Postern of Fate: Exploring the Mysteries of the Ishtar Gate

Stone carving of soldiers and horses

In 575 BCE, the King of Babylon, Nebuchadnezzar II, built a great gate to increase the beauty of the capital city of his empire. His builders constructed a great gate dedicated to many gods, but the magnificent edifice honored one goddess above all of them. The Ishtar Gate is named after her, and her wondrous portal opens a way to an ancient mystery.

A Beauty in Blue and Gold

Although you cannot deny that modern entryways, like gates made of wrought iron or textured wood, can be beautiful, they pale in comparison to Ishtar’s. The ancient Babylonians used bricks they glazed in blue and yellow to decorate the enormous gate. The builders piled thousands upon thousands of these bricks to create the gates. They stand almost 40 feet high and were the culminating point of a processional avenue more than half a mile long and surrounded by walls 50 feet tall on either side.

Some scholars believe that they used lapis lazuli to make the iridescent blue enamel that covers the majority of the wall, but there is some debate. The yellow bricks have a distinct golden sheen, and artists used them to create images of different animals on the gates.

The three animals present on the gate represented three major gods of Babylon. Ishtar was the goddess of love, but also brutal warfare and sexual relations, and so the sculptors depicted her as a lion. Adad was lord of the weather and his sacred animal was the auroch, an extinct species of bull. It is the final creature that has caused much speculation among scholars.

vintage looking gate

The Mystery of the Sirrush

Lions may be rare in Iraq today, and the auroch is now extinct, but these creatures were real. But the god Marduk, chief of the Babylonian deities, is on the gate in the form of a creature that science assumes is mythical: a dragon or sirrush. The creature as shown on the gate had a horned reptilian head, a scaly body, the forelegs of a lion, and the clawed hind legs of a bird of prey.

Some scholars argue that the presence of the sirrush among the bulls and lions was quite jarring, unless the creatures actually lived during the time of Nebuchadnezzar. According to the man who discovered the Ishtar Gate, Robert Koldewey, the Babylonians depicted the sirrush consistently over hundreds of years, as other fantastic creatures slowly changed. To him, this was proof that the sirrush was an actual animal that existed in Babylon.

But what sort of creature could possess all the parts that the stone dragon on the Ishtar Gate has? Koldewey believed that the sirrush was a dinosaur that had survived the extinction events. Koldewey also said that the iguanadon was the closest visual match to the dragon.

Was the sirrush real? Did the Babylonians have a dragon that inspired the creature on the gate? Time has devoured the answers to these questions. Only the Ishtar Gate remains, and she keeps her secrets guarded by lions, bulls, and dragons, as she has for millennia.