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Ishtar gate and Processional Way

The Ishtar Gate and Processional Way were part of the ancient city of Babylon, built by King Nebuchadnezzar II in the 6th century BCE. Nebuchadnezzar inscribed the gate with a message proclaiming his greatness and asking future rulers to rebuild it. The gate was considered one of the Wonders of the World, and was later partially reconstructed by Saddam Hussein. Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

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Video transcript

DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: We're in the Pergamon Museum in Berlin. And one of the most astonishing objects they have is-- well, it's not an object. DR. BETH HARRIS: It's a gate for a city. There were eight double gates that formed part of the walls around the ancient city of Babylon. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: It's huge. DR. BETH HARRIS: It doesn't just impress us, it impressed people when it was built. In fact, it was called one of the Wonders of the World. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: So Nebuchadnezzar, of biblical fame, ascended to the throne and proceeded to rebuild the already ancient city of Babylon. This is a city that has its roots in the third millennia BC, but had become a major political center under King Hammurabi in the 1700s BCE. The city had remained populated, but regained importance in the sixth century under Nebuchadnezzar II and under his father, and what we're seeing here is part of the enormous building campaign that Nebuchadnezzar II had undertaken. DR. BETH HARRIS: We might recognize Nebuchadnezzar from the Bible, from the Book of Daniel. He's the ruler of Babylon who conquers and destroys the Temple in Jerusalem and who's responsible for the exile of the Jews. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: Clearly he was very powerful. He was able to undertake this enormous building campaign. He fortified and strengthened 11 miles of wall around the city of Babylon. He reconstructed the Great Ziggurat in Babylon, which had the temple of Marduk at its top and is probably the source of the story of the Tower of Babel. He created palaces, and he created this extraordinary gate. DR. BETH HARRIS: And Hanging Gardens, which were also considered one of the Wonders of the World. So the city of Babylon had eight double gates. The one we're looking at is one of those gates, and actually the smaller of the double gate. The other one would have been even larger, if that's possible to imagine. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: In fact, so large that the museum can't actually put it on display even in this very large space. This gate-- which, of course, would only be opened for the friendly-- is at the end of a long processional way lined with beautiful lions that speak very clearly of pride, of power, and of Nebuchadnezzar's rule. DR. BETH HARRIS: The lions that we see on the processional way represent Ishtar, one of the Babylonian goddesses, the goddess of war and wisdom and sexuality. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: They're raised up to eye level. And they're a little bit smaller than life-size, but they're pretty big. DR. BETH HARRIS: And they're frightening. Their mouths [? were ?] open in these ferocious roars. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: It's true. They're snarling, aren't they? DR. BETH HARRIS: They are, but the fact that they're placed in this very regular way makes them seem as though they're almost trained, or controlled, by King Nebuchadnezzar himself. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: It makes us fear not only the lions, but it makes us fear the king. The image of the lion is beautiful, this faience raised to create a kind of relief sculpture. So in addition to the lions, there are two other animal forms that decorate the gate. And they're both meant to be as ferocious as the lions. A kind of ancient bull, known as an auroch-- these were supposed to be terribly fierce. And then alternating with the rows of auroch are a kind of Mesopotamia dragon, which is really a composite beast. The front paws are those of lions. The head and neck come from a snake or serpent. The hind legs come from an eagle, perhaps. DR. BETH HARRIS: And their tails have a stinger like a scorpion. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: Those dragons are associated with Marduk, the patron god of the city. And Nebuchadnezzar associated himself directly with Marduk. The aurochs-- that is, these bulls-- are associated with the god Adad, a god associated with storms, with the fertility of the land, with the harvest. All of these animals speak to protecting the city but also providing for the city. DR. BETH HARRIS: They're ferocious animals, but they're also represented in a very regular way along the procession, and on the tower and archway of the gate, so that there's symmetry, a sense of order, in the way that they're represented. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: One of the most extraordinary aspects of these towers, of the gate as a whole, is the color. This is an arid place where the sun is bright, where it gets really hot. And you can imagine how brilliant the blues and the greens of the surface would have originally been, not in the context of the museum, but in the context of the edge of a desert. In Mesopotamia, there was a real problem. The Egyptians were able to build their great pyramids and other monuments out of the native stone that surrounded them. But in Mesopotamia, they didn't have that. This was a river valley. Babylon is on the banks of the Euphrates. In fact, the Euphrates cuts right through the city. When the Mesopotamians wanted to build, they created buildings out of brick created from the clay of the river valley. The brilliant blue that we see on the surface of the gate is faience. This is a technique that was known to the ancient Egyptians and other parts of the ancient world. And it uses copper to create this brilliant blue. And this is a beautiful example. DR. BETH HARRIS: So the gate is massive. It's frightening. It's decorative. And it's brilliantly colored. No wonder Nebuchadnezzar was so proud of it and wrote an inscription on the side. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: Let's go read that. Now, we're not sure where the inscription was originally placed on the wall. But in this reconstruction, it's on the left side of the left tower. Here's an excerpt. "I, Nebuchadnezzar, laid the foundation of the gates down to the groundwater level and had them built out of pure blue stone. Upon the walls in the inner room of the gate are bulls and dragons. And thus, I magnificently adorned them with luxurious splendor for all mankind to behold in awe." DR. BETH HARRIS: And we are in awe two and a half millennia later. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: Nebuchadnezzar understood his place in history. And he actually wrote inscriptions in his new buildings that not only identified them and identified their purpose and him as their patron, but also asked future rulers to rebuild them for him. DR. BETH HARRIS: It's as though he knew that empires come and go. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: And that he could speak across history. And in our time, the ruler of Mesopotamia, which we now call Iraq, seemed to pay attention. Saddam Hussein actually had begun the rebuilding of parts of Babylonia. He built his own palace a few hundred meters away from the Ishtar Gate and began the reconstruction of parts of the city, as well. That came to a halt, of course, in the recent military actions against him. And of course, he was ultimately deposed and killed. DR. BETH HARRIS: And what it meant to rebuild this legendary city. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: Saddam Hussein was very much rebuilding it not for Nebuchadnezzar, but for his own political ambition. DR. BETH HARRIS: Reclaiming the power of Nebuchadnezzar for himself. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: That's right. And the power of ancient Mesopotamia.