Around 600 B.C., during the reign of King Nebuchadnezzar, a Babylonian artist fashioned bas reliefs on bricks used in the enormous archway of the Ishtar Gate and the high walls of the approach road.
Five hundred and seventy five animals are portrayed, half being bulls, depicted just as accurately as were the lions along the Processional Way. The other 287 of those animals, are, one of history’s greatest enigmas—because those animals are dragons or sirrush. Today, we consider the dragon as a mythical beast.
It may be that dragon mythology existed in Babylonian days as it does today— but one source exists that casts doubt on this point and even raises the startling possibility that the animal was real, not just a myth. The Sirrush was referred to in Babylonian cuneiform inscriptions as Mus-russu which can be translated as “Splendor Serpent” or “Glamorous Snake.”
Willy Ley has described the sirrush, which he considered a “zoological puzzle of fantastic dimensions,” as having a slender body covered with scales, a long slender scaly tail, and a long slim scaly neck bearing a serpent’s head. Although the mouth is closed, a long forked tongue protrudes. There are flaps of skin attached to the back of the head,which is adorned (and armed) with a straight horn.
Nebuchadnezzar, King of Babylon, extolled by Daniel as “the King of Kings” was the ruler who re-built Babylon as the capital of his empire. To do this, he imported 11,000 captives, the cream of Jewish society containing engineers, town planners, architects, craftsmen and artisans of all kinds.
The ruins of the city that Nebuchadnezzar built can be seen today just south of Baghdad and it remains his legacy. It had an estimated population of around 200,000. It was a mongrel city, housing Hittites, Chaldaeans, Egyptians, Assyrians, Aramaeans, Elamites and Jews.
Saddam Hussein spent millions in restoring it and the visitor can see glimpses of what must have been a staggeringly impressive city. Many of Saddam Hussein’s concepts were abandoned, unfinished, but one project that was completed was a reconstruction of the Ishtar Gate, close to its original size, on the ancient site in Babylon. The other reconstructed Gate, in Berlin, is slightly smaller.
Approaching Babylon from the desert in the north during the reign of Nebuchadnezzar, first, was a large outer enclosure surrounded by a high wall. This provided a refuge for people who could come in for protection during times of war.
Within that wall was the city itself—protected by double walls with towers at intervals of 60 feet. The inner wall was 21-feet thick and a 24-foot space separated it from the outer wall that was 12- feet thick. Entrance to Babylon could be made only through one of the eight gates, each fifty feet tall and heavily fortified.
All were similar but the most elaborate of these was the Ishtar Gate. This is the gate through which Jewish captives, including Daniel and Ezekiel, passed and it is a tribute to the glory and might of the Babylonian Empire.
The book of Daniel, chapter 4, verses 30 and 31, records; “Is not this the great Babylon that I have built for my royal residence, by my power and for the glory of my majesty?”
The Ishtar Gate was beautifully decorated with glazed tiles of a glorious blue with relief carvings in yellow and brown. Huge doors of cedar brought from Lebanon and adorned with bronze gave entry.
Inside the gate, began the Processional Way that must have been under construction for the whole of the forty-three years of Nebuchadnezzar’s reign. It ran parallel to the Euphrates River halfway through the old city and then turned west over a bridge and then into the western half of Babylon. The remains of the bridge— which was built of stone blocks—have also been found.
The exterior of the Ishtar Gate itself is also covered with glazed tiles in differing shades of a glorious blue. The bas reliefs consist of three animals, and each row of bricks displays numerous images of one of them. The rows alternate, some showing lions, others bulls or rimis (as the Babylonians called them), and sirrushes (dragons).
Lions and bulls were common in the Middle East at that time, but on what animal did the Ancient Babylonians model the dragon? If lions and bulls were well-known, why was the third animal one that did not exist—or did it?
The Apocrypha’s Book of Bel and the Dragon relates a curious story: that in the temple of Bel, Lord of the World, Nebuchadnezzar’s favored god, the priests kept a “great dragon or serpent,which they of Babylon worshipped.”
The king challenged the prophet Daniel, who had been sneering about nonliving gods of brass, to dispute this god,who “liveth, and eateth and drinketh; you canst not say that he is no living god; therefore worship him.” To remove himself from this quandary,Daniel poisoned the animal.
The Babylonians had several gods, but the greatest of them was Marduk. He had originally been the local god of Babylon but later became the national god, as Babylon gradually exerted total dominance over all the cities of Mesopotamia.
Marduk was frequently depicted with an animal at his feet. In all cases, it is clearly the same animal, one sacred to him—and it was known as the Sirrush. The portrayal of the sirrush on the bas-reliefs shows a scaly body with a long neck and a long tail also with scales.
The slim scaly neck has the head of a serpent with a horn and a long forked tongue. (Because the tiles show a side view, only one horn can be seen but in other depictions, two horns are clearly shown.) Flaps of skin cover the ears. The feet are unusual, the forefeet being those of a feline, perhaps a leopard or a panther.
The hind feet, however, are birdlike, very large with four toes and covered with scales. This animal is identical to the dragons guarding Marduk and it is also an exact description of the dragons on the Ishtar Gate.
The discoverer of the Ishtar Gate, German archaeologist Robert Koldeway, gave serious thought to the possibility that the sirrush may have been an actual animal. Unlike other fantastic beasts in Babylonian art, he noted, images of the sirrush remained unchanged over centuries. What struck him about these depictions was the “uniformity of [the sirrush’s] physiological conceptions.”
The sirrush, he said, was more like a saurian than any other animal. Such creatures did not coexist with human beings, he wrote, and the Babylonians, who were not paleontologists, could not have reconstructed a saurian from fossil remains; yet the Old Testament states explicitly that the sirrush was real. All this considered, he was reduced to speculating that the Babylonian priests kept “some reptile” in a dark temple and led the unsuspecting to believe it was a living sirrush.
Willy Ley says it is acknowledged that the Babylonians penetrated into equatorial Africa and must have encountered tribes who spoke of the Mokele-Mbembe, the so-called “Congo Dragon” and probably killed and also captured several.
Possibly some of these were brought back to Babylon in the same way that the Romans, a short time later, brought back to Rome elephants and other terrifying animals, never before seen, to be fought in the arenas.
Bernard Heuvelmans is another authority who reported on several occasions that his travels had brought him into contact with native tribes who had seen and even killed, creatures corresponding to the Mokele-Mbembe. Cryptozoologists have varying opinions. Roy P. Mackal is among those who believe that the description of the sirrush fits that of a sauropod (a semi-aquatic dinosaur).
Ley, Bernard Heuvelmans, and Mackal have all suggested that in the course of their travels they heard of such creatures, perhaps sighted them, or even brought a specimen home with them. This is not an unreasonable hypothesis, if we assume that mokele-mbembe exists.
For at least 200 years, missionaries of several nations, explorers, hunters and natives provided remarkably consistent accounts of this beast, seen throughout west-central Africa.
It was described as a sauropod-like animal with a long neck, a small head, a bulky body and a long tail. A tribe of pygmies said that they had killed such a creature in 1959 in the Congo. The mystery of the Ishtar Gate dragons remains to this day.
Sources: Atlantis Rising Magazine Vol. 60: “Dragons of the Ishtar Gate” by Peter King; Unexplaines! “Strange Sightings, Incredible Occurences & Puzzling Physical Phenomena” by Jerome Clark
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