The Ishtar Gate And The Animals It Holds
The Ishtar Gate is a part of the fortified walls that surrounded the ancient city of Babylon. The Ishtar Gate was actually the eighth and final gate into the city and served as the city’s main entrance. Pictured is a reconstruction of the Ishtar Gate from Berlin’s Pergamon Museum. They were built by King Nebuchadnezzar in 575 BCE as part of his plan to beautify his capital city. Just like any modern-day city beautification project, the Ishtar Gate was just a part of a series of construction projects that included restoration to the Temple of Marduk and the world famous Hanging Gardens of Babylon.
The Gate stood as high as 11.5 metres in some places and was decorated all over with glazed brick tile reliefs. The mosaics that these bricks formed depicted creatures of importance to the Mesopotamian world, whether these animals were real or mythical.
The ‘striding lion’ wall relief in the ROM’s collection is just one example of the many animal mosaics that decorated this palace. On display in the ROM’s Mesopotamia Exhibition, this panel was just one of many that covered the walls of the Ishtar Gate and Processional Way. The lion was of particular importance since it was the animal commonly associated with Ishtar, the Mesopotamian goddess of love and war.
Another animal that graced the walls of the Ishtar Gate was the aurochs. This is a now-extinct type of large cattle that inhabited Europe, Asia and North Africa. As with the lion, the aurochs had an association with a god that made it especially significant to the Mesopotamian world. The aurochs was commonly associated with Adad, the Mesopotamian god of weather and storms, who was commonly seen riding atop a bull.
The third and final creature that could be found on the Ishtar Gate was the mušḫuššu (also known as sirrusu or sirrush), an animal out of Mesopotamian mythology. Just as with creatures like the gryphon or the sphinx, the sirrush was a combination of many different features rolled into one animal. It combined the scaly body of a dragon with feline front paws and eagle’s talons for hind legs. As if this wasn’t intimidating enough, the creature also had a snake’s tongue as well as a horn and crest atop its head.
Interestingly enough, when the sirrush was first seen on the Ishtar Gate in 1902 by German archaeologist Robert Koldewey, he believed it to be the portrayal of a once-real animal. This was due in part to the fact that the depiction of this creature remained consistent throughout many years of Mesopotamian art but more importantly because the sirrush was depicted alongside the aurochs and lions, two existing animals. While it was eventually correctly identified as a mythological creature, it serves as an interesting case of cryptozoological speculation.
The Processional Way
Through the actual Ishtar Gate was the Processional Way, which was a vast corridor stretching roughly 800 metres long and walls about 15 metres high. The walls of the Processional Way were similarly adorned with glazed tile reliefs of lions, flowers and other decorative elements.
On the Ishtar Gate, there was a dedication plaque attributed to King Nebuchadnezzar II outlining the reasons why he built it:
Both gate entrances of 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 length-wise over them. I hung doors of cedar 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 people 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 celebration for the major and minor gods) be built firm like a mountain in the precinct of Babylon of asphalt and fired bricks.
A Wonder Of The World
One of the coolest things I learned in reading about the Ishtar Gate is that when it was first built, it made the original list of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. While it was later bumped from its spot by the Lighthouse of Alexandria, it was still recognized as one of the most spectacular and awe-inspiring objects in the world at its time. After the gates were replaced on the list by the Lighthouse of Alexandria, there were still some figures (notably Callimachus of Cyrene and Antipater of Sidon) who felt the Ishtar Gate deserved the recognition which had been taken away.
I just find it fascinating that thousands of years ago, in a time before social media and award shows, there were still people arguing over top 10 lists.
- Marco Marini, “Door n. 2” March 17, 2007 via Flickr, Creative Commons Attribution.
- JoeLosFeliz, “Ishtar Gate (detail)” April 29, 2013 via Flickr, Creative Commons Attribution.
- Badly Drawn Dad “Aurochs” via Flickr, Creative Commons Attribution.
- Allie Caulfield, “Berlin 313 Pergamon Museum, Ischtar Tor, Detail” October 14, 2012 via Flickr, Creative Commons Attribution.
Post by Chris Miller, ROMKids Studio Assistant. Last updated: September 27, 2013.