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The Temple to Ninmakh to the east of Ishtar Gate in ancient Babylon. Source: CC BY-SA 4.0

Babylon’s Temple of Ninmakh, the Mesopotamian Goddess of Humankind

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One of the great temples constructed during the Neo-Babylonian period (626-539 BC), the golden age of the city of Babylon, was the Temple of Ninmakh. The temple was built adjacent to the famous Processional Way and the Ishtar Gate, the main gate that led into the city of Babylon, and stood as a testament to divine reverence and architectural mastery.

Within the inner sanctum of the Temple to Ninmakh was a woman-exclusive zone where devotees would gather to engage in ritual bathing rites and pray for their children and marriages. The cult of Ninmakh was notable for being a woman-center cult, while the Temple of NImakh reflected the profound veneration to the goddess that created humankind. In modern times, humans have similarly sought to create new forms of intelligence, paralleling the divine act of Ninmakh in shaping humanity.

Exploring the Temple of Ninmakh in the Context of Babylon's Golden Age

The worship of Ninmakh, also called Ninmah, Nintur and Belet-ili in Mesopotamian literature, dates to at least the third millennium BC when she held a prominent role as a Sumerian fertility deity. Found within ancient epics such as the Akkadian  Atrahasis and the Sumerian  Enki and Ninmah, which recount her role in the creation of humanity.

In these early epics, Ninmakh initially stood alongside major deities of the Sumerian pantheon, including Enlil, An and Enki. Yet it appears that her prominence waned during the second millennium BC, likely influenced by shifting theological trends favoring male deities during the reign of Hammurabi of Babylon, who ruled from 1792 to 1750 BC.

The enduring antiquity of tales surrounding Ninmakh prompts speculation that the Temple to Ninmakh, erected during the Neo-Babylonian period, might have drawn inspiration from a far older sanctuary. Nevertheless, understanding the rationale behind the Neo-Babylonian kings' zeal to resurrect their Sumerian and Akkadian heritage necessitates a deep dive into historical context.

The city of Babylon itself, with roots stretching back to the 23rd century BC, evolved from a provincial outpost under the Third Dynasty of Ur to a formidable capital of an Amorite kingdom in 1894 BC established by King Sumuabum the first of the Amorite Dynasty in Babylon. However, Babylon truly flourished as a political powerhouse under the leadership of King Hammurabi (1792 to 1750 BC), whose reign saw the city ascend to the status of the political capital of southern Mesopotamia.

In 1595 BC, Babylon was raided by the Hittites, leading to nearly a millennium of foreign rule by a succession of empires before native control of the city was re-established during the Neo-Babylonian period. Despite enduring foreign incursions, Babylon retained its allure, serving as the focal point of successive empires until its resurgence during the Neo-Babylonian epoch.

In 626 BC, Babylon experienced a resurgence under a Chaldean leader named Nabopolassar, who made Babylon the capital of his kingdom after the death of the Assyrian ruler, Assurbanipal. Under his son, Nebuchadnezzar II (605 to 561 BC), Babylon became an imperial city as the center of the Neo-Babylonian Empire.

This period was arguably the golden age of Babylon, marked by the construction of iconic landmarks such as the Ishtar Gate and the Processional Way. Both were erected as prominent features of the city's main entrance, symbolizing Babylon's grandeur and cultural richness, and were decorated with vibrant glazed brick reliefs of lions, bulls and dragons. The lions were a symbol of the goddess Ishtar, the goddess of love, sexuality and a personification of the planet Venus.

Among these architectural marvels stood the Temple to Ninmakh, strategically positioned near the Processional Way and the Ishtar Gate, underscoring its significance within Babylon's urban tapestry. Reflecting the conservative ethos of Neo-Babylonian rulers, these constructions were imbued with reverence for Babylon's ancestral legacy, paying homage not only to deities like Ninmakh but also to the forebears who shaped Babylon into a beacon of greatness.

A replica of the Ishtar Gate located in the Babylon ruins of Iraq. The original remains are on display at the Pergamon Museum in Berlin, Germany. (homocosmicos / Adobe Stock)

A replica of the Ishtar Gate located in the Babylon ruins of Iraq. The original remains are on display at the Pergamon Museum in Berlin, Germany. (homocosmicos / Adobe Stock)

Tracing the History of the Temple to Ninmakh

The Temple of Ninmakh was composed of a courtyard, surrounded by rooms, including the sacred room in which the statue of Ninmakh was located. The temple appears to also have been a sort of community center where people would gather to discuss important matters and consult the priests. In this way, it was a political and cultural focus of the city as well as a religious or cultic focus.

Within the inner courtyard of the temple was a holy well, one of several holy wells located within sacred precincts around the city of Babylon. The inner sanctum of the Temple of Ninmakh was restricted to women who would use the well waters to perform ritual bathing. It is also where women would offer up prayers for their marriages, for offspring and success in childbirth.

The Temple of Ninmakh underwent multiple cycles of destruction and reconstruction throughout its history. Archaeological findings reveal a unique pattern: with each rebuilding effort, the temple was erected several meters higher than its previous incarnation. This incremental approach to reconstruction has resulted in the preservation of some of the original white lime-gypsum plaster walls from earlier versions of the temple.

Archaeologists have also found that not all the temple’s construction phases occurred during the Neo-Babylonian Period. The current paved floor of the temple, for example, does not date to the Neo-Babylonian period, but to the Parthian period (247 BC-224 AD). While there is no direct historical evidence mentioning its destruction, the Temple of Ninmakh was likely destroyed or at least damaged after the rebellion against the Persian King Xerxes I in 482 BC, when the city’s fortifications and its temples were destroyed by Persian forces.

The Temple of Ninmakh may have also been rebuilt or repaired after 331 BC, when Alexander the Great captured Babylon and ordered the restoration of its temples. Before his death in 323 BC, Alexander the Great intended to make Babylon the capital of his new empire. The continued use of the temple into the Parthian period, implied by Parthian-era paved flooring of the temple, suggests that the cult of Ninmakh was an important part of Babylonian culture and religion as late as the 3rd century BC, if not later.

The Temple to Ninmakh was first excavated in modern times by the Koldewey archaeological expedition which took place from 1899 to 1914. In the 1980s, it was reconstructed with the help of Iraqi archaeologists by order of then Iraqi president Saddam Hussein as part of an attempt to reconstruct the glories of the Iraq’s Babylonian past for heritage purposes.

Despite popularity and renovations, the Temple of Ninmakh has faced degradation due to water damage from a rising water table and precipitation of water-borne mineral salts, among other maintenance issues. Despite this, the Temple to Ninmakh remains an enduring legacy of Mesopotamian art, religion and culture.

Cylinder seal possibly depicting Ninmakh of Mesopotamian mythology, sitting on a throne surrounded by worshippers. (Public domain)

Cylinder seal possibly depicting Ninmakh of Mesopotamian mythology, sitting on a throne surrounded by worshippers. (Public domain)

Ninmakh in Babylonian Mythology

Ninmakh plays an important role in several early Sumerian epics as the Sumerian mother goddess and a goddess of childbirth, fertility and the creator of humanity. In one early Sumerian account,  Enki and Ninmah, the goddess Ninmah and Enki compete to create creatures out of clay, culminating in the creation of humans. The motivation for this competition is to create beings that will do manual labor that the gods are tired of doing.

Ninmakh’s role as creator of humanity evolves in the later epic,  Atrahasis (18th century BC), the Akkadian flood story. According the  Atrahasis epic, the lower Gods serve the greater Gods through digging canals and performing other manual labor. Eventually the lower Gods become fed up with being treated as laborers and revolt against the greater Gods. They storm the house of the great god Enlil, demanding a change to the situation. The divine assembly responds by commissioning the goddess Ninmakh, referred to as Nintu, Mami or Belet-ili in the epic, to create humanity.

Ninmakh, in cooperation with other gods, creates humanity from mud and the blood of a slain god. This divine genesis imbues humanity with a sacred essence, despite essentially being created to do the dirty work of the gods. As humanity flourishes and multiplies, their clamor and presence grow palpable, disrupting the tranquil order of the divine realm. Faced with the burgeoning "noise" of humanity, the gods reach a fateful decision: to enact a cataclysmic purge, seeking to wipe humanity from the face of the earth.

The only survivor is a man named Atrahasis and his family who build a boat for themselves and animals they choose to save. The most well-known version of this story is of course the Biblical account of the flood of Noah. After the flood, the gods are still concerned about human population growth, so they inflict humanity with dangerous childbirth to control the population. Ninmakh is placed in charge of overseeing human childbirth, or perhaps more accurately, birth control.

Although she was de-emphasized, possibly after the reign of Hammurabi, Ninmakh continued to be a deity associated with childbirth and fertility. The Babylonians appear to have seen her as a benevolent deity, a friend of humanity, especially to women in childbirth. In this sense, the Babylonian Ninmakh shares parallels with the Egyptian goddess Isis, since both were revered for her nurturing and protective qualities.

Ninmakh, similar to Isis, held prominence as a benevolent mother goddess within the ancient Mesopotamian pantheon. While her influence endured for centuries, it gradually waned with the decline of Babylonian civilization and the rise of new religious beliefs during the Hellenistic and Roman periods.

Interior of the Temple of Ninmakh at the ancient city of Babylon in Iraq. (Osama Shukir Muhammed Amin FRCP / CC BY-SA 4.0)

Interior of the Temple of Ninmakh at the ancient city of Babylon in Iraq. (Osama Shukir Muhammed Amin FRCP / CC BY-SA 4.0)

Ninmakh and Humanism

Every creation story reveals what a culture thought about itself and the human condition. Within Mesopotamian mythology, humanity's role is often portrayed as that of laborers for the gods, suggesting a view of human existence centered around servitude. The gods were tired of digging ditches, so they created humans to do the work for them. After the flood in the  Atrahasis, humanity is revealed to have another role, to feed the gods and provide sacrifices.

Ninmakh distinguishes herself among Mesopotamian deities by portraying humanity as more than mere servants to the gods. Rather than emphasizing servitude, Ninmakh's role seems to have been dedicated to serving humanity. She held responsibility for ensuring successful childbirth and the survival of offspring, highlighting her nurturing and protective qualities. The placement of her temple alongside those of other major deities, at the main entrance to Babylon, suggests that the Babylonians recognized her importance. Access to the goddess Ninmakh was essential for humanity's survival, ensuring successful reproduction and the continuation of generations.

Ninmakh in her role as the creator of humanity is both similar to and different from the Greek Titan Prometheus, humanity’s creator in Greek mythology. Ninmakh and Prometheus share a common thread in their benevolence towards humanity as their creators. The difference, however, lies in the extent to which they advocate for humanity. Prometheus aligns himself with humanity by stealing fire from the gods and bestowing it upon them, an act for which he incurs severe punishment from Zeus. Conversely, while Ninmakh exhibits benevolence towards humanity, her actions ultimately serve the interests of the gods, particularly in regulating human population through childbirth, even as women beseech her aid in matters of childbirth and marriage.

Prometheus is often thought of as a liberator of humanity in modern times. Ninmakh, on the other hand, is more like humanity’s breeder, working on behalf of the Mesopotamian gods to produce good slaves, but also to keep the human population from getting out of control. This is not to say that the Greek gods were perceived as more benevolent than the Mesopotamian gods per se, but the difference in the Greek myth and Mesopotamian myth may suggest a difference in the theological anthropology of the ancient Greeks versus the theological anthropology of the ancient Mesopotamians, including the Babylonians of the Neo-Babylonian period.

This contrast between Greek and Mesopotamian perspectives may imply that ancient Greek theological anthropology held a more optimistic view of human potential compared to that of ancient Mesopotamia. While Mesopotamian belief portrayed humans as perpetual servants of the gods, Greek thought seemed to harbor a glimmer of hope for humanity's evolution beyond servitude. This theological difference is reflected in institutions such as the Temple of Ninmakh, which embodies Mesopotamian theological anthropology.

Ninmakh and the Modern World; Have Humans Become Ninmakh?

The Sumerian gods' rationale for creating humanity mirrors the modern drive behind the creation of robots and artificial intelligence. Just as the gods fashioned humans to undertake tasks they deemed undesirable, we have similarly engineered robots to tackle work that we find undesirable or unpleasant.

Just as Ninmakh created humans to reduce the labor required of the Mesopotamian gods, humans have created robots and AIs to reduce the labor required of humans. Unlike the humans in Mesopotamian mythology, who had no hope of usurping the gods, there is fear that artificial intelligence may be able to do just that. It likely never occurred to the ancient Babylonians that they could replace their mother goddess, but we fear that this might occur with our AI and robotic creations.

The human Ninmakh fears being replaced in her own temple. Have humans followed the role of Ninmakh only to find themselves in the role of Prometheus instead? The original Babylonian Temple to Ninmakh is now a ruin that has been abandoned by humans. The Temple to the human Ninmakh may end up being populated by humanity’s successors.

Top image: The Temple to Ninmakh to the east of Ishtar Gate in ancient Babylon. Source: CC BY-SA 4.0

By Caleb Strom 

References

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Frequently Asked Questions

The famous temples of Babylon include the Temple to Ninmakh, the Etemenanki (dedicated to Marduk), and the Esagila (the main temple of Marduk). These architectural wonders stood as symbols of Babylon's religious and cultural richness during its golden age.

The Babylonians succumbed to the Persian Empire under King Cyrus the Great in 539 BC. This conquest facilitated the assimilation of Mesopotamia into the Achaemenid Empire, reshaping the geopolitical landscape of the region.

Babylon was situated in ancient Mesopotamia, on the eastern bank of the Euphrates River, approximately 85 kilometers south of modern-day Baghdad, Iraq. This strategic location positioned Babylon as a pivotal center of civilization in the ancient Near East.

Caleb Strom's picture

Caleb

Caleb Strom is currently a graduate student studying planetary science. He considers himself a writer, scientist, and all-around story teller. His interests include planetary geology, astrobiology, paleontology, archaeology, history, space archaeology, and SETI.

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