Cyrus the Great and the Ishtar Gate

If I had to pick one grand architectural image to go with the Cyrus Cylinder, I think it would be the Ishtar Gate (though built by Nebuchadnezzar II, not Cyrus). Oddly enough, the best place to see the ruins from Babylon of a gate complex named for the Mesopotamian goddess of love and war is in Berlin, Germany. The Pergamon Museum has reconstructed (with some reproduction) a display of the impressive gate. Here’s a great, informative video: Ishtar Gate on YouTube

Babylon was not Cyrus’s first victory, but it was the most earth-shattering. October, 539 BC. Cyrus rode into Babylon as its new king, adding the greatest empire in the world, the Babylonian empire, to his increasing holdings. That moment has been remembered as one of liberation.

Without it, I’m not sure that we would have a Bible. The Jews who were in Babylon were a defeated people. Conquered by Nebuchadnezzar some fifty years earlier, they had lost not only national independence but also the Jerusalem temple. Efforts to make sense of that defeat permeate the biblical texts like no other event. The Hebrew Bible (Christian Old Testament) began to take shape as a collection of texts crucial to faith and identity during the Babylonian exile.

Cyrus allowed those exiled peoples, their children and grandchildren, to return to the land they identified as “home” and there to rebuild and reinstitute their system of worship. The texts that had been instrumental in Babylon to the exiled Jews – stories, traditions, rituals, and instructions for daily life – could now develop even further and more formally. The first five books, the Pentateuch or Torah, probably took shape out of old texts and new ones, too, during the Babylonian exile. Without Cyrus, it’s tough to know what would have become of them.

With the conquest of Babylon, Cyrus truly became “the Great.” I suspect it was a conflicted moment for him, though. The general who had won the city for him was fatally injured and would die within a week. Cyrus’s first and most beloved wife may already have been ill with the disease that would take her life six months later; and his eldest son, crown prince Cambyses II, was subject to fits of palsy (epileptic seizures). Nevertheless, the significance of adding Babylonia to his holdings marked Cyrus at the time, for all intents and purposes, as “king of the universe” (his words, not mine – see line 20 of the Cyrus Cylinder).

We don’t know for certain that Cyrus entered Babylon, its victorious king, in 539 BC through the Ishtar Gate. But it seems likely. Even then, it was the grandest of the eight gates that cut through Babylon’s double walls. That entrance was the fortified and beautified complex through which the Babylonian king rode with the god Marduk ritual display for the annual national festival that set the tone for the coming year. Nebuchadnezzar had built and rebuilt the Ishtar Gate in a continuing effort to get it all just right. Some of it still exists today.

The most famous architectural remains from the Persian Empire are the ruins at Persepolis (in modern Iran). They are grand indeed and illustrate beautifully the philosophy of peaceful coexistence associated with the empire that Cyrus launched. So it wasn’t surprising to see an image of Persepolis on the gallery walls of the entrance to the Cyrus Cylinder exhibit now touring the United States.

Truth is, though, Persepolis was built not by Cyrus but by Darius I, sometimes called the “re-founder” of the Persian empire. Darius succeeded Cyrus’s son (Cambyses II); but they weren’t necessarily related, except as in-laws. Darius married Cyrus’s daughters (Cambyses’ sisters). A better image to enter the exhibit may have been the Ishtar Gate. It was also among the ruins of ancient Babylon in Mesopotamia, not so far from the site of the Ishtar Gate that the Cyrus Cylinder was discovered. And that, some would say, is the most extraordinary artifact of all.

But it’s spring in Charlottesville, so despite the significance of ancient Babylon’s magnificent Ishtar Gate, now I’m thinking that the gardens at Cyrus’ home in Pasargad (in modern Iran) just might edge out the Babylonian marvel for a first place image to go with the Cyrus Cylinder. They were called pardaeza, “paradise,” after all.

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