What do you think about when you hear the word ‘Babylon’? Translation software? Some old biblical city? A rock band? A town in New York? Or something related to the Rastafarian manifesto? How about all of the above?
But originally, Babylon was a magnificent city founded in 1867 BC by the Acadians in Ancient Mesopotamia. (So way way way before Greeks and Romans, before Jesus, before running water?).
Mesopotamia is an area in Asia where the Tigris and Euphrates rivers meet, creating a fertile land which is considered the cradle of civilization in a territory located between modern Iraq, Syria, Turkey and Iran.
When we say “old”, this is old! In the end, Mesopotamia was taken by the Parthians later called Persians, who ruled them until the 7th century.
By the rivers of Babylon
Babylon was was built upon the Euphrates, so that it had an east and west bank.
In 575 BC (around the time of the beginning of the Roman Republic), king Nebuchadnezzar II (the very same guy who built the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, one of the original Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, the one accredited for the destruction of the First Temple and the one to which Morpheus had dedicated his ship in The Matrix I) had the gate built as part of the walls of the new expanded city.
It was the eighth and main gate and it was made of brick and covered with blue glazed brick and decorated with dragons representing the god Marduk patron of the city and young bulls representing the storm god Adad in yellow and brown colors.
What does Ishtar mean?
The massive gate itself is dedicated to the goddess of fertility and love, Ishtar represented by lions.
The message was of course, that Babylon was protected by these gods and that it was so magnificent, so monumental, that you’d waste your time trying to invade it.
Some people think that the blue bricks were made of lapis lazuli which is too expensive a stone, even for the great Nebuchadnezzar II, who certainly tried to imply that this was the case in his inscription at the gate which you can read at the end of this post.
The gate per se was a double gate, the reconstruction we can see today at the Pergamon Museum in Berlin was built using some of the excavated material in the 1930s, and it’s only the front portion of the original gate, which is smaller than the back portion.
It is also shorter in scale, due to museum space restrictions, but still, check out the size of the people in the picture above!
Nebuchadnezzar II’s goal was to beautify the city and for people to be impressed by it and stare at it and wonder, as it’s implied in the inscription on the dedication plaque and as every ruler of the time, the purpose was to present himself as a good ruler, purveyor of security for his people and also to gain the favor of the gods by reminding them of the temples and dedications he had built for them.
The ceremonial function of the gate
The Processional Way ran through the gate and was lined with lions and flowers and it was used mainly for the new year’s celebrations.
If you were coming into the city, the lions faced you, confronting you and warning you. If you were leaving the city through the Ishtar Gate, the lions had the same direction as you, accompanying you outside of the city.
The reconstruction in Berlin is narrower, about a third of the original width.
Can you imagine yourself as a merchant, under the sun in the hot weather of Mesopotamia, visiting Babylon to sell some goods, being received by such a massive construction, such a statement of power?
Imagine the blue shiny bricks glistening in the sunlight like some sort of out-of-this-world vision.You’d have been intimidated, marveled and possibly a little scared, all at the same time!
The Processional Way is made of paved stone in red and yellow color and each stone has an inscription underneath, a small prayer from the King to the god Marduk.
I just find it unbelievable that such ancient works of art have remained for us to see and marvel at them. I’ve never been to Berlin, so when I go the Ishtar Gate will be on my top five of must-sees along with the Nefertiti bust at the Neues Museum.
Such pieces just make me go back in time and relate to these ancient peoples, who in my mind are not so much different from us.
What the dedication plaque reads
Nebuchadnezzar, King of Babylon, the faithful prince appointed by the will of Marduk, the highest of princely princes, beloved of Nabu, of prudent counsel, who has learned to embrace wisdom, who fathomed their divine being and reveres their majesty, the untiring governor, who always takes to 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 firstborn son of Nabopolassar, the King of Babylon.
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 Markduk, 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.
So, where is Babylon?
The remains of Babylon today can be found about 55 mi (85 km) south of Baghdad in Iraq.
The rest of Babylon can be found in the great museums of the world like The Istanbul Archaeology Museum, the Detroit Institute of Arts, the Röhsska Museum in Gothenburg, Sweden, the Louvre, the State Museum of Egyptian Art in Munich, the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology in Philadelphia, 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. (Source: Wikipedia).
Have you visited the Ishtar Gate before?
What was your experience? How would a person visiting Babylon have felt, going through this imposing structure?
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The museum is open daily from 10 am to 6 pm, but on Thursdays you get extended hours until 10 pm. Entrance is €13 and you can book your tickets online. Public Transport, U-Bahn U6 (Friedrichstraße); S-Bahn S1, S2, S25 (Friedrichstraße); S5, S7, S75 (Hackescher Markt); Tram M1, 12 (Am Kupfergraben); M4, M5, M6 (Hackescher Markt); Bus TXL (Staatsoper); 100, 200 (Lustgarten); 147 (Friedrichstraße).