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The Ishtar Gate is one of Neo-Babylonia's greatest treasures. It was built during the reign of Nebuchadnezzar II around 575BCE. Located at the end of the Processional Way, one of the world's first streets, it guarded the northern entrance to the city of Babylon.

The gate itself is about 40 feet tall. It's a double arch gate, consisting of 2 arches spaced by an interior passage. The gate is made of mud brick, surfaced with glazed clay bricks of a very deep blue color. The gate is decorated with inlayed gold and colorfully glazed brickwork depicting lions and dragons, palm trees, and geometric designs.

The Ishtar Gates lead into the city of Babylon and represent the power of Babylon. The decorations of Dragons are sacred to the god Marduk, while bulls and lions are deamed sacred to a variety of other Mesopotamian dieties.

Built not only for decoration, but to protect the city, the Gates are topped with four crenalated towers that could be used for deffensive positioning of archers and spearmen.

Recently, archeologists from Germany have taken large sections of the Ishtar Gate and have reconstructed it inside one of the State Museums in Berlin, the Vorderasiatisches Museum where it can be viewed by the public.

Throughout history, the mesopotamian city of Babylon was known for its power and splendor. Perhaps the most shining example remaining is the Ishtar Gate and the Processional Way that leads though it. Here I will discuss how the Ishtar Gate is representative of the late babylonian period in terms of style and technique and by way of the social context of its time. Looking into history and myth, I will illustrate the importance of the Ishtar Gate.

In the late babylonian period, c. 600-330BC, Nebuchadnezzar II rebuilt Babylon, the capital city of Babylonia. During this time, Babylonia enjoyed its last period of glory before the conquests of Alexander the Great brought the spread of Hellenistic culture. After retaking power from the Assyrians in 612BC, the Babylonians undertook a deliberate revival of native traditions, returning to the style and culture of earlier babylonian periods and avoiding Assyrian influence. The Ishtar Gate was one of the elements that resulted from this. It was in the achitecture and decoration of the time that some of the greatest achievements could be found, as is evidenced by the Ishtar Gate. The decorations used on the Gate and the Processional Way were some of the best examples of glazed brick relief. With its rows of dragons and bulls, the Ishtar Gate was designed to frighten enemies and proclaim the splendor of the city, as well as honour the gods. “On the walls of Babylon, there are only gods. Even the king himself is not represented”(Geoffroy-Schneiter).

The rebuilt Babylon was an ancient metropolis with a sophisticated urban plan. Great avenues led to eight gates in the city walls, each one dedicated to a major god of the Mesopotamian pantheon. These gods included Enlil, the sun god Shamash, the storm god Adad, the city-god Marduk, and of course Ishtar, the goddess of love and war. The Ishtar Gate was a part of the Processional Way, a grand avenue that led from the the temple of Marduk at the center of the city to the festival house, which lay just outside the city walls. The Processional Way was named thus for the religious processions that made their way along its route. The alternate name for it was May the Enemy Not Have Victory.

The Ishtar Gate led through both the inner and outer walls of the city, both gateways comprised of pairs of guard towers. Both the gate and the walls of the Processional Way were decorated in the same style, using the technique of glazed brick relief. This style of decoration reached its technical hight during the reign of Nebuchadnezzar II. The frieze of the gate itself shows alternating rows of dragons and bulls in gold and silver on a blue background while the Processional Way is lined with lions. These decorations took careful planning; the bricks had to be made slightly larger than they would be when finnished, as they would shrink when fired. The brilliant colours were made by applying glass-based glazes. Three stages of construction, all effectuated under Nebuchadnezzar II, can be seen on the Ishtar Gate. In the first one, the friezes were made of unpainted moulded brick which were later hidden when the level of the street rose to cover them. Simple glazed bricks made up the second stage. The final, completed stage is the one we see today, the friezes of glazed brick relief.

To understand the Ishtar Gate, one must first understand its iconography. The rows of bulls represent the storm god, Adad, and the dragons are for Babylon's patron god, Marduk. The lions along the walls of the Processional Way represent Ishtar, for whom the gate was dedicated. The goddess Ishtar has been known under many aspects. Ishtar, known to the Sumerians as Inanna, was a mother goddess, a goddess of fertility. She was also known as an insatiable lover, sometimes fatally so. In her fertility aspect, Ishtar has an association with the vegetation god, Tammuz, whose cycle of rising and dying follows the seasons. Her active role during Tammuz's latent period also suggests a connection to irrigation. Ishtar's role in Assyria and during the Semitic period in Babylon is, however, somewhat different. Here she is seen as a warrior goddess, 'perfect in courage', destroying enemies and directing kings by way of dream-oracles. Given this aspect, the lion being her cult-animal is certainly fitting. Marduk's significance can perhaps be best seen in the babylonian New Year ceremonies in which the creation myth is reenacted by the king. It is an occasion of renewal in which Marduk returns from the underworld and defeats the forces of Chaos. Marduk is seen as the divine king of the city while the human ruler is seen as his executive.

That the city of Babylon has survived in legend for thousands of years is no surprise when one considers the Ishtar Gate. The sophistication of the city shows in the technical skill required in its decoration. Through the myths associated with the iconography, we gain insight into the social context of the gate. Together, the Ishtar Gate and the Processional way serve as a fine example of the late Babylonian period.


Geoffroy-Schneiter, Bérénice. "BABYLONE AU LOUVRE fantasmes et réalité" Beaux Arts Magazine 285 (2008): 76-81.
Gray, John. Near Eastern Mythology. Library of the World's Myths and Legends. 8. New York: Peter Bedrick Books, 1988.
Stokstad, Marilyn. Art A Brief History. Ed. Sarah Touborg and Helen Ronan. Third Edition. Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Pearson Education, 2007.
Strommenger, Eva, and Max Hirmer. The Art of Mesopotamia. London: Thames and Hudson, 1964

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