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ishtar gate

Medium: Wall finishing – glazed bricks

Dimensions:

Date: c. 575 BC

Discovered: by German archaeologists

Location of creation: Babylon, Modern day Iraq

Current Location: Pergamon Museum, Berlin

Period: Babylon Empire

brief summary

The Ishtar Gate, built approximately 575 BC, the main entrance into Babylon, was considered as one of the seven wonders of the world, and testifies to the great feats and luxurious materials which adorned Babylon.

general description

The gate of Ishtar, was the largest and most celebrated of the eight main gates surrounding the inner city of Babylon, (the capital of the ancient Mesopotamian kingdom of Babylonia located in modern day Iraq). Built approximately in 575 BCE (6th century BCE), exclusively in unbaked mud bricks, as an extension of the walls surrounding it. During King Nebuchadnezzar II’s reign it was rebuilt numerous times, at which point, probably during the third building phase, it began to use glazed baked brick with tar mortar, which had decorative advantages. Using blue as the base color, the gates began to be extensively decorated with animals that evoked the Gods and Goddesses of the city.  These enamelled bricks (in either cobalt or lapis lazuli blues and sea greens) were decorated with various reliefs of about 575 dragons, bulls and sirrush. Running through the gate is the Processional Way, a large avenue that led into the city; it was also lined on both sides with animals, about 120 of them, in the same design as those of the gate, featuring lions, bulls and dragons. The bright blue facade aimed to shine like a jewel under the sun. The gates also feature an inscription on one of the pillars, added by King Nachbuchanezzar II, (one of the most influential kings of Mesopotamia), which is a personal note in the first person, which acts as a testament to his power and intention. Totalizing 15 meters tall by 10 meters wide, it includes 60 lines of writing and is in white and blue glazed bricks. It 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 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.”

Surrounding the gate were several fundamental buildings of the city, including  a number of temples. Overall, the impressive structure of the gate, its scale, its impact, its power, beauty and splendor acted as a symbolic reference of the city, communicating the power of the city and its King across all civilizations.

Detail of part of the wall

The Ishtar Gate is a pivotal example of the art and architecture of its time, and it generally considered to be one of the most magnificent structures of the Ancient World. In the 2nd Century BC, when Antipater of Sidon, the Greek poet, compiled the seven wonders of the ancient world, he included the Gates of Ishtar, which, along with the Hanging Gardens, made the city of Babylon the most important city and civilization of the time, and made the Gates of Ishtar as the most exquisite prime references of the ancient world.

King Nebuchadnezzar II dedicated the Gate to Ishtar, the Goddess of War, also known as the Queen of Heaven. Ishtar, who was also the Goddess of sex, war, justice, and power, is the Babylonian and Assyrian name given to the Goddess Inanna (the equivalent deity in ancient Mesopotamia), and was the patron goddess of the temple Eanna and of the city of Uruk. Greatly associated with lions, (a connection that began in Sumeria) and with the eight pointed star, representations of the Goddess were common during the time. Ishtar is a great symbol of power, which would add protective forces and energies to the city.

The Lion was also Ishtar/Innana’s most common symbol, here featured as a decorative detail of the Gate.

The eight pointed star was another Ishtar/Innana’s most common symbol.

Goddess Ishtar, depicted (on an Akkadian Empire seal (2350–2150 BC) with her foot on a Lion, holding weapons on her back.

The city of Babylon, which existed from 18th century to 6th century BCE, was known for its power, its impressive architectural skills, and its artistic capacities. Located between the Tigris and Euphrates, with more than 200,000 inhabitants, the city was the largest metropolis in the world. Their creations reflected their devotion to enacting a historic lineage and becoming a powerful reference in all mediums across time. The Ishtar Gate, one of its main examples, allows us to further understand and witness the means by which they created and conceived such power; it is also a testament to the medium of the colored glazed bricks, a skill for which the Babylonians are known for having perfected.

Robert Koldewey, in June 1887 wrote that he had come across “brightly coloured fragments”; these were the first traces of the bricks that would be discovered a few years later. The Gate of Ishtar, in fact, was only excavated in the early 20th century, when in 1902, Koldewey of the German Oriental Society unearthed the northern part of the Gate until the ground water level (3.7 m of the original gate was discovered). During this time, they also traced out the larger Southern gate which was only unearthed later, in 1940’s with Iraq excavations. The first cycle of excavations were interrupted in 1914 with the outbreak of World War I.  It was these initial German excavations that allowed for the reconstruction of the gate,  using the original bricks and designs, which was first completed in 1930 and placed in Berlin’s Pergamon Museum. At the Pergamon, a fragment of the processional way was also reconstructed. Today, various museums across the globe house original fragments of the gate, including the Istanbul Archaeology Museum, the Detroit Institute of Art, the Louvre, and New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, to name a few.

The Ishtar Gate reconstruction at the Pergamon Museum in Berlin.

Front view of the Ishtar Gate, at the Pergamon Museum in Berlin.

Bulls, lions and dragons were created in colorful reliefs in unglazed bricks. These decorative elements were organized according to different levels/heights of the gate – 9 levels in total. The luscious blue bricks are invaded with hundreds of stylized animals in yellow, with the total of tiles surpassing the five hundreds. The dragon represented the patron God of the city, Marduk. The lion represented Ishtar, the Goddess of Heaven (and the primary reference of the gate) and was also seen to represent the city of Babylon and the King of Babylon. The aurochs (inspect, a now-extinct ancestor of cattle), represented the God Adad or Ishkur. And other animals were tributes to other divinities. The Mušḫuššu, a mythological hybrid (a scaled dragon, with a long neck and tail, a horned head and a snake-like tongue), acted as holy pet of Marduk and Nabu (his son). The decoration consisted of alternating figures, in horizontal rows on parts of the walls that were open to observation. the rows are repeated one above the other, and the animals are never mixed. As the animals faced the visitors approaching the city, they served the purpose of protecting it from evil spirits. The gate also includes linear designs and patterns of small roses, interpreted as symbols of fertility.

The Lion was also Ishtar/Innana’s most common symbol, here featured as a decorative detail of the Gate.

quotes

“With its walls which still stand 12 metres high, covered with brick reliefs, it is the largest and most striking ruin of Babylon.”

Koldewey

“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.”

Nebuchadnezzar

1- CC BY-SA 4.0, LBM1948

6- CC BY-SA 4.0, Radomir Vrbovsky

7- CC BY-SA 4.0, Raffaele pagani

8 & 9- CC BY-SA 4.0, Osama Shukir Muhammed Amin FRCP

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