Crestone Ziggurat, once a private sanctuary for meditation, is a peculiar monument nestled along the edge of the San Luis Valley and the Sangre de Cristo Mountains in southeast Colorado.
As one winds through the switchbacks and undulations of an unpaved, dirt road lined with scrub brush and low-lying coniferous trees outside of Crestone, Colorado, a small yellow structure can be seen in the distance atop a modest foothill. The structure, and the hill upon which it sits, foreground the towering Sangre de Cristo Mountain range—home to several peaks that exceed 14,000 feet in elevation—and an expansive, cloud-filled skyscape.
Upon further approach, the contours of the yellow object reveal themselves to be the jagged, spiraling tower known as the Crestone Ziggurat. Originally commissioned in 1978 by Najeeb Halaby—father of Queen Noor of Jordan and a former CEO of Pan Am Airways—the now-public structure served as his private place of prayer and meditation.
The Crestone Ziggurat is a rather esoteric and novel monument for the San Luis Valley—and Colorado, generally speaking. But the ziggurat has a storied architectural and cultural history.
Historians surmise that the Sumerians constructed the first ziggurats along the Mesopotamian plains sometime between 5000 and 4100 BC. These structures functioned primarily as religious sites that served as risers upon which holy men could perform ceremonies and rituals above their devotees. Ziggurats, as both an architectural object and a religious site, spread throughout the region. As time passed, they transformed into observatories where early astronomers would survey celestial bodies. These more empirical and naturalistic purposes can be dated back to 90–30 BC.
The religious origins and secular re-purposing of the ziggurat manifest themselves in the Crestone Ziggurat as well. Halaby’s initial intent of creating a private space for meditation is echoed in the fact that the structure—and the land on which it sits—is administered and preserved by Karma Thegsum Tashi Gomang. KTTG’s stated vision is to “nourish the seeds of the Buddhadharma here in this precious, vast and spacious land” of the San Luis Valley where:
In the summer of 1980 His Holiness the 16th Karmapa, head of the Karma Kagyu order of Tibetan Buddhism, came… to bless two hundred acres gifted to him in order to realize his vision of a center for spiritual growth in the West.
And, no doubt, the Crestone Ziggurat and the surrounding land act as a religious site that offers a meditative reverie for true believers.
Over the years, the KTTG have designed a series of cabins for private retreats, as well as a Buddhist monument named the Tashi Gomang Stupa of Many Auspicious Doors. These newer buildings, indeed, signify the enduring presence of groups indebted to celebrating supernatural deities and practices, whether that be established religions like Buddhism or sensational fringe cults like Love Has Won.
But as is usually the case, temporal and cultural shifts alter the intended purpose of architectural structures, regardless of a creator’s initial desires. Not surprisingly, the Crestone Ziggurat has succumbed to the vicissitudes of context and time. Nowadays, it acts just as much (if not more) as a public art object and a tourist attraction as it does a sacred site. Indeed, my interest in the object resulted from aesthetic and architectural concerns, as well as a curiosity born from the Ziggurat’s inherent idiosyncratic presence in southeastern Colorado.
Located at the base of the Ziggurat’s hill is a small dirt lot with room for approximately three motor vehicles. A sandy, circuitous footpath leads visitors upward to the structure; after the brief ascent, one arrives at the Ziggurat and breath-taking views of vaulting mountains to the immediate east and the vast openness of the valley to the west. Other than the monument itself, there’s nothing at the summit of the hill but a discreet sign and an old, worn bench.
Two faded vermilion steps on the north side of the base lead to a large, royal blue platform approximately one and a half feet off the ground. This rectangular lift is the foundation for the Ziggurat. A few steps away, a ramp—also of a faded vermilion hue—wraps up and around the light ochre structure in a spiral fashion. As such, the pathway also serves as the outer wall or façade for the entire structure. A stepped barrier about one foot high acts as the only buffer between the rampway and the outer edge of the Ziggurat. As one circles upward and around the object, its stucco surface follows suit.
Once visitors reach the final turn of their upward ascent, the ramp levels out, but the outer wall continues to climb. When one reaches the monument’s pinnacle, the outer wall attains a height of approximately six feet, necessitating that one pull themselves off the ground and above the edge to see over the top of the wall.
The views, of course, are spectacular. A 360-degree perspective allows one to take in the various landscapes and cloud forms that compose the San Luis Valley and the mountain ranges that enclose it. The oddity of the Ziggurat’s presence dissolves into the awe of its natural surroundings.
What more can be said of the Crestone Ziggurat is best left to the individual visitor. But the beauty of such an experience resides not only in the architectural and material object, but in the journey itself.
To visit the Crestone Ziggurat, one must travel to the San Luis Valley, and to visit the Valley, one must drive into and through the Rocky Mountains. As with most works of public art or architecture, the experience of the journey entwines with the object that is the impetus for the journey. And, in many regards, they become indistinguishable. In doing so, the idiosyncrasy of the object inscribes itself within the landscape; and the epic sublimity of the landscape inscribes itself within the object. They fuse and, certainly, amplify one another in all the most salient ways.