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
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
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