The Sirrush Dragons guarded the Gate of Ishtar - Babylon

The Ishtar Gate and the Deities of Babylon

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Read Part 1 - The Magnificent Ishtar Gate of Babylon

The Ishtar Gate was the main entrance into the great city of Babylon, commissioned by King Nebuchadnezzar II (605 BC-562 BC) as part of his plan to create one of the most splendid and powerful cities of the ancient world. The discovery of the ancient gate in 1902 by German archaeologist Robert Koldewey was met with awe, and its reconstruction in 1930 revealed its architectural splendor. But the discovery of the Gate of Ishtar revealed much more than the building accomplishments of the Babylonians; it shed light on the religious beliefs and customs of the once powerful Empire of Babylon.

The Ishtar Gate is so named, because it was dedicated to the Babylonian goddess Ishtar, the East Semitic Akkadian, Assyrian and Babylonian goddess of fertility, love, war, and sex. She is the counterpart to the Sumerian Inanna, and in the Babylonian pantheon, she was the divine personification of the planet Venus.  Her cult was the most important one in ancient Babylon; it is believed to have included temple prostitution, although this is debatable. According to the noted Assyriologist Samuel Noah Kramer, kings in the ancient Near Eastern region of Sumer established their legitimacy by taking part in a ritual sexual act in the temple of the fertility goddess Ishtar every year on the tenth day of the New Year festival Akitu. 

ld Babylonian period Queen of Night relief

Old Babylonian period Queen of Night relief, often considered to represent an aspect of Ishtar. Source: Wikipedia

Leading from the grand entrance of the Ishtar Gate was the Processional Way, a pathway lined with sculptural reliefs of lions, aurochs (bulls), and dragons, in which Nebuchadnezzar II paid homage to the Babylonian deities through the animal representations.  The lion is associated with Ishtar – as the goddess of war and the protector of her people, the winged Ishtar was depicted holding a bow and quiver of arrows and riding a chariot that was drawn by seven lions.  She was sometimes shown standing on the back of a lion, or in the company of two lions.

Sculptural relief of a lion along the Processional Way - Ishtar

Sculptural relief of a lion along the Processional Way. Photo source: BigStockPhoto

The auroch is an extinct type of large wild cattle that inhabited Europe, Asia and North Africa and is the ancestor of domestic cattle. The young bulls are associated with Adad, a weather god in the Babylonian pantheon. Adad had a twofold aspect, being both the giver and the destroyer of life. His rains caused the land to bear grain and other food for his friends, which his storms and hurricanes, evidences of his anger against his foes, brought darkness, want, and death. Adad was typically represented brandishing lightning bolts and standing on or beside a bull.

Sculptural relief of an auroch (bull) along the Processional Way

Sculptural relief of an auroch (bull) along the Processional Way. Photo source: BigStockPhoto

Finally, the dragon (sirrush) is a symbolic representation of Marduk, the chief god of Babylon.  Marduk's original character is obscure but he was later associated with water, vegetation, judgment, and magic. According to ancient mythology, Marduk defeated Tiamat, a chaos monster and primordial goddess of the ocean who mated with Abzû (the god of fresh water) to produce younger gods.

The presence of the snake-dragon has been a matter of much debate among researchers who pointed out that the mythical animal was out of place next to sculptures depicting known animals (lions and bulls) that were contemporary with the Babylonians. The creature, often referred to as sirrush or mušḫuššu (“splendour serpent”) can be described as having a slender body covered with scales, a long slender scaly tail, and a serpent's head with a long forked tongue.

Robert Koldewey, who discovered the Ishtar Gate, seriously considered the notion that the sirrush was a portrayal of a real animal. He argued that its depiction in Babylonian art was consistent over many centuries, while those of mythological creatures changed, sometimes drastically, over the years. In 1918, he proposed that Iguanodon (a dinosaur with birdlike hindfeet) was the closest match to the sirrush.

Snake-Dragon, Symbol of Marduk - Ishtar

Snake-Dragon, Symbol of Marduk, the Patron God of Babylon. Panel from the Ishtar Gate. Detroit Institute of Arts. Image source .

The sculptural reliefs of lions, aurochs, and dragons representing powerful deities sent a powerful message to all who entered the great gate – that Babylon was protected and defended by the gods, and one would be wise not to challenge it.

Every spring, a great procession that included the king, members of his court, priests, and statues of the gods passed through the Ishtar Gate and along the Processional Way to the “Akitu” temple to celebrate the New Year’s festival.

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