A Wonder to Behold: Craftsmanship and the Creation of Babylon's Ishtar Gate
With the filling of Babylon’s street, both of the city walls’ entrances (at the Ishtar Gate) became increasingly low. I cleared away those gates; I laid their foundation opposite the water with bitumen and baked bricks, and I had them artfully made with shining lapis lazuli baked bricks on which wild bulls and muḫuu-dragons were created. Mighty cedars I spread for their roofing. I installed door leaves of cedar wood carved in bronze (and) thresholds and door jams made of copper into its gates. Fierce wild bulls of copper and raging muḫuu-dragons I set in their thresholds. I filled those gates with splendor for the wonder of all people.
—Nebuchadnezzar II, king of Babylon (r.604–562 BCE) 1
On ViewInstitute Of The Study Of The Ancient World, New York University
November 6, 2019 – May 24, 2020
A Wonder to Behold: Craftsmanship and the Creation of Babylon’s Ishtar Gate, brings to life the genesis and reconstruction of one of the world’s nearly lost monuments, now housed in Berlin. The Pergamon Museum’s wondrous Ishtar Gate and Processional Way, salvaged from 20-meter-high mounds of rubble of Babylon, presented perhaps the most challenging jigsaw puzzle ever created. A crate of fragments in the ISAW exhibition’s lobby represents one of the nearly 800 boxes transported to Berlin in two shipments in 1903 and 1927 for desalination in large tanks, and reassembly bit by bit and brick by brick. Fired mud brick was often regarded as a poor cousin compared to the ancient splendors of marble, alabaster, and porphyry. A Wonder to Behold restores mud to its important central place in Babylonian creation myths, as the mound rising from the primordial waters, and the stuff from which the first humans were molded. Nebuchadnezzar II as a Deus faber (divine craftsman) was imagined to have craftspeople in his employ who possessed divine skill and knowledge, and whose practices were steeped in theurgy and alchemy. The Ishtar Gate was created in the service of the gods for the divine protection of the city, manifested divine powers on earth as the entry point of the gods into the city, and formed Babylon’s political and religious center. It represented the culmination of centuries of religious thought, technological advances, and artistic achievement.
As someone who has visited the Pergamon Museum’s Ishtar Gate and Processional Way in Berlin for five decades, the ISAW exhibition was an eye opener, and should be flown to Berlin and installed in proximity to the Gate. The tiered glazed bricks with their turrets and creatures were part of much larger endeavors than could be imagined. Even the striding lion panel borrowed from the Metropolitan Museum, which matches those in Berlin, takes on a new freshness at the ISAW. The exhibition and the catalog bring together a remarkable collection of scholarship and objects that amplify the origin and meaning of the materials and the history of the molded bricks and the mechanics, which made the four-tiered construction possible. A catalog essay by the scholar May-Sarah Zeßin describes the fitters’ marks on the bricks, which allowed the ancient craftspeople to match the bricks as the walls were assembled unglazed, taken apart, and then reassembled after a second firing for the glazes. These same fitters’ marks aided workers in the modern reconstruction of the monument. At the ISAW, we see bricks with the fitters’ marks as well as several watercolor illustrations of the bricks with the markings from 1901 by Walter Andrae. This was an age before color photography, when archeologists relied on watercolors and sketches.
Another essay by Jean-François de Lapérouse describes every aspect of the brick composition, from how they were made to the significance of details such as Nebuchadnezzar II cuneiform inscriptions stamped into the back of the bricks. At the ISAW bricks bearing Nebuchadnezzar II stamps are some of the most interesting objects in the exhibition. De Lapérouse, a conservator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, also recreated a mold and bricks using ancient techniques for the exhibition. A simple Egyptian wooden brick mold, illustrating the process, sits in one of the vitrines.
The exhibition contains roughly 150 objects, borrowed from collections all over the world. Perhaps the most charming is a mud brick found in a drawer at the Staatliche Museen by the curator Clare Fitzgerald bearing a dog’s paw print, preserved for eternity. What makes this exhibition so memorable is the way common materials such as glass and other vitreous materials are restored to their role in the creation of this resplendent wonder of the ancient world. Eduardo A. Escobar’s catalog essay, “Glassmaking as a Scribal Craft,” discusses the Neo-Assyrian glass-making recipes not simply as technical instructions, but as literary constructions that invoked purifying deities, giving us a window into scribal hermeneutics. Another catalog contribution by Shiyaanthi Thavapalan, “Color and Affect in Nebuchadnezzar II’s Babylon,” describes how the colored glazes brought the figures in relief to life, gleaming under the burning sun.
The movement between the fragments and materials as microcosms, and the Ishtar Gate and Processional Way as a macrocosm make this exhibition thought provoking. A small female figurine with a matching mold, helps us to understand the molds used to create the multiples of larger figures like the lions on the Processional Way. Not unlike the necklace of glass beads in a vitrine, the curators string together the history of this monument using a collection of small objects, illustrating how attitudes to materials differed in the Babylonian world compared to today. The cosmic significance of the walls and gate is another point of contrast. The viewer comes away wishing our city’s central plans could be rooted in creation myths and that we too could be protected by lions and muḫuu-dragons as we process into the hearts of our cities. A meditation on the role of the Ishtar Gate and accompanying Processional Way makes the modern viewer long for a lost world of archetypal meaning, and rootedness in the cosmos as a philosophical and spiritual construct. Once again, the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World has created an exhibition that connects the ancient world with our concerns about our place on the timeline, and teaches us what we can learn from the ancients.
- Modified translation of the text known as the East India House Inscription. Langdon 1912, 120-41