The Institute for the Study of the Ancient World (ISAW) presents A Wonder to Behold: Craftsmanship and the Creation of Babylon’s Ishtar Gate, opening new avenues for understanding one of the most spectacular achievements of the ancient world. On view from November 6, 2019, through May 24, 2020, the exhibition features 180 objects that bring to life the synthesis of masterful craftsmanship and ancient beliefs that transformed clay, minerals, and organic materials—seen as magically potent substances—into this powerful monument.
The exhibition opens with an introduction to the gateway as revealed through its discovery and reconstruction. A variety of archival drawings, photographs, and objects demonstrate the immense complexity of this undertaking. A 1901 watercolor by archaeologist Walter Andrae, for example, shows the Babylonian system of fitters’ marks that he deciphered, revealing the painstaking process through which the monument was created. This process began by marking out the design on a wall of unadorned bricks, and continued with the molding, glazing, and baking of each individual brick before fitting them together, a task that is something like designing and assembling an intricate puzzle.
A Wonder to Behold demonstrates how the master craftspeople who designed and built the Ishtar Gate and its affiliated Processional Way were not simply skilled technicians—though they were certainly that—but also artists, historians, and ritual practitioners known as “experts” (ummânū). They were believed capable of creating artworks that manifested divine powers on Earth, and the Ishtar Gate, offering entry into the imperial city of Babylon, was designed to be one such magically activated monument.
Other objects on view illustrate the links between the world of the gods and the Ishtar Gate through an exploration of the religious meaning of lions, bulls, and mushussu-dragons. These include an Assyro-Babylonian cylinder seal showing the fierce goddess Ishtar, who helped protect the city from enemies, with her lion, and a marble bowl dating from 2900-2600 BCE that demonstrates the continuity and ritual significance of the repeating bull image-which also appears on the facade of the Ishtar Gate-and its ritual significance, already understood to be ancient in Nebuchadnezzar Il’s time.
A Wonder to Behold has been organized by ISAW and co-curated by its Associate Director of Exhibitions and Gallery Curator, Clare Fitzgerald, PhD, with guest curators Anastasia Amrhein, an art historian specializing in the ancient Middle East (University of Pennsylvania), and Elizabeth Knott, PhD, a historian specializing in the textual and visual remains of the ancient Middle East (NYU).
Dr. Fitzgerald states, “ISAW is thrilled to present A Wonder to Behold, which follows the transformation of commonplace, if sacred, materials as they journey from the brickyards to one of the greatest monuments of the ancient world, a divinely protected and ritualized entryway to the inner city of Babylon. In so doing, the exhibition opens a window onto both ancient beliefs and superb artistic skills, and expands our understanding of the critical role of craftspeople in the ancient Middle East. ISAW is grateful to Anastasia Amrhein and Elizabeth Knott, who have brought their deep knowledge to this exhibition.”
A Wonder to Behold: Craftsmanship and the Creation of Babylon’s Ishtar Gate will be on view from November 6, 2019 through May 24, 2020. The Institute for the Study of the Ancient World at New York University (ISAW) is located at 15 East 84th Street, NYC. The exhibition galleries are open Free of charge, Wednesday through Sunday from 11am to 6pm, and to 8pm on Fridays.