Monday, June 17, 2019

Babylon’s Ishtar Gate: Tangible History

Archeology is an enjoyable companion to History. In addition to reading accounts of what happened in the past, the student can see physical objects which were part of those events. This makes History palpable.

Many texts tell of the Babylonian Exile, during which time many Israelites were taken prisoner, and transported from the area around Jerusalem to Babylon, where they became slaves. This happened roughly between 609 B.C., when the first groups of captives left the Jerusalem area, and 538 B.C., when the captives started leaving Babylon to return to their homeland.

Today, students can see the gates which were part of the wall which surrounded the city of Babylon at the time of the Babylonian Captivity. They are located in a museum in Berlin, as historians Joachim Marzahn and Klaudia Englund write:

Today the most famous buildings of Babylon are the Processional Way and the Ishtar Gate. They were situated at the northern limits of the old city, where access had been confined by the outer walls of the palaces. The road was thus bordered on both sides by walls and town planners were afforded the opportunity to decorate the course of the street with a frieze of glazed bricks. The choice of decoration was determined by the New Year's Festival. On the eleventh day of the festival the procession of gods followed the street on its way from the outer festival house to the temples in the center of Babylon. Building inscriptions of Nebuchadnezzar II point explicitly to this fact. The visitor to Babylon saw two rows of striding lions - symbols of the goddess Ishtar - before he arrived at the gate. In a stretch of ca. 180 m were once 120 lions, 60 on each side.

The Ishtar gate was built approximately between 605 B.C. and 562 B.C., meaning that the Isrealites were present in the city at the time of construction. Some of the Israelites may have assembled the gates; certainly, they saw it.

The walled street canyon was 20 m wide and 250 m long. This enclosed part of the Processional Way was, however, shorter than its continuation to the corner of the Etemenanki sanctuary, where it turned off and ended at the bridge over the Euphrates. Destination and high point of the outer part of the city was the Ishtar Gate. Integrated into the procession course, it had been furnished with colored reliefs, here covering the complete outer wall. Erected in three building stages, the uppermost level displayed colored representations of dragons and bulls, the symbols of the gods Marduk and Adad. In the Vorderasiatisches Museum, only parts of this installation have been reconstructed: about 30 m of street walls 8 m apart, as well as the smaller city gate with its two flanking towers. From countless fragments, the animals of the relief have here been pieced together with some parts of the walls, showing that the reconstruction largely matches the original.

To stand in Berlin and see the Ishtar gates is to see the same physical objects which Ezra and Nehemiah, and many others, saw more than 2,000 years ago. Such tangible history complements the primary texts which are the foundation of History.