Mr. Jones: Babylon, the Hanging Gardens, the ziggurats and the Nebuchadnezzars have always interested me.
Babylon was first excavated between 1899 and 1917 by a German team under Robert Koldewey. Koldewey was a superb excavator, one of the first excavators to learn to excavate the mud brick walls of which classical Babylon was built, and in massive well-funded excavating seasons he uncovered much of the centre of Babylon in its greatest period in the 6th century BC. Many of the glazed bricks with their distinctive blue colouring were taken back to Berlin where the Ishtar Gate* and Processional Way were reconstructed to form the prize exhibit of the great Berlin Museum.
Ishtartor, Berlin Pergamon Museum (Tor: gate, door in German - Hartmann352)
reativemarket.com ( a fragment of the Ishtar Gate)
The task of popularisation was undertaken by Koldewey's senior, Friedrich Delitzsch, the great cuneiform expert who laid the foundations for the writing of cuneiform grammars and cuneiform dictionaries. From 1902 onwards Delitzsch gave a series of three high profile lectures on the theme of Babel und Bibel
aimed at demonstrating the relevance of the Deutsche Orient-Gesellschaft’s work to Germany and showing the similarities between Babylonian literature and the Bible.
In several academic articles, between 1998-2018), Dr. Stephanie Dalley, honorary research fellow and part of the Oriental Institute at England’s Oxford University, has traced the influence of Mesopotamian culture in the Hebrew Old Testament, early Greek Epics like those by Homer, and the Arabian Nights.
In particular she has studied the transmission of the story of Gilgamesh** across the cultures of the Near and Middle East and shown its persistence to the Tale of Buluqiya
in the Arabian Nights
, examining the evidence for Gilgamesh and Enkidu in the tale, as well as contrasting Akkadian and later Arabic stories. She has also noted the appearance of the name Gilgamesh in the Book of Enoch
One of the seven wonders of the ancient world, the Hanging Gardens of Babylon
were not found despite extensive archaeological excavations.
Dalley has suggested, based on eighteen years of textual study, that the Garden was built not at Babylon under Nebuchadnezzar, but in Nineveh, the capital of the Assyrians, but by Sennarcherib, around 2700 years ago.
She deciphered Babylonian and Assyrian cuneiform, and reinterpreted later Greek and Roman texts, and determined that a crucial seventh century BC inscription had been mistranslated. While none of Nebuchadnezzar's inscriptions ever mentioned any gardens, Dalley found texts by Sennacherib about a palace he built and a garden alongside that he called a wonder for all people
The texts also described a water screw, pre-dating Archimedes
, using a new bronze-casting methodology that raised water all day, and related these to extensive aqueducts and canals that brought water from the hills eighty kilometers away.
Dr. Dalley traced the canal on satellite maps and then on foot to the ruins of the huge limestone stone aqueduct in the Valley of Jerwan, 30 kilometers north of Nineveh. Here, she read the following inscription:
“Sennacherib king of the world king of Assyria. Over a great distance I had a water course directed to the environs of Nineveh . . . over steep-sided valleys, I spanned an aqueduct of white limestone blocks. I made these waters flow over it.”
A bas-relief from Nineveh and now in the British Museum
depicts a palace and trees suspended on terraces, which Dalley used as further supporting evidence. Her research confirms the description of later Greek writers that the gardens were, in fact, terraces built up like an amphitheatre around a central pond. She compiled these conclusions into her book The Mystery of the Hanging Garden of Babylon: An Elusive World Wonder Traced
, published in 2013.
* The Ishtar Gate - The symbol of the lion, which is associated with Ishtar, lines the so-called “Processional Way” which leads up to the gate
, but is not found on the gate itself. Instead, the gate is covered with symbols of the god Marduk (the patron god of Babylon) and the god Adad (the storm god). The bull with blue horns and blue tails was associated with Adad. The dragon-like creature (with the head and body of a snake, the forelegs of a lion, and the hind legs of a bird of prey) were sacred to Marduk.
The Ishtar Gate (today in the Pergamon Museum in Berlin) was the most elaborate of the inner city gates constructed in Babylon in antiquity. The whole gate was covered in expensive lapis lazuli glazed bricks which would have rendered the façade with a jewel-like shine. Alternating rows of lion and cattle march in a relief procession across the gleaming blue surface of the gate.
During the excavations of Babylon, in the immediate vicinity of the Ishtar Gate, numerous fragments of bricks with remains of white-glazed cuneiform characters were found. The text was restored by comparison with another complete inscription on a lime stone block. It was a dedication by King Nebuchadnezzar II that explained the gate's construction and purpose:
"I, Nebuchadnezzar, King of Babylon, the faithful prince appointed by the will of Marduk, the highest of princely princes, beloved of Nabu, of prudent counsel, who has learned to embrace wisdom, who fathomed their divine being and reveres their majesty, the untiring governor, who always takes to heart the care of the cult of Esagila and Ezida and is constantly concerned with the well-being of Babylon and Borsippa, the wise, the humble, the caretaker of Esagila and Ezida, the firstborn son of Nabopolassar, the King of Babylon.
Both gate entrances of Imgur-Ellil and Nemetti-Ellil following the filling of the street from Babylon had become increasingly lower.
Therefore, I pulled down these gates and laid their foundations at the water table with asphalt and bricks and had them made of bricks with blue stone on which wonderful bulls and dragons were depicted.
I covered their roofs by laying majestic cedars length-wise over them. I hung doors of cedar adorned with bronze at all the gate openings.
I placed wild bulls and ferocious dragons in the gateways and thus adorned them with luxurious splendor so that people might gaze on them in wonder.
I let the temple of Esiskursiskur (the highest festival house of Marduk, the Lord of the Gods a place of joy and celebration for the major and minor gods) be built firm like a mountain in the precinct of Babylon of asphalt and fired bricks."
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. The blue enameled tiles are thought to be of lapis lazuli, but there is some debate to this conjecture. The gates measured more than 38 feet (11.5 m) high with a vast antechamber on the southern side.
The lion motif in the so-called “Processional Way” helps to indicate that Ishtar was supposed to be honored and celebrated, however. After all, during this Neo
-Babylonian period (which, after twelve centuries brought splendor back to Babylon during this period in the ancient Near East), it would make sense that Ishtar, the fertility goddess of rejuvenation, would be honored. During this time, Babylon itself was revived and rejuvenated. Additionally, A. R. George notes that “the ceremonial name of the Istar Gate reflects the character of Ishtar as a goddess of battle.
Through the gatehouse is the Processional Way, which is a brick-paved corridor over half a mile long with walls over 50 feet tall (15.2 m) on each side. The walls are adorned with over 120 sculptural lions, flowers, and enameled yellow tiles. 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 (rows of red stone on the outer layers and a yellow row in-between). 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***.
A model of the Ishtar Gate built in c. 575 BCE by Nebuchadnezzar II in Babylon, displayed at the Pergamon Museum in Berlin.
** Gilgamesh - is the name of a legendary warrior king, a figure based on the fifth king of the first dynasty of the Mesopotamian capital of Uruk, sometime between 2700–2500 BCE. Real or not, Gilgamesh was the hero of the first recorded epic adventure tale, told in the ancient world from Egypt to Turkey, from the Mediterranean coast to the Arabian desert for well over 2,000 years.
The earliest surviving documents referring to Gilgamesh are cuneiform tablets
found throughout Mesopotamia and made between 2100–1800 BCE. The tablets were written in Sumerian and describe events in Gilgamesh's life that were later woven into a narrative. Scholars believe that the Sumerian tales may have been copies of older (non-surviving) compositions from the court of the Ur III kings (21st century BCE), who claimed descent from Gilgamesh.
The earliest evidence of the stories as a narrative was likely composed by scribes at the cities of Larsa or Babylon. By the 12th century BCE, the epic of Gilgamesh was widespread throughout the Mediterranean region. Babylonian tradition says that the exorcist Si-leqi-unninni of Uruk was the author of the Gilgamesh poem called "He Who Saw the Deep," about 1200 BCE.
The 11th tablet of the Epic of Gilgamesh, in which Utnapishtim tells the story of the Great Flood. CM Dixon / Getty Images
In the most common form of the story, Gilgamesh is a prince, son of King Lugalbanda (or a renegade priest) and the goddess Ninsun (or Ninsumun).
Though he was a wild youth at the outset, during the epic tale Gilgamesh pursues a heroic quest for fame and immortality and becomes a man with an enormous capacity for friendship, endurance, and adventure. Along the way he also experiences great joy and sorrow, as well as strength and weakness.
The epic of Gilgamesh is not the only Mesopotamian epic about a half-human, half-god king. Fragments of epics have been found concerning several kings including Sargon of Agade
(ruled 2334 to 2279 BCE), Nebuchadnezzar I of Babylon (1125–1104 BCE), and Nabopolassar
of Babylon (626–605 BCE). However, Gilgamesh's is the earliest narrative poem recorded. Earlier, even, than Homer's epic Iliad and the Odyssey.
*** The Temple of Marduk - Several temples have been excavated at the site, the most notable being that of Marduk himself, called Esagila. First referred to in Old Babylonian texts, this lay about 1 km south of the royal palaces, beneath the highest of Babylon’s surviving mounds, a situation that has seriously hindered its archaeological investigation. There were a number of individual shrines in the main temple; the principal shrine, that of Marduk, lying to the west and entered through a monumental towered façade. Of its inner cella Nebuchadnezzar said in one of the inscriptions that he ‘covered its wall with sparkling gold’ and ‘caused it to shine like the sun’.
An impression of power radiated by this massive architecture. Heavily bastionned, built in clay, with its huge square towers and its crenellated terraces, the main body constituted the actual temple of Marduk, with an outbuilding attached to the temple.
The golden statue of Marduk, housed in the inner sanctum of his temple, was considered a vital aspect of the coronation of kings. A new king needed to 'take the hands of Marduk' to legitimize his rule, a practice which seems to have been initiated during the Kassite Period (1595-1155 BCE) when the Kassites made Babylon their capital after driving out the Hittites.
Some scholars maintain that the new king had to literally take the hands of the statue - and this seems to be corroborated by ancient texts on the subject - while others claim 'taking the hands of Marduk' was a symbolic statement referring to submitting to the guidance of the god. It seems likely, however, based on the ancient written evidence, that the statue needed to be present at the succession of a new ruler and that the newly coronated king needed to actually touch the statue's hands.
The importance of the statue is attested by the ancient work known as The Akitu Chronicle
which relates a time of civil war in which the Akitu Festival (New Year's celebration) could not be observed because the statue of Marduk had left the city. On New Year's day, it was customary for the people to carry the statue of Marduk through the city and out to a little house beyond the walls where he could relax and enjoy some different scenery.
During those times when the statue was carried off by hostile nations, the Akitu festival could not be observed because the patron god of the city was not present. Further, disaster was thought imminent when the god was not in the city as there was no one to stand between the people and the forces of chaos. This situation is depicted clearly in the document known as The Marduk Prophecy
(c. 713-612 BCE, though the story is probably older) which relates Marduk's 'travels' when his statue is stolen from the city during various eras. Scholar Marc van de Mieroop comments:
The Marduk Prophecy
The absence of the patron deity from his or her city caused great disruption in the cult [of that deity and city in general]. The absence of the divinity was not always metaphorical but often the result of the theft of the cult statue by raiding enemies. Divine statues were commonly carried off in wars by the victors in order to weaken the power of the defeated cities
. The consequences were so dire that the loss of the statue merited recording in the historiographic texts. When Marduk's statue was not present in Babylon, the New Year's festival, crucial to the entire cultic year, could not be celebrated.
relates how the Hittites
, Assyrians, and Elamites all captured Marduk's statue at one time or another and how it was finally returned to the city when King Nebuchadnezzar I (1125-1104 BCE) defeated the Elamites. The document is written as though Marduk himself chose to visit those foreign lands - except for Elam
- and how it was prophesied that a great Babylonian king would rise and bring the god back from the Elamites.
The Marduk Prophecy
was most likely written as a propaganda piece during the reign of Nebuchadnezzar I, although the only extant copy is a much later Assyrian copy. This work, as well as the Akitu Chronicle
and others, make clear how vital Marduk's presence in the city was to the people. Without their divine protector the people felt helpless, knowing that they and their city were left vulnerable to widespread and also personal attacks.
I first ran across Gilgamesh and became curious about him while Watching The Outer Limits episode "Demon with a Glass Hand" which first aired on October 17, 1964. That put the hook in me about Gilgamesh and his quest for immortality. And I was excited to later read about the Gilgamesh saga and Babylon's Ishtar Gate in college in outside reading. Archaeology, when executed superbly, is marvelous to read about. And it's interesting to note how the inhabitants of Babylon were so tied to the statue of Marduk. When I visualize the people of Babylon carrying the statue of Marduk in a procession I recall watching similar processions in Boston's North End on Catholic holy days.