Dragons of the Ishtar Gate

Has Mythology Trumped Science in Ancient Babylon?


The Pergamon in Berlin is ranked as one of the great museums of the world and it is equally true that the entrance to it must be the most impressive approach of any museum ever built.

This is known as the Ishtar Gate. It was named for the Mesopotamian goddess of love and was one of the eight gates allowing entry to the inner city of Babylon. It was built during the reign of Nebuchadnezzar II, took 43 years and was completed in 575 B.C. It was unearthed by the German archaeologist, Robert Koldewey, in June, 1887 and is one of the most spectacular monuments of the ancient world.

The Ishtar Gate is not only an unceasing marvel of ancient architecture, but it poses one of the most fascinating puzzles in natural history, one which continues to baffle historians and scholars, even into the twenty-first century . . .

Visitors to the Pergamon Museum today goggle in amazement as they follow the museum entrance along the Pro­cessional Way. This was originally more than half-a-mile long and though its reconstruction in Berlin is shorter, it is still a breathtaking walk.

The seemingly endless Processional Way was constructed in the form of a trench, 23 feet deep and 75 feet wide. It had a brick foundation covered with asphalt to form a bed for large slabs of limestone. An enemy attacking Babylon would have had to proceed along this gully and would be an easy prey for defending soldiers above. Almost as deter­ring to attackers were the walls of this sunken approach road—these were covered with colored glazed bas-relief tiles of lions, each seven feet long. One hundred and twenty of these ferocious beasts showed their teeth in angry snarls that would surely intimidate any adversaries. The buried side of the tiles bore an inscription, repeated on every tile. It read:

“Nebuchadnezzar, King of Babylon, son of Nabopolassar, King of Babylon, am I. The road of Babel I have paved with Shadu slabs for the procession of the great lord Marduk Marduk, Lord, grant eternal life.”

Nebuchadnezzar, King of Babylon, extolled by Daniel as “the King of Kings” was the ruler who re-built Babylon as the capital of his empire. To do this, he imported 11,000 captives, the cream of Jewish society containing engineers, town planners, architects, craftsmen and artisans of all kinds.

The ruins of the city that Nebuchadnezzar built can be seen today just south of Baghdad and it remains his legacy. It had an estimated population of around 200,000. It was a mongrel city, housing Hittites, Chaldaeans, Egyptians, As­syrians, Aramaeans, Elamites and Jews.

Saddam Hussein spent millions in restoring it and the visitor can see glimpses of what must have been a stagger­ingly impressive city. Many of Saddam Hussein’s concepts were abandoned, unfinished, but one project that was com­pleted was a reconstruction of the Ishtar Gate, close to its original size, on the ancient site in Babylon. The other re­constructed Gate, in Berlin, is slightly smaller.

Approaching Babylon from the desert in the north during the reign of Nebuchadnezzar, first, was a large outer en­closure surrounded by a high wall. This provided a refuge for people who could come in for protection during times of war. Within that wall was the city itself—protected by double walls with towers at intervals of 60 feet. The inner wall was 21-feet thick and a 24-foot space separated it from the outer wall that was 12-feet thick.

Entrance to Babylon could be made only through one of the eight gates, each fifty feet tall and heavily fortified. All were similar but the most elaborate of these was the Ishtar Gate. This is the gate through which Jewish captives, in­cluding Daniel and Ezekiel, passed and it is a tribute to the glory and might of the Babylonian Empire. The book of Daniel, chapter 4, verses 30 and 31, records; “Is not this the great Babylon that I have built for my royal residence, by my power and for the glory of my majesty?”

The Ishtar Gate was beautifully decorated with glazed tiles of a glorious blue with relief carvings in yellow and brown. Huge doors of cedar brought from Lebanon and adorned with bronze gave entry. Inside the gate, began the Processional Way that must have been under construction for the whole of the forty-three years of Nebuchadnezzar’s reign. It ran parallel to the Euphrates River halfway through the old city and then turned west over a bridge and then into the western half of Babylon. The remains of the bridge—which was built of stone blocks—have also been found. The exterior of the Ishtar Gate itself is also covered with glazed tiles in differing shades of a glorious blue. Five hun­dred and seveventy five animals are portrayed, half being bulls, depicted just as accurately as were the lions along the Processional Way. The other 287 of those animals, are, however, one of history’s greatest enigmas—because those an­imals are dragons.

Lions and bulls were common in the Middle East at that time, but on what animal did the Ancient Babylonians model the dragon? If lions and bulls were well-known, why was the third animal one that did not exist—or did it?

Today, we consider the dragon as a mythical beast. It may be that dragon mythology existed in Babylonian days as it does today—but one source exists that casts doubt on this point and even raises the startling possibility that the an­imal was real.

The books of the Bible known as the Apocrypha are fourteen in number. They are included in the Vulgate (the Ro­man Catholic Church’s authorized version of the Bible) but are considered uncanonical by Protestants because they are not part of the Hebrew Scriptures. One of these books is the Book of Bel and it is recorded in its pages that King Nebuchadnezzar kept a dragon in the Temple of the god Bel (the Babylonian God of Heaven and Earth). Babylonian cuneiform scripts confirm this, stating that “the priests kept a great dragon which they of Babylon worshipped.”

The prophet Daniel (he of lions’ den fame) denounced the worship of idols whereupon Nebuchadnezzar confront­ed him with the dragon of Bel, saying, “It lives and eats and drinks so you cannot say that it is no living god. There­fore you must worship him.” Daniel chose a solution worthy of Solomon. He poisoned the sirrush.

The Babylonians had several gods, but the greatest of them was Marduk. He had originally been the local god of Babylon but later became the national god, as Babylon gradually exerted total dominance over all the cities of Meso­potamia. The powerful gods, Anu, god of the sky and Enlil, god of the earth, were dispossessed in favor of Marduk’s supreme power; and his rule was believed to extend over the entire universe. He was not only the protector of the ar­mies—the mighty warrior who led men to victory—but also the merciful sovereign and bestower of health and and life as well as guardian of the riches of the earth.

Marduk was frequently depicted with an animal at his feet. In all cases, it is clearly the same animal, one sacred to him—and it was known as the Sirrush. The portrayal of the sirrush on the bas-reliefs shows a scaly body with a long neck and a long tail also with scales. The slim scaly neck has the head of a serpent with a horn and a long forked tongue. (Because the tiles show a side view, only one horn can be seen but in other depictions, two horns are clearly shown.) Flaps of skin cover the ears. The feet are unusual, the forefeet being those of a feline, perhaps a leopard or a panther. The hind feet, however, are birdlike, very large with four toes and covered with scales. This animal is identi­cal to the dragons guarding Marduk and it is also an exact description of the dragons on the Ishtar Gate.

The Sirrush was referred to in Babylonian cuneiform inscriptions as Mus-russu which can be translated as “Splen­dor Serpent” or “Glamorous Snake.”

The characteristics given in the inscriptions are those of a hybrid creature, covered in scales, the horned head of a snake, the front legs of a feline and the hind legs as the claws of a predatory bird. The tail is described as scaly, long and sinuous. All in all, it is also an accurate description of the dragons on the Ishtar gate.

Thirty-seven references to dragons have been identified as occurring in the Bible Book of Job, although it also contains several references to a behemoth, a word that might be translated as “monster.” As it was always associated with water, it is universally considered that it was a sauropod dinosaur.

The Book of Job is considered to be the most ancient of the books of the Bible. Martin Luther regarded it as “more magnificent and sublime than any other Book of Scriptures,” and Victor Hugo said it was “the greatest product of the human mind of all ages.” It is regarded with the greatest respect by all biblical scholars and its accounts are accepted as basically reliable.

Cryptozoologists have varying opinions. Roy P. Mackal is among those who believe that the description of the sir-rush fits that of a sauropod (a semi-aquatic dinosaur).

For at least 200 years, missionaries of several nations, explorers, hunters and natives provided remarkably consis­tent accounts of this beast, seen throughout west-central Africa. It was described as a sauropod-like animal with a long neck, a small head, a bulky body and a long tail. A tribe of pygmies said that they had killed such a creature in 1959 in the Congo.

Willy Ley says it is acknowledged that the Babylonians penetrated into equatorial Africa and must have encoun­tered tribes who spoke of the Mokele-Mbembe, the so-called “Congo Dragon” and probably killed and also captured several. Possibly some of these were brought back to Babylon in the same way that the Romans, a short time later, brought back to Rome elephants and other terrifying animals, never before seen, to be fought in the arenas. Bernard Heuvelmans is another authority who reported on several occasions that his travels had brought him into contact with native tribes who had seen and even killed, creatures corresponding to the Mokele-Mbembe.

Professor Robert Koldewey, the discoverer and excavator of the Ishtar Gate, was a pioneer archaeological histori­an. He had studied architecture and art history in Berlin and Vienna. He had excavated in Turkey, Greece and Italy and while in Mesopotamia, his work had included the discovery of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon.

He had been on a two-day visit to the ruins of Ancient Babylon in 1887 when he had picked up a fragment of old brick, one side of which was covered with a bright blue glaze. It was to be ten years before he returned to the site and he spent the week before Christmas of 1897 gathering more pieces of glazed tile similar to his original discovery. He now had funding from the Royal Museum in Berlin and the German Orient Society and in March, 1899, serious exca­vation began. In 1902 the famous Ishtar Gate had been unearthed. Work continued until 1914 although it was not until 1930 that the Pergamon Museum acquired these materials.

Natural history and zoology were not among Professor Robert Koldewey’s specialties, but his opinion was highly respected no matter what the subject. When he first assembled an array of tiles that showed the Dragons of the Ishtar Gate, he immediately identified the animal as the Sirrush.

The overall portrayal of the animal is certainly of an animal very much drawn from life rather than mythology. Some of the beasts depicted in Assyrian and Babylonian folklore are no more, or less, believable than the dragons, bulls with wings, birds and jackals with the heads of men, for example. But in the century following Professor Kol­dewey’s excavations at Babylon, conclusions as to what was possible in biology had undergone a great change.

Paleontologists had discovered fossil animals with long necks and long tails; others with small heads on large bod­ies and yet others with serpent heads with horns and forked tongues. Dinosaurs had been found that had the feet of birds and walked erect on birdlike hind legs, waving five-toed forelegs in the air. Dinosaur remains had been found in many countries in which they had not previously been known—in fact, the trade in dinosaur bones was such that they were no longer being transported to museums in truck loads but in boat loads. Australian lizards had been found that walked on all fours until they needed to increase their speed to escape a predator whereupon they promptly took to using their hind legs only.

The man who had unwittingly opened this Pandora’s Box of puzzles, Professor Koldewey, wrote in 1913 that the Babylonian dragon corresponded in most features to extinct Saurians. “The sirrush,” he asserted, “far exceeds all oth­er fantastic creatures in the uniformity of its physiological conceptions.” He lamented that, “If only the forelegs were not so emphatically and characteristically feline, such an animal might easily have existed.”

Koldewey speculated further that, “It may well be imagined that the priests of Babylon captured some sort of drag­on-like animal, a giant reptile perhaps, which is found in this region and kept him in the twilit temple room where he was exhibited as a living sirrush.

That was his first comprehensive report about his excavations in Babylon. Five years later, in 1918, Professor Kol­dewey wrote a beautifully illustrated book that offered a list of extinct saurians that exhibited many of the characteris­tics of the sirrush. He was still perplexed by the feline forelegs though and said that the saurians he listed showed fea­tures of the Sirrush and concluded that if the animal did exist in reality, it would have to be classified as a bird-footed dinosaur.

“The Iguanadon of the Cretaceous period is the closest relative of the Dragon of Babylon,” he stated. The word “iguanodon” refers to large dinosaurs of the genus “Iguanodon.” To date, no fossil dinosaur bones have been found near Babylon but it is entirely possible that some may be discovered in the extensive excavation that will be resumed after the Iraq War period ends.

A final word comes from the renowned Professor Carl Sagan. He accounts for the dragon legend by saying that he sees the dragon as a race memory inherited from our ancestors who had to compete with these giant predators.

In The Dragons of Eden, he suggests a defined link between the dragon and the dinosaur when he writes, “The most recent fossils are dated at about 60 million years ago. The family of man is about ten-million years old. Could there have been man-like creatures who actually encountered dinosaurs? Could there have been dinosaurs that es­caped the extinctions in the late Cretaceous period?”

The mystery of the Ishtar Gate dragons remains to this day. Were they real or mythical? Did the artists draw from life or from imagination or from folk memories? What was the animal at Marduk’s feet? What was the terrifying beast kept in the dungeons beneath Nebuchadnezzar’s palace? Was the animal described by Robert Koldewey as “a living sirrush” perhaps a giant reptile?

The mystery may be solved in the future with the application of more sophisticated techniques and equipment. Meanwhile speculation continues . . . .


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