Neo-Babylonian art

The year 612 BCE Nineveh was destroyed by the allied armies of Babylonians, Medes and Scythians. This opened a new period called “Neo-Babylonian” since the capital was the old city of Hammurabi, destroyed years before by the Assyrian king Sennacherib. For 88 years until the fire and ultimate destruction of Babylon by the Persians of Cyrus, six kings succeeded on the Babylonian throne. The first two, Nabopolassar and Nebuchadnezzar, erected a new Babylon, a magnificent and splendid metropolis, in the same place that it had been ravaged by Sennacherib’s destructive rage.

This new Babylon was surrounded by a wall formed by two parallel brick walls of more than seven feet wide, and the forty-foot space between them had been filled with soil throughout its full height. Towers located at every  50 meters reinforced this enclosure. There must have been about 350 towers which constituted the greatest work of fortification ever seen.

Reconstruction of Babylon’s processional avenue and the Ishtar Gate (Pergamon Museum, Berlin).

All these figures give an idea of ​​the big city guarded by the wall. The three most important buildings in this new Babylon were: a palace next to a door, an avenue, and a sacred tower or ziggurat.

Aerial view of the ruins of the citadel and royal palace of Babylon.

The palace was a real city that Nebuchadnezzar never ceased to magnify until the end of his reign. The main facade overlooked the processional avenue; then a lobby opened communicating immediately with the first of three large courtyards of the palace. Great monumental gates entwined together the three courtyards, the last of which came to be a prelude to the throne room. This was the largest room of the giant building and measured 52 meters long by 17 meters wide. Its walls were 6 meters wide which suggests that they sustained a vault. The third courtyard was used for ceremonies as suggested by its rich wall decoration with glazed ceramic that covered the four walls like a permanent and wonderful tapestry of green and blue drawings. One of the angles of the palace was against the famous Ishtar Gate, now rebuilt in the Berlin Museum, where the processional avenue began. Some strange domed buildings built in stone were found as well as a well with signs of having had a water lifting machine similar to a treadmill. It has been said that these domed buildings located at the corner closest to the Ishtar Gate were the support base of the admired “Hanging Gardens of Babylon”.

Ruins of the royal palace of Babylon as seen today during the reconstruction work.
An idealized depiction of the hanging gardens of Babylon.

The processional avenue that crossed Babylon all along until reaching the great ziggurat began at the Ishtar Gate, a huge fortification with walls 12 meters high flanked by square towers and completely covered by glazed bricks molded with the figure of sacred animals. At the start of the avenue, outside the door, the walls were decorated with figures of 120 lions each over two meters long with open jaws, they were made in white, red and yellow colors. Over the door frame of the Ishtar Gate bulls and dragons were highlighted in the same colors over the dark blue walls of the background.


Reconstruction of the Ishtar Gate at the Pergamon Museum, Berlin.
Lion in enameled brick (Louvre, ca. IV century BCE), one of the 120 that adorned the beginning of the processional avenue that, crossing along Babylon, began in the Ishtar Gate and ended at the great ziggurat. Each lion is more than two meters long.
Sacred bull from the Ishtar Gate, relief in polychromed clay (Museum of Babylon, Iraq), ca. IV century BCE.

Finally, we must examine the ziggurat of Babylon, or Tower of Babel, called in Neo-Babylonian inscriptions E-temen-an-ki (“house of the foundations of heaven and earth”). It was a staggered seven-story tower topped by a temple located on its top at 90 meters height. This giant construction dominated all the cityscape. The height of the first floor was 33 meters. When Babylon was conquered by Cyrus in 539 BCE the Persian king respected this construction fascinated by its colossal proportions.

Reconstruction of the ziggurat of Babylon called E-temen-an-ki (VII century BCE).