Searching for Meaning in Mesopotamian Architecture

By Oriana Nanoa

The Ishtar Gate once stood in Babylon in ancient Mesopotamia, now modern-day Iraq. The Gate and walls commanded the entrance to the inner ancient city and was commissioned by Nebuchadnezzar II, who reigned between 650 BCE-562 BCE. For ancient city builders like Nebuchadnezzar, architecture was the medium through which to advance the protection of the city and royalty.   

The Ishtar Gate was more than 38 feet high and was decorated with alternating rows of glazed bricks depicting striding bulls and ‘mušhuššu’ dragons. Statues of lions – with mouths agape and fangs visible – lined the walls of the processional way. They were made of moulded, coloured bricks and were silhouetted against a light or dark blue background. For devotees moving forward in procession through the gateway, the lion-lined walls must have invoked a sense of power and protection, as the king intended.

The excavation of the Ishtar Gate in Babylon, 1914. Photo: Robert Koldewey

As the name suggests, the Ishtar Gate was dedicated to Ishtar, the goddess of fertility, love, war, and sex. In textual and iconographic accounts, she is often portrayed on a chariot drawn by lions with a bow in hand. The notion of fierceness and strength was well depicted on the Ishtar Gate through the symbolism of the lion. It also invoked great prestige. Royal Ontario Museum curator Clemens Reichel examined a lion from Nebuchadnezzar II’s throne room in a video which is now in the Toronto museum and noted that, “The lion in its power, in its stateliness, in its own royalty, is a very, very important figure for the ancient Near East.” I’ve had the privilege of witnessing the lion panel at the Royal Ontario Museum. These artworks embody a spiritual essence and an otherworldly nature that makes them special treasures to be preserved for generations. 

The bull and the dragon depicted on the gateway are also commonly associated with specific deities. However, according to a study published by the Cambridge University Press, the symbolic animals on the Ishtar Gate appear unaccompanied by their respective divine figures. In her study on the Symbolic Role of Animals in Babylon, Chikako Watanabe seeks to highlight the symbolic role of these animals as suggested by their place in an architectural context of gateways. According to Watanabe, the animals were carefully selected by the builder to ward off evil and bad luck. Watanabe notes, “The statues were thus believed to permit beneficial things to enter the internal space of the city or the building, but to repel things that could be harmful.”

A mušhuššu dragon on the Ishtar Gate which has been reconstructed inside the Pergamon Museum. Photo: Allie Caulfield

Babylonians held a deep awareness of their history and lineage. In addition to the construction of ornamental gateways, ziggurats were a significant architectural feature of settlements in Mesopotamia; built in the ancient Mesopotamian valley and western Iranian plateau.

Made from mud-brick, ziggurats took the shape of a terraced step pyramid with receding stories or levels. The facings were often glazed in different colours and may have had astrological significance. The façade of Ishtar Gate was also glazed in a royal blue to represent the semi-precious stone lapis lazuli. The Gate and ziggurats must have glistened in the bright desert sun, appearing jewel-like.

An ancient ziggurat near the Ali Air Base in modern-day Iraq, 2005.

Ziggurat temples were dedicated to serving ancient gods and goddesses’ role within the Mesopotamian pantheon. Ziggurats were significant because they served as an administrative centre for the city, built to honour the main god of the city. The ziggurat at Babylon was named Etemenank, dedicated to Marduk, the patron deity of Babylon. This meant “Foundation of heaven and Earth” in Sumerian.

It is fascinating to analyze the ancients and their perception of the universe, and how that was exemplified in structures. The ancient perception of reality was evident in the expression of symbolism in architecture and its extensive cultural impact. In the earliest settlements in Mesopotamia, ancient city builders evoked meaning in design through the application of archetype and symbols. Architecture is the language of a city, and for the ancients they achieved and cultivated a transcendental quality in their built environment.