ishtar gate 88.
(photo credit: )
Shortly after Nebuchadnezzar II destroyed the Temple of Jerusalem in 586 BCE. he built the Ishtar Gate in Babylon. To him Jerusalem was a side show, take it or leave it, but the Ishtar gate was fundamental to his well-being and that of his people. It was the gate whereby the king and Marduk, the god of Babylon, would enter the city each year to inaugurate the New Year on the first of Nisanu (the Hebrew Nisan). It could only be done when the king and the god were both in the city, but it was the founding ceremony that would ensure the continuation of the Empire in good order for another year.
The New Year started in the spring, the time of renewal in nature. It should be recalled that this was the situation even in Europe before the late Renaissance. In England, until 1712, the New Year started on the spring equinox, which was calculated to be March 26th. In France it started at Easter until 1556, and in Germany it was only in 1776 that January 1st was declared to be the New Year.
IN ANCIENT Babylon, the New Year festivities lasted for 10 or 11 days and there was a rather curious ceremony for each day. We do not know exactly what happened on the first day and the last days, but the royal inscriptions have preserved the rituals in between. On the second and third day, the high priest had to rise two hours before dawn, wash in river water and pray to Marduk to show mercy on Babylon and its people. The high priest was alone in the sanctuary, it was a secret prayer, and only after that could the other priests come in to wash and feed the god, and sing him prayers and hymns.
On the fourth day the ritual started even earlier, while it was still night, and the high priest recited the Creation Epic in full. It tells how the super-god Apsu started it all on his own, and after him came the female and male gods Tiamit-Mummu, Anu and Ea. Soon Apsu is killed, Tiamit is raped and the god-child Marduk is born to Ea and his consort Damkina. In revenge Tiamat creates monsters until eventually Marduk kills her after a party in which they all got drunk. Marduk than splits Tiamat into heaven and earth, creates the sun, moon and stars, plants and animals, and finally makes Man from the blood of the lover of Tiamat and, at the end of a busy day, he builds the ziggurat of Babylon.
On the fifth day the king was led into the temple and left alone in front of the statue of Marduk. The high priest entered and took away the king's regalia and offered them to Marduk. He went up to the king, slapped his face and pulled his ears and forced him to kneel down and say a prayer of repentance. Finally the king was given absolution but again he was slapped and had his ears pulled until he shed tears, and only then was Marduk appeased enough to renew his kingship.
On the sixth day onwards the statues of Nabu, son of Marduk, and other minor gods were brought by boat from the holy city of Borsippa to Babylon, where they ended up in the temple of Marduk. All the minor gods then conferred about the destiny of the people throughout the last days of the festival.
Finally, the king took the hand of Marduk, asked the statue to rise, and they and the other gods were carried along the processional way into the city at the Ishtar Gate. This was the high point, the resolution of the ritual, and the next day the gods all returned in procession, Marduk going to his temple and the other gods to theirs.
ONCE ALL this was completed, the New Year could commence! The culmination of this ritual took place at the Ishtar Gate, the northern gate into the city. Ishtar was the goddess of the moon, and of love and war. Not the consort of Marduk, the chief god and founder of Babylon, she was the chief goddess of the whole country of Babylonia and not just its capital. It is curious that the two deities mainly celebrated in this New Year ritual, Marduk and Ishtar, gave their names to the hero and heroine of the Purim story, to Mordechai and Esther.
Really not so curious as the Jews in Exile in Babylon, from the year 597 BCE onwards, must have been greatly influenced by their environment. This is clearly shown by the fact that we have adopted the names of our months from theirs, Nisannu, Aiaru, Simanu, and so on, and also our square Hebrew script, called the ketav Ashurith, which took over from the Paleo-Hebrew (ketav Ivrit) script that was used before the Exile.
The story of Esther and Mordechai also reflects the New Year festival of the Babylonians, which their conquerors the Persians took over from them. The Persians marched into Babylon in 539 BCE without a fight, as the local priests were at loggerheads with their rulers and welcomed the Persians, under Cyrus II, into the city. That meant the Ishtar gate was not destroyed by fighting but remained as a symbol of hope to the Jews whom Cyrus encouraged to return to Israel and rebuild the Temple.
THE NEW YEAR festival continued under the Persians and we see that it was practiced in Shushan, in Susa, where Haman was appointed to be chief minister under Xerxes in 474 BCE.
The first minister was appointed by lot to serve for one year, which should start on the first of Nisannu. Although they cast the lot on the first of Nisan (Nisannu), Haman was not appointed until the 12th, and the scribes could not be called in to record it until the 13th (Esther 3:12). Why the delay? Clearly it was the celebration of the New Year festival that postponed the matter for 11 days.
After its defeat by the Persians, the city of Babylon fell into decline. The Persians did not use it as their capital, which they moved to Persepolis, and the administrative capital went to Susa. And when the Persians were defeated by Alexander the Great, his attempt to return the capital of his eastern empire to Babylon failed.
Gradually Babylon sank further and further into decline until even its great ziggurat, called Etemenanki ("the foundation of heaven and earth"), the model for the Tower of Babel, had been robbed of its excellent fired bricks, its interior left to erode unprotected until it was just a dump in the ground, with only its foundations visible in a lake of polluted water.
AND THE magnificent Ishtar gate, covered in colored tiles of lions, bulls and dragons, was blown over with sand into a wind-swept hillock. That was until it was rescued by a German team, working from 1899 to 1917, who dug it all out of the sand and sent the remains to Berlin, where it now stands colorfully reconstructed in the Pergamon Museum. In Babylon, none of its splendor remains.
And what remains of the Jews who were there?
Many returned to rebuild the Temple in Jerusalem 50 years after its destruction, but it was destroyed again less than 600 years later, and now only the outer Western Wall remains. But in Babylon the Jews had absorbed the 10-day New Year festival, which they must have witnessed repeatedly, and which to them would have been a sign to reject foreign gods and to hope for the return to Zion, through the Ishtar gate.
Cyrus, victor of Babylon, gave them the opportunity. They brought back with them remembrance of the 10-day festival and applied it to their own New Year, starting on the first of Tishrei, and linked it with the fast of Yom Kippur on the 10th, to make that period the Ten Days of Teshuva (Repentance), which are still with us today.
The writer is a fellow of the Albright Institute of Archaeological Research, Jerusalem.
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