilgamesh seeks the plant that will make him young again, apparently not only for his own benefit, but also so that he can bring the plant back to Uruk and there allow the inhabitants of the city to eat also. In order to reach the plant, Gilgamesh apparently has to descend into or through a kind of tube or water pipe, which leads down into the sweet water, where the plant can be found. [69]

All of the above motifs are found in the Old Testament, and several of them unite in Moses, “the ideal model of the Israelitic [sic] ruler, uniting in his person the three offices of the Israelitic king, priest, and prophet, and thus being the pattern of the sacral kingship in Israel.” [70] Moses received the rod and the tablets from God, just as the Sumerian king Enmeduranki received the cedar staff and the tablets of destiny in the ubšukinna, or holy of holies of the temple of Ebarra in Nippur, thus symbolizing his enthronement. [71] We have clear evidence in the Old Testament for springs of water within the temple (see Isaiah 30:25; Joel 3:18; Ezekiel 47:1; Zechariah 14:8; Psalm 46:5), and references to trees growing within the sanctuary (Psalm 92:13–15; 52:10). Of course, we must distinguish in the ancient world between natural, growing trees, and artificial cultic trees, the latter suggesting “a transplantation symbolic of the constant renewal of vegetation and source of animal life.” [72] Ancient Near Eastern temple ritual knew both live gardens with trees growing within the temple precinct and cultic, artificial trees that stood in groves or within the temple and transmitted the same symbolism as live trees. The Old Testament prophets were especially clearly aware of the distinction between these types of trees, as we see in Isaiah 40:19–20 and 41:7–8, and in Jeremiah 10:2–4, where cultic trees of the type we see pictured on Mitannistyle cylinder seals and in Assyrian art are denounced. [73] But from the references in the Psalms quoted above, as well as the numerous prophetic references where the Messiah is called a “shoot” or a “branch” (Isaiah 4:2, 11:1, 37:31, 53:2; Jeremiah 23:5, 33:15; Zechariah 3:8, 6:12), we know that there was something within the mainstream of the prophetic Israelite tradition that could relate positively to these symbols. Of course, we have in the tabernacle menorah, housed in the temple itself, an extraordinary example of an Israelite transformation of the tree-of-life motif. [74]

Many, if not all, of the above-mentioned Old Testament references are eschatological in nature, and one of the most interesting of this genre is Ezekiel 47:12, where, within the context of the eschatological temple, the trees that are described are watered by the spring of water that flows from underneath the temple. These are obviously trees of life, providing perpetual supplies of life-giving food and healing benefits as well. [75] All of the above symbolism is joined most remarkably in the pseudepigraphal Testament of Judah:

This branch of God the Most High

and this fountain giving life unto all.

Then shall the sceptre of my kingdom shine forth,

and from your root shall arise a stem;

And from it shall grow a rod of righteousness to the Peoples,

to judge and to save all that call upon the Lord. [76]

Geo Widengren has written that we find in ancient Near Eastern temples two modes of symbolism, cosmic symbolism and paradise symbolism. [77] The full working out of the extensive symbolism associated with ancient Near Eastern temples, as my typology implies, discloses additional symbolic modes, including socio-legal, communal, and what, for want of a better term, I will call “salvational” modes. I have focused in this paper on an expansion of Widengren’s categories of cosmic and paradise symbolism. It is apparent that there is a remarkable interlocking and interrelationship, symbolic and cultic within the temple, around the issues of cosmic mountain, primordial hillock, primordial waters, and sacred tree. This relationship is so integrated that it becomes generative, and thus predictable. I started with the idea of model building relative to the “old imperial cosmological language of the archaic temple.” We have here a beginning, at least, toward meeting the need Widengren expressed to develop “an exhaustive account of the extremely rich symbolism of the Mesopotamian [I would say the ancient Near Eastern] temple.” [78]


[1] I have recently written two articles in which I attempt to demonstrate the applicability of an extensive typology to the various temple traditions of the ancient Near East. In the first of these I presented a fifteen-item typology, along with evidence from ancient sources that I believed supported the applicability of each item on the list. In the second article I attempted to relate certain items of a revised typology to temple symbolism in the book of Isaiah. In this article, not wishing to merely repeat what has already appeared, I would like to lay a stronger theoretical foundation for the necessity of such an approach to ancient temples as I have given expression to in the above articles, and present what seems to be, after a longer preoccupation with the theme, the most compelling evidence from ancient sources that supports the validity of points 1 to 4 of the typology. Space prevents more extensive coverage of the entire typology at this time. See “What Is a Temple? A Preliminary Typology,” The Quest for the Kingdom of God: Studies in Honor of George E. Mendenhall (Winona Lake, Ind.: Eisenbrauns, 1983), pp. 205–19; and “Temple Symbolism in Isaiah,” Isaiah and the Prophets, ed. Monte S. Nyman (Provo, Utah: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University), forthcoming.

[2] Quoted in Jonathan Z. Smith, Map Is Not Territory, Studies in Judaism in Late Antiquity, vol. 23 (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1978), 186.

[3] Ibid., 187.

[4] “The Concept of Ma’al in the Bible and the Ancient Near East,” Journal of the American Oriental Society 96 (1976), 241.

[5] Lee Daniel Snyder, “Modeling and Civilization: Can There Be a Science of Civilization?” Abstract for International Society for the Comparative Study of Civilization, typescript, 1981.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Evidence for these studies is drawn primarily from ancient Western Asia, that is, from these civilizations which fell within the cuneiform language tradition, from Egypt, and from Israelite/Jewish traditions. One of the most remarkable features of this evidence is continuity over time, as far as the typology is concerned. This continuity can best be characterized by reference to the range of time represented by the third millennium BC inscriptions of the Sumerian king Gudea of Lagash and the first millennium BC Babylonian creation/temple myth, Enuma elish, both off which provide important evidence for the validity of the typology (similar continuity can be demonstrated in Egypt between the Fifth and Sixth Dynasty Pyramid Texts and the Late Period/Ptolemaic Edfu temple texts). See Black Elk, The Sacred Pipe, Black Elk’s Account of the Seven Rites of the Oglala Sioux, ed. Joseph Epes Brown (Baltimore: Penguin Books, 1971); James R. Walker, Lakota Belief and Ritual, ed. Raymond J. De Maillie and Elane A. Jahner (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1980); Michael E. Melody, “Lakota Myth and Government: The Cosmos as the State,” American Indian Culture and Research Journal 4 (1980): 1–19, with many references; and Lee Daniel Snyder, “Modeling and Civilization: Can There Be a Science of Civilization?” typescript, 1982, 1–2.

[8] “Temple Building, A Task for Gods and Kings,” Orientalia 32 (1963): 58.

[9] “Aspetti simbolici dei templi e luoghi di culto del vicino oriente antico,” Numen 7 (1960): 1–25; this article is summarized in Geo Widengren, Religionsphänomenologie (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 1969), 328–39.

[10] See John M. Lundquist, “The Legitimizing Role of the Temple in the Origin of the State,” Society of Biblical Literature 1982 Seminar Papers, no. 21; ed. Kent Harold Richards (Chico, Calif.: Scholars Press, Society of Biblical Literature, 1982), 271–97.

[11] F. Thureau-Dangin, Die Sumerischen und Akkadischen Königsinschriften (Leipzig: J. C. Hinrichs, 1907), 113; hereafter this work will be abbreviated SAK.

[12] Ibid., 117.

[13] Ibid., 119.

[14] Ibid., 123.

[15] See the discussion in David Noel Freedman, Pottery, Poetry, and Prophecy (Winona Lake, Ind.: Eisenbrauns, 1980), 83, 105.

[16] Ibid., 136–37.

[17] “Pyramids and Ziggurats as the Architectonic Representations of the Archetype of the Cosmic Mountain,” Katunob 10 (1977): 72.

[18] The Cosmic Mountain in Canaan and in the Old Testament (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1972), 113–14.

[19] “Pyramids and Ziggurats,” 71.

[20] “The Primordial Mound,” Journal of the Manchester Egyptian and Oriental Society 24 (1935): 26.

[21] SAK, 113.

[22] Ibid.; also E. Douglas van Buren, “Foundation Rites for a New Temple,” Orientalia 21 (1952): 293.

[23] A. Falkenstein, “Sumerische Bauausdrucke,” Orientalia 35 (1966): 236.

[24] Ake W. Sjöberg and E. Bergmann, The Collection of the Sumerian Temple Hymns, Texts from Cuneiform Sources 3 (Locust Valley: J. J. Augustin, 1969), 17, 50.

[25] A. Deimel, Šumerisches Lexikon, II/3 (Rome: Verlag des Papstl. Bibelinstitutes, 1934), 459.

[26] Sjoberg, Sumerian Temple Hymns, 23, 75.

[27] Maurice Canney, “The Primordial Mound,” 30–31.

[28] Kingship and the Gods (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1949), 323.

[29] Ibid., 151–52.

[30] Ibid., 153.

[31] Ibid., 380.

[32] Canney, “The Primordial Mound,” 32–34.

[33] “The Brick Foundations of Late-Period Peripteral Temples and Their Mythological Origin,” Glimpses of Ancient Egypt, Festschrift H. W. Fairman, ed. John Ruffle and others (Warminster: Aris and Philips, 1979), 133.

[34] G. van Driel, The Cult of Assur (Assen: Van Gorcum and Comp. H. V., 1969), 34–36.

[35] Sjöberg, Sumerian Temple Hymns, 31, 101.

[36] The Cult of Assur, 36–37. See also A. Falkenstein, Die Inschriften Gudeas von Lagaš, Analecta Orientalia 30 (Rome: Pontificium Institutum Biblicum, 1966), 141.

[37] “The God of the Great Temple of Edfu,” Glimpses of Ancient Egypt, 170.

[38] . E. A. E. Reymond, The Mythical Origin of the Egyptian Temple (New York: Manchester University Press, Barnes and Noble, 1969), 316; see also 46, 47, 59, 266.

[39] A. J. Wensinck, The Ideas of the Western Semites Concerning the Navel of the Earth (Amsterdam: Johannes Muller, 1916), 2.

[40] See A. Deimel, Šumerisches Lexikon, III/1, 206; and Henry George Liddell, Greek-English Lexicon, 9th ed. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1968; commonly cited as LSJ), 1774. See also W. B. Kristensen, The Meaning of Religion (The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1960), 369.

[41] A Falkenstein, “Sumerische Bauausdrucke,” 236.

[42] Eric Burrows, “Some Cosmological Patterns in Babylonian Religion,” The Labyrinth, ed. S. H. Hooke (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1935), 55.

[43] Midrash Tanhuma, Kedoshim 10, quoted in Map Is Not Territory, 112.

[44] The Meaning of Religion, 106–7; emphasis added.

[45] “What Is a Temple? A Preliminary Typology”; “Temple Symbolism in Isaiah.”

[46] “The Hierocentric State,” Western Political Quarterly 4 (1951): 235.

[47] Mohiy el-Din Ibrahim. “The God of the Great Temple of Edfu,” 170.

[48] For a description of the architectural realization of mythical views in Late Period Egyptian temples, see the articles by Ibrahim, cited above; also J. Spencer, “The Brick Foundations of Late Period Peripteral Temples and Their Mythological Origins.”

[49] For Mesopotamia see W. F. Albright, “The Mouth of the Rivers,” The American Journal of Semitic Languages and Literatures 35 (1919): 161–95; and, for a Babylonian incantory text associated with the Esagila in Babylon which demonstrates the above symbolism, see Sidney Smith, “The Babylonian Ritual for the Consecration and Induction of a Divine State,” Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland (1925), 37–59. For Egypt see Robert A. Wild, Water in the Cultic Worship of Isis and Sarapis, Etudes Prelim. aux Religions Orient. dans l’Empire Romain, 87 (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1981).

[50] Raphael Patai, Man and Temple in Ancient Jewish Myth and Ritual (London: Thomas Nelson and Sons, 1947), 24–59.

[51] De Dea Syria, 13. See also R. A. Oden, Jr., Studies in Lucian’s De Dea Syria, Harvard Semitic Monographs, 15 (Missoula, Mont.: Scholars Press, 1977), 24–36.

[52] W. F. Albright, Archaeology and the Religion of Israel, 5th ed. (Garden City: Anchor Books, 1968), 192.

[53] Gene B. Gragg, The Keš Temple Hymn, in The Collection of the Sumerian Temple Hymns, 170.

[54] Ibid., 183.

[55] H. York, “Heiliger Baum,” Reallexikon der Assyriologie und vorderasiatischen Archaologie, 4 (1975): 270.

[56] SAK, 112–13.

[57] W. F. Albright, “The Mouth of the Two Rivers,” 163–64.

[58] Geo Widengren, The King and the Tree of Life in Ancient Near Eastern Religion, King and Savior IV (Uppsala: A. B. Lundequistska Bokhandeln, 1951), 7–9.

[59] Widengren, The King and the Tree of Life, 10.

[60] Ibid.

[61] Religionsphänomenologie, 332.

[62] Widengren, The King and the Tree of Life, 19.

[63] Toward the Image of Tammuz and Other Essays on Mesopotamian History and Culture, ed. William L. Moran (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1970), 375–76.

[64] “Heiliger Baum,” 273.

[65] The King and the Tree of Life, 38.

[66] We must distinguish, in many ancient traditions, between natural mountains, viewed as the dwelling place of the deity, and their earthly counterparts, “temples made with hands.” In Syria and Palestine, where natural mountains are commonplace, the distinction between mountain and temple is obvious, as in Baal’s home on Mount Sāpōn, juxtaposed to his earthly temple in the city of Ugarit. The earthly temple is of course homologized (to use Eliades’s terminology) to a mountain. In Mesopotamia, where natural mountains are rare, man-made mountains were constructed, the ziggurats, and these were placed in direct juxtaposition to the temple within the sacred precinct, as we see in the Assyrian temple-building tradition and in the E-sagila in Neo-Babylonian Babylon. See Kurt Bittel, “Hittite Temples and High Places,” 66–67; Frank Moore Cross, “The Priestly Tabernacle in the Light of Recent Research,” 174; and David Noel Freedman, “Temple Without Hands,” 21–29 in Temples and High Places in Biblical Times, Proceedings of the Colloquium in Honor of the Centennial of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (Jerusalem: Nelson Glueck School of Biblical Archaeology, 1981).

[67] Claude F. A. Schaeffer, “Les Fouilles de Minet-el-Beida et de Ras-Shamra,” Syria 14 (1933): 122–24; J. Gray, “Ugarit,” Archaeology and Old Testament Study, ed. D. Winton Thomas (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1967), 147–48.

[68] The King and the Tree of Life, 34

[69] James B. Pritchard, ed., Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1950), pp. 96–97; The King and the Tree of Life, 32–33.

[70] The King and the Tree of Life, 39.

[71] Ibid., 39–40.

[72] M. E. L. Mallowan, “Excavations at Brak and Chagar Bazar,” Iraq 9 (1947): 139.

[73] “Excavations at Brak and Chagar Bazar,” 140.

[74] Carol Meyers, The Tabernacle Menorah, ASOR Diss. Ser., 2 (Missoula, Mont.: Scholars Press, 1976); Geo Widengren, Religionsphänomenologie, 339.

[75] The King and the Tree of Life, 36–37, 48–53.

[76] Ibid., 54.

[77] Religionsphänomenologie, 335.

[78] Ibid.