When Antipater of Sidon, the Greek poet of the 2nd Century BC, compiled the seven wonders of the ancient world, only one city claimed two sites: Babylon. Yet the two he listed – the Hanging Gardens and the city’s wall – were just a couple of the many wonders to be found in the magnificent ancient city.
Located between the Tigris and Euphrates in what today is Iraq, Babylon was largely rebuilt by the its king Nebuchadnezzar II in the 6th Century BC, using vibrant glazed bricks in blues, reds and yellows. Ancient texts from Herodotus to the Old Testament describe its overwhelmingly opulent temples, shrines and palaces. At its peak, with more than 200,000 inhabitants, it was the largest metropolis in the world.
View image of The Great Gate of Ishtar in the Pergamon Museum (Credit: Alamy)
Symbolic of all of that splendour was a visitor’s first introduction to the city: the monumental Gate of Ishtar, built in 575 BC out of enamelled bricks, in cobalt blues and sea greens, decorated with reliefs of 575 dragons and bulls. When German archaeologists began excavating the city in 1899, a surprising amount of that millennia-old magnificence remained – including the gate. It was in the century following, however, that much of the ancient city’s magnificence would become most at risk.
Even before excavations began, head archaeologist Robert Koldewey thought he knew what he would find. Near the city’s castle in June 1887, he wrote, he had come across “brightly coloured fragments” of the enamelled bricks that were believed to have made up the city wall. Two years later, the digging began – and the ancient city began to reveal itself. “The finely coloured fragments made their appearance in great numbers, soon followed by the discovery of the eastern of the two parallel walls, the pavement of the processional roadway, and the western wall, which supplied us with the necessary orientation for further excavations,” he wrote in his 1914 account of the discoveries, The Excavations at Babylon.
In 1902, his archaeologists unearthed the Gate of Ishtar, the most potent symbol of ancient Babylon’s magnificence. The gate was exactly where they expected it to be, marking the entrance to the city at the beginning of the Procession Street, the main thoroughfare used for parades during new years’ celebrations. “With its walls which still stand 12 metres high, covered with brick reliefs, it is the largest and most striking ruin of Babylon,” Koldewey wrote.
View image of An excavation of the city of Babylon in 1932 (Credit: Rex Features)
In case any doubt remained about the gate’s construction, there was an inscription in limestone in the voice of Nebuchadnezzar: “I placed wild bulls and ferocious dragons in the gateways and thus adorned them with luxurious splendour so that people might gaze on them in wonder.” Now, thanks to Koldewey’s team, the people of a new age could look on the gate in awe. “This particular gate – which was one of eight gates to the city, built in one of its latest and, one would have to say, its most glorious historical phases – really thrilled everybody,” says Peter Machinist, professor at Harvard University’s Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations. “Even in antiquity, it already came to be a kind of metonymy for the entire magnificence of the reconstruction of the city of Babylon, which Nebuchadnezzar engineered. And certainly, after it was set up, it became a major tourist attraction.”
After its discovery, it became one again. The German archaeologists excavated as much as they could but when World War One came in 1914, the dig was shut down. Four years later, the conflict came to an end and the Ottoman Empire – Germany’s ally in the war, which ruled the lands where the gate was discovered – collapsed. But the Germans were still able to negotiate with the occupying British forces to ship some of their finds to Berlin, including the Gate of Ishtar. What was put on display in the 1920s was not, and still is not, the entire gate: it was too large. Even so, the section brought the magnificence of ancient Babylon to life in a way that hadn’t happened in thousands of years.
Tale of two tyrants
After World War Two, another large excavation took place, this one led by Italian archaeologists, says Machinist. And then came Saddam Hussein, who took power in 1979. “He got this notion that he was not simply a Sunni Muslim, but the lineal descendant of these Babylonian heroes of the past. So he started to reconstruct the site in the 1980s,” he says. On the ancient foundations, Hussein built copies of the gate and of Nebuchadnezzar’s palace; in the style of the Babylonian king, he included inscriptions about his own work.
View image of Nebuchadnezzar surveys the Hanging Gardens of Babylon (Corbis) (Credit: Corbis)
The parallel Saddam was trying to make with Nebuchadnezzar was not all that surprising. A military mastermind (or scourge, depending on your perspective), Nebuchadnezzar devastated the Phoenician city of Sidon , defeated Egypt’s armies and, in 587 BC, sacked Jerusalem’s Temple of Solomon; Saddam’s adventures in Kuwait and Iran are well known.
Each time Nebuchadnezzar’s soldiers moved into new territory, they enslaved the population and plundered its treasures. And with his newfound manpower and loot, Nebuchadnezzar rebuilt the Babylonian capital. He finished his father’s palace, built the Hanging Gardens for his wife and build Babylon’s walls, partly out of caution about an old prediction by the 8th Century BC Judean prophet Isaiah that the city would fall.
View image of US troops in Iraq (Credit: Rex Features)
But just as ancient Babylon ultimately fell so too would Saddam’s Iraq, causing concern for the conservation of the country’s ancient artefacts. In 2003 and 2004, American and Polish troops turned the area of the ancient city’s archaeological site, including the Gate of Ishtar, Processional Way and Temple of Ninmah, into a military base, complete with helicopter pad. According to a study by the British Museum, the damage was extensive: some 300,000 sq m (4,000 acres) of the archaeological site had been covered with gravel, which also contaminated unexcavated areas; trenches had been dug into archaeological mounds; a heavy vehicle had driven on, and broken the pavement of the Processional Way; nine dragon figures on the Gate of Ishtar – whose foundations with their moulded, animal-decorated bricks remain in Babylon – had been damaged. After some 2,600 years of wars, plunder and neglect, it seemed, the site had met one of its surest enemies.
Today, it is too soon to tell what will happen with the site and its preservation. But in the meantime visitors to Berlin’s Pergamon Museum, which has the gate’s largest section on display, can gaze on it in wonder, just as Nebuchadnezzar intended.
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The Ishtar Gate (Arabic: بوابة عشتار, Persian: دروازه ایشتار) was the eighth gate to the inner city of Babylon. It was constructed in about 575 BCE by order of King Nebuchadnezzar II on the north side of the city. It was excavated in the early 20th century and a reconstruction using original bricks, completed in 1930, is now shown in the Pergamon Museum, Berlin.
King Nebuchadnezzar II reigned 604 - 562 B.C.E, the peak of the Neo-Babylonian Empire. He is known as the biblical conqueror who, after the capture of Jerusalem, deported Jews to Babylon. King Nebuchadnezzar II ordered the construction of the gate and dedicated it to the Babylonian goddessIshtar. The gate was constructed using glazed brick with alternating rows of bas-reliefmušḫuššu (dragons), aurochs (bulls), and lions, symbolizing the gods Marduk, Adad, and Ishtar respectively.
The roof and doors of the gate were made of cedar, according to the dedication plaque. The bricks in the gate were covered in a blue glaze meant to represent lapis lazuli, a deep-blue semi-precious stone that was revered in antiquity due to its vibrancy. The blue glazed bricks would have given the façade a jewel-like shine. Through the gate ran the Processional Way, which was lined with walls showing about 120 lions, bulls, dragons and flowers on enamelled yellow and black glazed bricks, symbolizing the goddess Ishtar. The gate itself depicted only gods and goddesses. These included Ishtar, Adad and Marduk. During celebrations of the New Year, statues of the deities were paraded through the gate and down the Processional Way.
The gate, being part of the Walls of Babylon, was considered one of the original Seven Wonders of the World. It was replaced on that list by the Lighthouse of Alexandria from the third century BC.
The front of the gate has a low relief sculpted design with a repeated pattern of images of two of the major gods of the Babylonian pantheon. Marduk, the national deity and chief god, is depicted as a dragon with a snake-like head and tail, a scaled body of a lion, and powerful talons for back feet. Marduk was seen as the divine champion of good against evil and the incantations of the Babylonians often sought his protection.
The second god shown in the pattern of reliefs on the Ishtar Gate is Adad (also known as Ishkur), whose sacred animal was the aurochs, a now-extinct ancestor of cattle. Adad had power over destructive storms and beneficial rain. The design of the Ishtar gate also includes linear borders and patterns of rosettes, often seen as symbols of fertility.
The bricks of the Ishtar gate were made from finely textured clay pressed into wooden forms. Each of the animal reliefs were also made from bricks formed by pressing clay into reusable molds. Seams between the bricks were carefully planned not to occur on the eyes of the animals or any other aesthetically unacceptable places. The bricks were sun-dried and then fired once before glazing. The clay was brownish red in this bisque-fired state.
The background glazes are mainly a vivid blue, which imitates the color of the highly-prized lapis lazuli. Gold and brown glazes are used for the animal images. The borders and rosettes are glazed in black, white, and gold. It is believed that the glaze recipe used plant ash, sandstone conglomerates, and pebbles for silicates. This combination was repeatedly melted, cooled, and then pulverized. This mixture of silica and fluxes is called a frit. Color-producing minerals, such as cobalt, were added in the final glaze formulations. This was then painted onto the bisque-fired bricks and fired to a higher temperature in a glaze firing.
After the glaze firing, the bricks were assembled leaving narrow horizontal seams from one to six millimeters. The seams were then sealed with a naturally-occurring black viscous substance called bitumen, like modern asphalt. The Ishtar Gate is only one small part of the design of ancient Babylon that also included the palace, temples, an inner fortress, walls, gardens, other gates and the Processional Way. The lavish city was decorated with over 15 million baked bricks, according to estimates.
Ishtar Gate and Processional Way
Once per year the Ishtar Gate and connecting Processional Way were used for a New Year’s procession, which was part of a religious festival celebrating the beginning of the agricultural year. In Babylon, the rituals surrounding this holiday lasted twelve days. The New Year’s celebrations started immediately after the barley harvest, at the time of the vernal equinox. This was the first day of the ancient month of Nisan, equivalent to today’s date of March 20 or 21.
The Processional Way, which has been traced to a length of over half a mile, extended north from the Ishtar Gate and was designed with brick relief images of lions, the symbol of the goddess Ishtar (also known as Inanna). Worshipped as the Mistress of Heaven, Ishtar represented the power of sexual attraction and was thought to be savage and determined. Symbolized by the star and her sacred animal the lion, she was also the goddess of war and the protector of ruling dynasties and their armies. The idea of protection of the city is further incorporated into this gateway design by the use of crenelated buttresses along both sides to this entrance into the city.
Friezes with sixty ferocious lions representing Ishtar decorated each side of the Processional Way, designed with variations in the color of the fur and the manes. On the east side, they had a left foot forward and on the west side, they had the right foot forward. Each lion was made of forty-six molded bricks in eleven rows.
The purpose of the New Year’s holiday was to affirm the supremacy of Marduk and his representative on earth, the king, and to offer thanks for the fertility of the land.
Inscription of Nebuchadnezzar II
The inscription of the Ishtar Gate is written in Akkadian cuneiform in white-glazed and blue glazed bricks, and was a dedication by Nebuchadnezzar to explain the gate’s purpose. On the wall of the Ishtar Gate the inscription is 15 meters tall by 10 meters wide and includes 60 lines of writing. The inscription was created around the same time as the gates construction, around 605-562 BCE.
Nebuchadnezzar, King of Babylon, the pious prince appointed by the will of Marduk, the highest priestly prince, beloved of Nabu, of prudent deliberation, who has learnt to embrace wisdom, who fathomed Their (Marduk and Nabu) godly being and pays reverence to their Majesty, the untiring Governor, who always has at heart the care of the cult of Esagila and Ezida and is constantly concerned with the well being of Babylon and Borsippa, the wise, the humble, the caretaker of Esagila and Ezida, the first born son of Nabopolassar, the King of Babylon, am I.
Both gate entrances of the (city walls) Imgur-Ellil and Nemetti-Ellil following the filling of the street from Babylon had become increasingly lower. (Therefore,) I pulled down these gates and laid their foundations at the water table with asphalt and bricks and had them made of bricks with blue stone on which wonderful bulls and dragons were depicted. I covered their roofs by laying majestic cedars lengthwise over them. I fixed doors of cedar wood adorned with bronze at all the gate openings. I placed wild bulls and ferocious dragons in the gateways and thus adorned them with luxurious splendor so that Mankind might gaze on them in wonder.
I let the temple of Esiskursiskur, the highest festival house of Marduk, the lord of the gods, a place of joy and jubilation for the major and minor deities, be built firm like a mountain in the precinct of Babylon of asphalt and fired bricks.
Excavation and display
A reconstruction of the Ishtar Gate and Processional Way was built at the Pergamon Museum in Berlin out of material excavated by Robert Koldewey and finished in the 1930s. It includes the inscription plaque. It stands 14 m (46 ft) high and 30 m (100 ft) wide. The excavation ran from 1902 to 1914, and, during that time, 14 m (45 ft) of the foundation of the gate was uncovered.
Claudius James Rich, British resident of Baghdad and a self-taught historian, did personal research on Babylon because it intrigued him. Acting as a scholar and collecting field data, he was determined to discover the wonders to the ancient world. C.J. Rich's topographical records of the ruins in Babylon were the first ever published, in 1815. It was reprinted in England no fewer than three times. C.J. Rich and most other 19th century visitors thought a mound in Babylon was a royal palace, and that was eventually confirmed by Robert Koldewey's excavations, who found two palaces of King Nebuchadnezzar and the Ishtar Gate. Robert Koldewey, a successful German excavator, had done previous work for the Royal Museum of Berlin, with his excavations at Surghul (Ancient Nina) and Al-hiba (ancient Lagash) in 1887. Koldewey's part in Babylon's excavation began in 1899.
The method that the British were comfortable with was excavating tunnels and deep trenches, which was damaging the mud brick architecture of the foundation. Instead, it was suggested that the excavation team focus on tablets and other artefacts rather than pick at the crumbling buildings. Despite the destructive nature of the archaeology used, the recording of data was immensely more thorough than in previous Mesopotamian excavations. Walter Andre, one of Koldewey's many assistants, was an architect and a draftsman, the first at Babylon. His contribution was documentation and reconstruction of Babylon. A small museum was built at the site and Andre was the museum's first director.
One of most complex and impressive architectural reconstructions in the history of archaeology, was the rebuilding of Babylon's Ishtar gate and processional way in Berlin. Hundreds of crates of glaze brick fragments were carefully desalinated and then pieced together. Fragments were combined with new bricks baked in a specially designed kiln to re-create the correct color and finish. It was a double gate; the part that is shown in the Pergamon Museum today is the smaller, frontal part. The larger, back part was considered too large to fit into the constraints of the structure of the museum; it is in storage.
Parts of the gate and lions from the Processional Way are in various other museums around the world. Only four museums acquired dragons, while lions went to several museums. The Istanbul Archaeology Museum has lions, dragons, and bulls. Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek in Copenhagen, Denmark, has one lion, one dragon and one bull. The Detroit Institute of Arts houses a dragon. The Röhsska Museum in Gothenburg, Sweden, has one dragon and one lion; the Louvre, the State Museum of Egyptian Art in Munich, the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the Oriental Institute in Chicago, the Rhode Island School of Design Museum, the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, and the Yale University Art Gallery in New Haven, Connecticut, each have lions. One of the processional lions was recently loaned by Berlin's Vorderasiatisches Museum to the British Museum
A smaller reproduction of the gate was built in Iraq under Saddam Hussein as the entrance to a museum that has not been completed. Along with the restored palace, the gate was completed in 1987. The construction was meant to emulate the techniques that were used for the original gate. the replica appears similar to the restored original but is notably smaller. the purpose of the replica's construction was an attempt to reconnect to Iraq's history. Damage to this reproduction has occurred since the Iraq war (see Impact of the U.S. military).
Photo of the remains from the 1930s of the excavation site in Babylon
Model of the main procession street (Aj-ibur-shapu) towards Ishtar Gate
Model of the gate; the double structure is clearly recognisable.
Close-up of an aurochs from the Ishtar Gate
The replica Ishtar Gate in Babylon in 2004
The replica Ishtar Gate in Babylon, Iraq in 2011
- Matson, F.R. (1985), Compositional Studies of the Glazed Brick from the Ishtar Gate at Babylon, Museum of Fine Arts. The Research Laboratory, ISBN 0-87846-255-4
Coordinates: 32°32′36″N44°25′20″E / 32.54333°N 44.42222°E / 32.54333; 44.42222
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