A Wonder to Behold: Craftsmanship and the Creation of Babylon's Ishtar Gate

On the banks of the Euphrates River, sixty miles from Baghdad in modern-day Iraq, lies the ancient city of Babylon. At its height, Babylon was the cosmopolitan center of a vast ancient Middle Eastern empire. The city was carefully built and richly decorated to emphasize its political and religious importance.

I filled those gates with splendor for the wonder of all people.
—Nebuchadnezzar II, king of Babylon

One of the city's most spectacular monuments was the Ishtar Gate and its affiliated Processional Way—a double gate and long causeway featuring hundreds of colorful, life-size beasts. Linked to the gods, these creatures provided a divinely protected and ritualized entryway into the inner city of Babylon. Each sacred creature was made of dozens of individually molded, baked, and glazed bricks, meticulously conceived and assembled. The construction of this gateway represents the culmination of centuries of technological developments, the expert manipulation of potent materials, and the use of long-established religious imagery.

While we frequently associate great monuments with the rulers who commissioned them—in this case, Nebuchadnezzar II (r. 604–562 BCE), the king of Babylon—these projects required the collaboration of many scholars, architects, craftspeople, and workers. In the ancient Middle East, the people responsible for building the Ishtar Gate were more than skilled technicians; they were, along with religious specialists, among those members of society who had knowledge of, and access to, the primordial past. Although the names, working conditions, and social status of ancient Middle Eastern architects, craftspeople, and workers are largely unknown to us, their legacy is evident in the works that continue to inspire awe today.

The meaning of materials and the role of craftsmanship differ among cultures. Our modern understanding of the relative value of materials tends to privilege stone over glass and clay. In the ancient Middle East, however, materials derived value from their mythological associations, aesthetic qualities, and behavior in the hands of craftspeople. Fashioning already potent materials into magically activated objects, ancient Middle Eastern craft specialists connected the divine and human worlds.

Beginning in the brickyards of Babylon, the transformation of ubiquitous clay into a glittering gateway was a complex decades-long endeavor requiring innovative design, the management of a large shifting workforce, and the coordination of hundreds of people from across the empire. By looking again at the materials, processes, and people who created the Ishtar Gate, we can see this icon anew.

A Wonder to Behold: Craftsmanship and the Creation of Babylon's Ishtar Gate is made possible by generous support from the Selz Foundation, The Achelis and Bodman Foundation, and the Leon Levy Foundation. Additional funding provided by the Dennis and Diane Bennett Charitable Trust, Elizabeth Bartman, and Karen S. Rubinson.