The Magnificent Ishtar Gate of Babylon
The Ishtar Gate was the eighth gate of the city of Babylon (in present day Iraq) and was the main entrance into the great city. It was a sight to behold; the gate was covered in lapis lazuli glazed bricks which would have rendered the façade with a jewel-like shine. Alternating rows of bas relief lions, dragons, and aurochs representing powerful deities formed the processional way. The message of course, was that Babylon was protected and defended by the gods, and one would be wise not to challenge it.
The magnificent gate, which was dedicated to the Babylonian goddess Ishtar, was once included among the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World until it was replaced by the Lighthouse of Alexandria in the 3 rd. century BC. Today, a reconstruction of the Ishtar Gate, using original bricks, is located at the Pergamon Museum in Berlin.
Ishtar Gate: Symbol of Babylon's Grandeur and Nebuchadnezzar's Vision
The Babylonians had risen to power in the late 7th century and were heirs of the urban traditions which had long existed in southern Mesopotamia. They eventually ruled an empire as dominant in the Near East as that held by the Assyrians before them. This period is called the Neo-Babylonian Empire because Babylon had also risen to power earlier and became an independent city-state, most famously during the reign of King Hammurabi (1792 - 1750 BC). With the recovery of Babylonian independence under Nabopolassar a new era of architectural activity ensued, and his son Nebuchadnezzar II made Babylon into one of the wonders of the ancient world.
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Screenshot depicting the Ishtar Gate from the game O AD, historical strategy game currently under development by Wildfire Games. Source: 0 AD
King Nebuchadnezzar II (605 BC-562 BC) ordered the construction of the Ishtar Gate in about 575 BC, and was part of his plan to beautify his empire's capital. It was under his rule that Babylon became one of the most splendid cities of the ancient world. He ordered the complete reconstruction of the imperial grounds, including rebuilding the Etemenanki ziggurat (the Temple of Marduk) and is also credited with the construction of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon – said to have been built for his homesick wife Amyitis.
The Ishtar Gate measured nearly 12 meters (39 ft) in height and had a vast antechamber on the southern side. The roof and doors were made of cedar, while the surrounding bricks were furnished with enameled tiles thought to be of lapis lazuli, a deep blue semi-precious stone that has been prized since antiquity for its intense color.
City model of the main procession street (Aj-ibur-shapu) towards Ishtar Gate in Babylon. Model at the Pergamon Museum. (Gryffindor/World History Encyclopedia)
Through the gatehouse was the Processional Way, a red and yellow brick-paved corridor over half a mile long (0.80 km) with walls over 15 meters (49 ft) tall on each side. The walls were adorned with over 120 images of lions, bulls, dragons, and flowers, made from enameled yellow and brown tiles, as well as inscriptions containing prayers from King Nebuchadnezzar to the chief god Marduk. It was this processional way that led to the temple of Marduk. Every year, statues of deities were paraded through the Ishtar Gate and down the Processional Way for the New Year's celebration.
Reconstruction of the Processional Way, with sculptural lions, dragons, and bulls lining the path. (Jononmac46/CC BY-SA 4.0)
The legendary Ishtar Gate was confirmed as a historical reality when it was discovered and subsequently excavated between 1902 and 1914 AD by Robert Koldewey, a German architect and archaeologist who gained fame for his extensive excavation of the ancient city of Babylon.
During the excavations of Babylon, in the immediate vicinity of the Ishtar Gate, numerous fragments of bricks with remains of white-glazed cuneiform characters were found. The text was restored by comparison with another complete inscription on a lime stone block. It was a dedication by King Nebuchadnezzar II that explained the gate's construction and purpose.
“I, 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.”
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Building inscription of King Nebuchadnezzar II. (Public Domain)
Restoration and Preservation Efforts for the Ishtar Gate
The Ishtar Gate is undergoing restoration led by the World Monuments Fund (WMF) and financially supported by the US embassy in Baghdad. Started in 2018 and set to finish in 2023, the project focuses on resolving challenges related to fluctuating groundwater levels impacting masonry humidity, while also preserving the gate's original materials. Simultaneously, the WMF is crafting a sustainable tourism strategy to encourage responsible tourism for the site's protection and cultural heritage. Recent achievements include the 2022 completion of the gate's north facade restoration involving brick replacement and masonry consolidation. The ongoing work on the south facade is expected to conclude in 2023, while the tourism plan is projected for completion in 2024.
Top image: A modern recreation of the famous Ishtar Gate of Babylon, showing some of the splendor of the city. Oleksandr/Adobe Stock
Encyclopedia Britannica. 2014. Ishtar Gate. Available at: http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/295381/Ishtar-Gate
MacAskill, E. 2002. Iraq appeals to Berlin for return of Babylon gate. Available at: http://www.theguardian.com/world/2002/may/04/iraq.babylon
Wikipedia. The Ishtar Gate. Available at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ishtar_Gate
WMF. 2023. The Ishtar Gate of Babylon. Project. Available at: https://www.wmf.org/project/ishtar-gate-babylon