The ancient Mesopotamian city of Babylon has recently been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The summer is extremely hot in Iraq and the temperature was hovering around 50 degrees Celsius but still, we went ahead with our plan to visit the world heritage city of Babylon.

One of my colleagues, Sarah asked me: “Did no one tell you that you’re crazy?” I replied to her: “There was nobody else to say that😁😁.”

Babylon: the name is thought to derive from bab-il, in the Akkadian language of the time, meant ‘Gate of God’ and “Babylon” coming from Greek. Bab means gate and Il means the god or deity. Located between the Tigris and Euphrates in what today is Iraq, Babylon was largely rebuilt by the its king Nebuchadnezzar II in the 6th Century BCE. At its peak, with more than 200,000 inhabitants, it was the largest metropolis in the world.

The History of Babylon

The city of Babylon, whose ruins are located in present-day Iraq around 100 kilometres south-west of Baghdad, was founded at some point as a small port town on the river Euphrates River prior to the reign of Sargon of Akkad, who ruled from 2334-2279 BCE and claimed to have built temples at Babylon. There were over 50 temples in Babylon. It grew into one of the largest cities of the ancient world under the rule of Hammurabi. It became a major military power under Hammurabi, who ruled from 1792 to 1750 BCE.

Several centuries later, a new line of kings established a Neo-Babylonian Empire, which lasted from 626 to 539 BCE, that spanned from the Persian Gulf to the Mediterranean Sea. The Neo-Babylonian Empire was a period of cultural renaissance in the Middle East. The Babylonians built many beautiful and lavish buildings and preserved statues and artworks from the earlier Babylonian Empire during the reign of King Nebuchadnezzar II (reigned 605-562 BCE).

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A UNESCO World Heritage Site

The World Heritage Committee inscribed 29 new sites on UNESCO’s World Heritage List during its 43rd session (30 June 2019 – 10 July 2019) in Baku, Azerbaijan, which includes Babylon of Iraq. Iraq had been lobbying since 1983 for the 4,000-year-old site to be added to the United Nations’ prestigious list. Unesco previously declined to list Babylon as a World Heritage Site on the grounds that restoration and rebuilding work carried out there under the regime of the former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein had badly distorted the original ruins. (Source: BBC)

Holy City of Karbala

We left Baghdad early as we thought of visiting the holy city of Karbala also. The day being a Friday, we decided to visit Karbala first. The city, best known as the location of the Battle of Karbala in 680 CE, or the Mosques of Imam Hussain and Abbas, is considered a holy city for Shi’ite Muslims in the same way as Mecca and Medina.

Karbala is a very ancient city, it was known since the Babylonian age, it was used as a Christian graveyard prior to the Islamic conquest, some say the date of the city comes from the cities of (Tassoh al-Nahrain) which lies on the river of Balakubass (Old Euphrates), and on its land there was an ancient temple.

The word Karbala’s origin is thought of as a two syllable Assyrian word, the first syllable is (Karb) meaning (sanctuary) and (ala) meaning (God), the two syllables form the word (God’s sanctuary), other historians believe the origin may be Persian formed from the word Karr meaning work and bala meaning higher, is one of the city’s names, perhaps the name (Karbala) is derived from the Arabic word (Kurba) meaning soft earth for Karbala has plain lands which made it easy for different kinds of planting, the word (Karbal) also means a kind of fruit , probably it was named after it.

Shrine of Imam Hussein, Karbala
Shrine of Imam Hussein, Karbala

Tens of millions of Shi’ite Muslims visit the site twice a year, rivalling Mecca as a place of pilgrimage. The martyrdom of Hussain bin Ali is commemorated annually by millions of Shi’ites.

Shrine of Abbas Alamdar, Karbala
Shrine of Abbas Alamdar, Karbala

Ziyarat Maqbool!

Holy city of Karbala to Ancient city of Babylon

We had our lunch at a restaurant in Karbala and then proceeded to Babylon. Before reaching the site, we were stopped by Army people. They questioned our driver and checked our passports and recorded the details. Then we reached the gate of the site on the highway. We were stopped again and our passports were taken. That guard called someone. A gentleman arrived in his car. They discussed something and we were asked to follow the car from the gate. We stopped in front of a replica of the famous Ishtar Gate. Two more people walked out. The passports were handed over to another person. We were told to pay IQD 25,000 ($21) each for the entry fees. The person recorded the passport details and then returned our passports. We felt relieved. We were the only three visitors in this scorching Iraqi summer afternoon and may be the scrutiny was tightened as they found some crazy people! Maybe our zeal to visit the heritage site intrigued them or it could be a normal security procedure.

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The other person was a guide. His name is Abu Zainab Maki. He took us inside through the gate and narrated the details with lots of history. Later, he told us that he is a History graduate and from discussions with him we found that he has a good knowledge of Mesopotamian history. It was nice talking to him. 

Guide
Our Guide Abu Zainab

The Ishtar Gate & The Processional Way

The Ishtar Gate is named so, because it was dedicated to Ishtar, the Babylonian goddess of love, fertility, and war, although Nebuchadnezzar pays homage to other Babylonian deities through various animal representations.

The front of the gate is adorned with glazed bricks with alternating rows of dragons and bulls. The beasts are furnished in yellow and brown tiles, while the bricks surrounding them are blue.

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Our driver Bilal standing in front of the replica of the Ishtar Gate at Babylon

The gate’s imposing effect was achieved not only by size but by bold color and fine craftsmanship: Its striking enamelled tiles bore reliefs of animals: lions, dragons, and bulls, arranged in tiers. Lions are often associated with Ishtar, bulls with Adad, and dragons with Marduk.

Mushussu
The Mushussu is a creature from ancient Mesopotamian mythology, which guards the Ishtar Gate of Babylon. A mythological hybrid, it’s a scaly dragon with hind legs resembling the talons of an eagle, feline fore legs, a long neck and tail, a horned neck, a snake-like tongue, and a crest. It’s a sacred animal of Marduk, patron deity of the city of Babylon and his son Nebu, the god of knowledge and wisdom during the Neo-Babylonian Empire. The Mushussu most famously appears on the famous Ishtar Gate of the city of Babylon, dating to the sixth century BCE. (National Museum of Iraq, Baghdad)
Lion of Babylon on Ishtar gate
The lion is from the Ishtar gate, the eighth gate to the inner city of Babylon, which was constructed in circa 575 BCE under the orders of Nebuchadnezzar II. Lions were one of the primary symbols of goddess Ishtar. (National Museum of Iraq, Baghdad)

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The gate and the Processional Way served mostly a religious purpose for the New Year procession, which marked the beginning of the agricultural year and featured religious festivals and rituals. The relief representations in the walls are lions were the symbol of the goddess Ishtar, the goddess of love and war. Other ancient Babylonian gods that appear in the bricks are Adud and Marduk, illustrated in the Bull and the Dragon, respectively.

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The street is long and is divided into three parts. The first and the third parts are surrounded by fences to prevent people from entering. The original tiles are still in situ! Our guide had the keys and he opened the locks for us to go inside the fenced area. He said that he loves Indians!

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The Processional Way

In ancient Babylon, the new year started with the spring equinox and marked the beginning of the agricultural season. The Gate of Ishtar and the Processional Way were built around 675 BCE and was commissioned by King Nebuchadnezzar II. The Processional Way was used for the New Year’s celebration, through which statues of the deities would parade down and the path paved with red and yellow stones. Each one of these stones has an inscription underneath: a small prayer from King Nebuchadnezzar to the chief god Marduk. It was this processional way that led to the temple of Marduk.

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Ishtar Gate, in a depression a little short way off the Street of Processions, still has some of its old wall decorations of bulls, symbol of Adad, god of storms, and dragons, symbol of Marduk, the chief god. The dragon here is a composite animal with the physical attributes of snake, lion and eagle. These brick relieves are not glazed, as the beautiful glazed-brick panels figuring bulls, and dragons and lions (symbol of Ishtar) which decorated the Gate, the Palace and the Street of Processions were all taken, prior to World War I, to Berlin by the German expedition which excavated Babylon then.

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Nebuchadnezzar II commissioned the construction of the gate in the late 6th century BCE as a symbol of his personal power and the power of the Babylonian empire, and the Processional Way is a tribute to the omnipotence of the gods to whom everything was subject.

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The Babylonian king installed a plaque on the gate explaining its purpose and design: “I placed wild bulls and ferocious dragons in the gateways and thus adorned them with luxurious splendour so that people might gaze on them in wonder.”

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Among the well-preserved status of the bricks during the initial excavation is perhaps the most valuable artefact, which are the brick fragments with inscriptions containing statements from Nebuchadnezzar II. The inscription provides the reason for the construction of such a magnificent gate and other works, which in his own words is so “Mankind might gaze upon them in wonder”.

Cuneiform script - dedication plaque

Ishtar Gate and Processional way
A representative diagram of the Ishtar Gate and the Processional way at Pergamon Museum, Berlin

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Ishtar

The Processional Way and Ishtar Gate of the ancient city of Babylon functioned to glorify the city of Babylon and exemplified the inordinate cultural advancements under King Nebuchadnezzar II, and was directly commission as a means to make the city one of the wonders of the ancient world.

The Ninmakh Temple

Ninmakh temple board

At the right side of the Processional Way lies the Ninmakh temple. Ninmakh was the mother goddess in ancient Mesopotamia. The temple was built by Nebuchadnezzar II circa 575 BCE. It is situated east of the Ishtar Gate, and was called e-mah (great temple) of the mother goddess Ninmakh. Ninmakh means the Great Lady.

Ninmakh temple

The central courtyard of the temple, characterised with the presence of the holy well. The inner santum of the temple of Ninmakh was restricted for women only, who would gather in the sacred precint of the temple and pray for good marriages and married women would pray for offspring among other worship rituals. The women also used the water from this well for ritual bathing and for purification. It was one of the several sacred wells located in the sacred precincts around the city.

Ninmakh temple interior

The walls elsewhere were made of square stones but the temple walls were built with burnt mud bricks because the temple is for the god or goddess and thus had to be purified.

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temple interior

The Lion of Babylon

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This stone sculpture, made out of black basalt stone depicting a lion standing above a laying man, was built by the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar II.

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In the sculpture, the lion’s back has marks indicating that it was meant for a precious saddle upon which the goddess Ishtar would stand.

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The Lion of Babylon is a historic theme in the region. The statue is considered among the most important symbols of Babylon in particular and Mesopotamian art in general.

Palaces of Nebuchadnezzar II

The southern palace was 1,065 feet (325 m) by 720 feet (220 m) in size. It included a throne room with a glazed brick panel showing palmettes, floral reliefs and lions. The throne and room tiles are now on display at the Berlin museum.

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The entry hall into the palace was acoustically constructed with walls at such a distance that sound echoes. This was done to alert the guards of intruders into the palace. Further claps were used to alert the guards. That’s an amazing architectural masterpiece at that time.

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The king also had a northern palace (which hasn’t been fully excavated) and a summer palace, on the northern tip of the outer wall.

Ruins of the Northern Palace of King Nebuchadnezzar II
Ruins of the Northern Palace of King Nebuchadnezzar II
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The wall of the palace

Palace wall

The palace was also protected by a maze to confuse the enemies intruding the palace while the palace guards could watch them and kill them from the top of the walls.

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Inside the maze
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The maze or labyrith

On the other side of the highway outside the entry gate to the Babylon site, is the Marduk temple. We were told that there is nothing there and due to hot sun, we also didn’t go inside and returned home. It was seeming that our faces were burning inside the skin. If possible, we may visit again on some cooler days.

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Neglect & Restoration

It’s pathetic to see how such a heritage site has been destroyed over the period. German archaeologists excavated the remains of the gate in the early twentieth century and reconstructed it in Berlin’s Pergamon Museum using original bricks. The Iraqi government has put up a replica of the gate. Other artefacts are now on display in the Pergamon Museum. There are several museums in the world that have received portions of the Ishtar Gate: the Istanbul Archaeology Museum, the Detroit Institute of Art, the Royal Ontario Museum, the Louvre, Munich’s State Museum of Egyptian Art, New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Oriental Institute of Chicago, and many others.

In the early 1980s, former Iraqi leader Saddam razed a large part of the ancient city in order to build a replica on top of some of the original ruins. After the Gulf War, he also built an extravagant modern palace for himself on another part of the ruins, overlooking the main site.

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A modern place built by Saddam Hussein looms over the ancient ruins of the northern palace in Babylon

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Saddam Palace

According to a UN report, American troops and contractors caused substantial damage to the archaeological site at Babylon in Iraq after the 2003 invasion. The report says key structures were harmed and the site was subjected to “digging, cutting and levelling”.

Announcing its decision, Unesco said: “Seat of successive empires, under rulers such as Hammurabi and Nebuchadnezzar, Babylon represents the expression of the creativity of the Neo-Babylonian Empire at its height. The city’s association with one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World – the Hanging Gardens – has also inspired artistic, popular and religious culture on a global scale.” It also warns that the site is in an “extremely vulnerable condition” and in need of urgent conservation.

A Thought

There is a need to bring back the artefacts from the museums in the West to the original historical sites and recreate them in their original splendour to reconstruct the history. Will that be ever possible?

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