Thursday, March 10, 2016

Finding Babylon and Its Ishtar Gates

Like Schliemann’s vision of Troy, archeologists considered Babylon to be as much myth and legend as physical reality. Attestations occur mainly in the Hebrew Tanakh. Classical sources include Herodotus, but his data is not very helpful.

Some scholars in the mid nineteenth century began to doubt the existence of numerous ancient locations. Troy and Babylon were among them.

Even among those who did not deny the existence of these cities, some argued either than these sites couldn’t be nearly as grand as the textual sources reported, or that there would be little to nothing left of them after more than twenty or thirty centuries.

The rise of archeology at that time was in part a response to that skepticism. Thankfully, many archeologists were more cautious and rigorous than the flamboyant Schliemann, who nonetheless served a useful role by drawing attention and support to such enterprises.

Today in the city of Berlin one can see the amazing gates of ancient Babylon. These structures feature a glaze on the surface of their tiles. Historians Joachim Marzahn and Klaudia Englund write:

The exploration of Babylon began relatively late in time, probably because the remains of the city were by no means imposing. Mere heaps of debris and mounds of sand, only one of which still bore the name “Babil”, gave account of the location and size of the town. The remnants of colored glazed bricks suggesting that splendid buildings must have existed in the city, however, facilitated the decision to begin exploration there. What the excavators, digging on behalf of the Berlin Museums and the German Oriental Society, unearthed during 18 years of continuous work from 1899 to 1917, elevated Babylon to the first rank of important cities of Antiquity.

The famous Ishtar Gates, which formed the ceremonial entryway in Babylon, use primarily blue and gold in their composition, and are decorated primarily with images of lions. King Nebuchadnezzar ordered them to be built around the year 575 BC.

These gates would have been standing, then, when the Israelite captives entered the city between around 597 BC and 581 BC.

The excavations of Babylon and Troy showed the reliability of ancient textual sources.