Through an Ancient Looking Glass

The Western world demonstrates its debt to the ancient world in its architecture, literature, drama, religion, and political and legal systems, to name just a few areas of influence. Not surprisingly then, at the center of one of the most interesting cities in the world is a remarkable remnant of a much earlier civilization.

Berlin is not just any city. It has a troubled history, of which the world is well aware. It is a place burned into the consciousness of most people and will continue to be so. Any child with the opportunity of education will sooner or later learn about the city where in a bunker the tyrant Adolf Hitler met his ignominious end. He or she will learn of the place where the capitalist West and the communist Soviet Union perfected their 20th-century Cold War rhetoric, and where the most unexpected volte-face in modern history took place as thousands streamed to freedom under the helpless gaze of their captors.

Berlin is today a reunited city in almost frantic motion to regain its rank and reputation as a world capital. So much so that it is billions of deutschmarks in the red, technically bankrupt. The ambitious building schemes of the city’s government may well have to be curtailed. At the same time, the federal government’s massive construction projects continue, untouched by the present scandal.

A Tale of Two Cities

Within this resurrected city the symbols of a much older power reside—a power with a resilience that goes mostly unrecognized. Berlin’s Pergamon Museum houses the reconstructed Ishtar Gate, northern entry point to Nebuchadnezzar’s city of Babylon. By all accounts it is as faithful a reconstruction as one could expect 2,500 years after the fall of an empire that flourished in Mesopotamia in the sixth and seventh centuries BCE.

When the German Empire was established in 1871, archaeology of the ancient Near East was a newly developing field. The German authorities were keen to match the established cultural reputations of the French and British Empires and invested in archaeological excavations carried out by their own nationals. France had its archaeological collection at the Louvre, Britain’s was in the British Museum, and Berlin would soon have its equivalent. By the end of the 19th century and into the early 20th, shipments of artifacts began arriving from the eastern Mediterranean region and Mesopotamia. Most spectacular were the finds from Pergamos in western Turkey and from Babylon in Iraq.

It was possible to reconstruct ancient Babylon’s Processional Way and the connected Ishtar Gate from the blue glazed tile walls and fragments found in the sands of Iraq. By agreement with government authorities, sufficient artifacts were allowed to leave the country for the massive reconstruction effort. The exhibit that visitors marvel at today came into being in the 1930s, after years of painstaking work.

Along the Processional Way, used annually by the Babylonians in their springtime New Year Festival, fierce-looking lions decorated the walls. Symbols of the goddess Ishtar, the lions were a constant reminder to the Babylonians of the deity they worshiped as mistress of heaven, goddess of love and protectress of the army. The New Year Festival celebrated among others the chief god, Marduk (also known as Bel), and Nabu, the god of scribes and writing. Marduk was central as god of the city and of fertility, and provider of eternal life.

The Ishtar Gate guarded the approach to a 90-meter stepped tower, or ziggurat, crowned by a temple to Marduk. As was the case with the earlier biblical Tower of Babel (Greek, Babylon), its builders had the idea of challenging heaven itself.

Still speaking to us today, Nebuchadnezzar’s father, Nabopolassar, founder of the Neo-Babylonian Empire, states in an inscription at the site of the ziggurat: “Once . . . I had subdued Assyria at the behest of [the gods] Nabu and Marduk, who love my kingship, . . . Marduk, my Lord, ordered me to secure the foundation of Etemenanki, the Ziggurat of Babylon which before my time had gone into disrepair, on the bottom of the construction pit [literally “breast of the netherworld”] and to let its summit vie with the heavens.”

On the walls of the Ishtar Gate were serpentlike dragons representing Marduk, and wild bulls symbolizing Adad, the weather god. A cuneiform inscription from Nebuchadnezzar, also found at the excavation site, reads in part: “Nebuchadnezzar, King of Babylon, the pious prince appointed by the will of Marduk, the highest priestly prince, beloved of Nabu, of prudent deliberation, who has learned to embrace wisdom, who fathomed Their [Marduk and Nabu’s] godly being and pays reverence to Their Majesty . . . the firstborn son of Nabopolassar, the King of Babylon, am I. . . .

I pulled down these gates and laid their foundations at the water table with asphalt and bricks and had them made of bricks with blue stone on which wonderful bulls and dragons were depicted. I covered their roofs by laying majestic cedars lengthwise over them. I fixed doors of cedar wood adorned with bronze at all the gate openings. I placed wild bulls and ferocious dragons in the gateways and thus adorned them with luxurious splendor so that mankind might gaze on them in wonder.”

Echoing Empires

At the Pergamon Museum six days in seven almost year round, people from every corner of the world do just that: they gaze in wonder at the remnants not only of Babylon but of other civilizations—Sumer, Assyria, Persia, Greece and Rome. But how many visitors grasp the connection between the modern world and the ancient world of gods and kings, temples and trade, spirits and ordinary men? Does Western civilization retain the echoes of empires that have come and gone?

How many visitors grasp the connection between the modern world and the ancient world of gods and kings, temples and trade, spirits and ordinary men? 

Certainly references to the Neo-Babylonian Empire have passed into the cultural legacy of the West. At its height Nebuchadnezzar’s Babylon was the center of a power that had overcome Egypt and all else that lay in its path, including the people of Judah.

One of Nebuchadnezzar’s Jewish captives was the Old Testament sage Daniel. Called upon to interpret Nebuchadnezzar’s dream of a great statue composed of various metals and clay, he noted first the extent of the king’s power, addressing him as “a king of kings. For the God of heaven has given you a kingdom, power, strength, and glory; and wherever the children of men dwell, or the beasts of the field and the birds of the heaven, He has given them into your hand, and has made you ruler over them all—you are this head of gold” (Daniel 2:37–38).

In the years before Nebuchadnezzar came to power, the city was already on a trajectory toward dominance. Five clay tablets known as the “City Description of Babylon” provide several clues to the city’s reputation. Babylon, like any modern capital, was “the city of festivity, joy and dance; . . . the city whose inhabitants celebrate constantly; . . . the privileged city that frees the captive; . . . the pure city; . . . the city of goods and chattels; . . . the bond of countries.”

Babylon was at the center of the ancient world’s trade. The extensive Euphrates River valley linked Asia Minor with the Persian Gulf and the Indian Ocean and provided the conduit for goods and services of all kinds. At the time, Babylon was the largest city in the known world, covering 2,500 acres. To this day its version of economic prosperity fills the minds of merchants who have never seen it. The desire to become supreme in trade and commerce at all costs is ubiquitous. In the center of the great trading cities of the Western world—London, Paris, Rome and New York—the soul of Babylon lives on. As if to drive home the connection with a bygone world, a major shopping and commercial complex at The Hague, in the Netherlands, is plainly named “Babylon.”

To this day Babylon’s version of economic prosperity fills the minds of merchants who have never seen it. 

Berlin is no exception to this desire to emulate Babylon’s economic preeminence. A notable example is found at the food hall in the German capital’s KDW (Kaufhof des Westerns, or Department Store of the West). Shoppers can purchase almost any known food or drink product. On display at any time are 600 kinds of bread, 1,600 to 1,800 kinds of cheese, and hundreds of varieties of wine and liquor, among many other commodities. And that’s just the food hall. On other floors, every conceivable kind of consumer product is available in great variety. Outside, along the tree-lined boulevards, luxury retail outlets rival any in the world.

As a trading center Berlin will sit at the crossroads of the new Europe. When the European Union welcomes many new members from its eastern flank in the next few years, Berlin will be ready with an upgraded transport system, including an expanded international airport. According to promotional literature for the city, “Berlin will become the most convenient rail intersection between the North-South and East-West axes on the European mainland.” It will be the most up-to-date city in the strongest nation in the world’s most diverse trading bloc of 27 nations, estimated to become a marketplace of 500 million. Like ancient Babylon, Berlin holds the promise of becoming the dominant economic center of the world.

Like ancient Babylon, Berlin holds the promise of becoming the dominant economic center of the world.

Links With the Past

The Pergamon Museum’s other celebrated exhibit, for which the museum is named, is the Hellenistic Great Altar from Pergamos (also called Pergamum or Pergamon) in western Turkey. When it was first put on display in Berlin it was welcomed with considerable pride and even now is viewed as a powerful symbol.

Quoting some of Pergamos’s admirers, Max Kunze writes in The Pergamon Altar: Its Rediscovery, History and Reconstruction that “Pergamon had been ‘an ambitious center of power and culture where one had had the means to attract the finest craftsmen.’ Its splendid altar was seen as the ‘proudest monument of monarchist self-confidence,’ a role which it was also to fill in Berlin. The fledgling German empire had adopted The Pergamon Altar and its symbolic meaning, which whether ancient or modern, was practically identical. The historical parallels were close at hand. Just as the Hellenistic Empire of Pergamon superseded the Classical city culture of Athens, so were the small states of Germany swallowed into the empire under Prussian leadership.”

What goes generally unnoticed, however, is the connection between Babylon’s walls and famous gate and the Hellenistic altar from second-century-BCE Pergamos. To understand, we need to trace the decline of the Neo-Babylonian Empire.

Politics, Power and the Priesthood

Nebuchadnezzar’s successor, Awil-Marduk, set the stage for the submission of the empire to the Medo-Persians. Weakened over the next few decades by internal divisions, the strongly fortified Babylon fell without a fight in 539 BCE to Cyrus the Great’s forces. The Persians were generally tolerant toward the nations they defeated, allowing them to retain their culture and religion. An example of their permissive attitude came soon after the fall of Babylon. Cyrus issued a proclamation returning the Jewish captives in Babylon to Jerusalem with instructions to rebuild the temple destroyed by Nebuchadnezzar.

Though the Persians did not initially interfere in Babylon’s religious practices, the political power of the Babylonian priesthood (who were Chaldean magi) eventually became a problem. The temple had always been central to Babylonian life, with an entire culture and economy surrounding the Ziggurat of Marduk. As a result, the Chaldean priests were a powerful elite. They were often more powerful than the Babylonian king himself: the monarch had to acknowledge the priests’ intermediary role and “take the hands of Marduk” before assuming the throne. The king thus became the son of the god and was obliged to protect the religious hierarchy.

The priests frustrated the Persians’ tolerance when, in an attempt to retain their behind-the-scenes political power, they installed one of their own, a priest posing as the king’s brother Smerdis, as ruler of Babylon. The imposter was discovered and killed by the Persians. Following a subsequent revolt when the priests again set up their own Babylonian ruler, the Persian king Xerxes came and destroyed Babylon in 487 BCE. In the process, he tore down the temples and removed the statue of Marduk.

At this point, around 480 BCE, the Babylonian priests are thought to have left the city and reestablished their base elsewhere. According to one source, “the defeated Chaldeans fled to Asia Minor, and fixed their central college at Pergamos, and took the palladium of Babylon, the cubic stone, with them. Here, independent of state control, they carried on the rites of their religion” (William B. Barker, Lares and Penates: or, Cilicia and Its Governors, Ingram, Cooke and Co., London, 1853, pp. 232–233).

Preserving Influence

As we have seen, multiple gods and goddesses populated the Babylonian pantheon. Bel-Marduk or Bel-Merodach was chief god, and Ishtar was worshiped as queen or mistress of heaven. Fertility rites, annual spring festivals and “mysteries” were elements of the religion designed to keep all levels of society, from king to peasant, in subservience to the power of the priesthood. The role of religion in ancient societies was not as it is now—often divorced from everyday life. It was central to those empires.

Once established in Pergamos, the Babylonians quite naturally set up their religion again. And so, ancient ways became part of other cultures. In an article on Bel, the Anchor Bible Dictionary notes: “It is true that Bel-Marduk must have suffered the degradation of being defeated by the foe, but it is also true that the Persian conqueror dealt kindly with religious concerns so that Bel, though shamed by his impotence in the Babylonian debacle, survived and passed his legacy on to the Hellenistic and Roman world.”

The early history of the city of Pergamos is somewhat obscure. The Greek historian Xenophon (ca. 428–354 BCE) mentions that sometime after 490 BCE the deposed king of Sparta, Demaratus, became an advisor to Xerxes. Further, he says that the Spartan king’s relatives were given land at Pergamos among other places, perhaps in recognition of Demaratus’s service to Xerxes. But the city did not become important until Alexander the Great’s conquest of Asia (334–323 BCE). With the flourishing of his Greco-Macedonian Empire, Pergamos became a major military and political center.

Was Alexander held captive by the power of the Chaldean religion? Again according to Barker, the Chaldeans at Pergamos “plotted against the peace of the Persian empire, caballing with the Greeks for that purpose. They brought forward Alexander as a divine incarnation, and by their craft did as much as the Greeks by their prowess to overthrow the Persian power.” It is an interesting indication that the Chaldeans did not cease from wielding politico-religious influence, injecting their presence into the next world empire. Significantly, and perhaps in gratitude, Alexander planned to restore Babylon to its greatness, intending to make it his capital. His death there in 323 BCE from fever prevented the fulfillment of his dream.

Passage of Rites?

In the two centuries that followed, Pergamos increased its prestige, reaching its zenith under the Attalid dynasty. Attalus I concluded an alliance with Rome in 212 BCE, and the fortunes of the city were assured for many years. But his descendant Attalus III had no heir, and so he willed the city to the Roman Empire before his death in 133 BCE.

Throughout the 350 or so years following the establishment of Pergamos, it seems that the descendants of the Babylonian priesthood maintained their role in the city’s religious life. Certainly kings were still in the thrall of the priesthood. It was accepted that kings were de facto priests; such was the interrelationship of religion and government. The acropolis, with its Temple of Athena Parthenos, the virgin goddess of the city, was well known in the ancient world. It was also perhaps one of the most impressive fortresses in the region. At the height of Pergamene power around 165 BCE, the Great Altar was built. Around its base was a frieze over 360 feet long depicting the battle of the gods and the giants, thought to symbolize the Attalid king Eumenes II’s victory over the Gauls and other kingdoms. Whether the altar was dedicated to Athena or Zeus or both is unclear from the fragmentary inscriptions found. We do know that, like the Babylonians, the Pergamenes worshiped a plethora of gods, including also Aesculapius, the god of healing, and Dionysus, or Bacchus, the god of wine, associated with secret fertility cult rituals.

Within the pagan Roman Empire they were able to continue their ancient Chaldean practices.

Bible scholars further indicate that the Chaldean priesthood did not make Pergamos their final home. When the city was given to Rome, the priesthood sought out the new power center and moved to the Italian peninsula. Within the pagan Roman Empire they were able to continue their ancient Chaldean practices. This influence gradually extended into Roman Christianity. According to John Walvoord, chancellor of Dallas Theological Seminary, “when the teachers of the Babylonian mystery religions later moved from Pergamum to Rome, they were influential in paganizing Christianity and were the source of many so-called religious rites which have crept into ritualistic churches” (The Bible Knowledge Commentary: Revelation).

City of Serpents

At the end of the first century, believers at Pergamos were warned about the dangers of their polytheistic surroundings. In a collection of letters to seven churches in Asia Minor, the apostle John was commanded to write to the Pergamos community, “I know that you live in the city where that great throne of Satan is located, and yet you have remained loyal to me” (Revelation 2:13, New Living Translation). Is this a reference to the Great Altar and the cult worship of Aesculapius, signified by a serpent—the symbol of Satan himself? Whatever the relation, the New Testament writer was also told that the church at Pergamos was compromised by false religion: “You tolerate some among you who are like Balaam, who showed Balak how to trip up the people of Israel. He taught them to worship idols by eating food offered to idols and by committing sexual sin. In the same way, you have some Nicolaitans among you—people who follow the same teaching and commit the same sins” (verses 14–15).

Were they involved with some of the sexual rites practiced in the ancient mysteries? It seems quite possible. The danger of false religion is always present for followers of Christ. The Western world claims its Judeo-Christian heritage. Yet it is a heritage at odds with the Babylon that reaches out to us still in the economic, political, religious and cultural life of our times.

Two important symbols of that ancient Eastern world rest at the heart of a modern Western city. They invite us to recognize that there is yet another Babylon to come—a Babylon that will touch us all. No longer restricted to the ancient world, the globalizing Babylon of the future will bring about the final age of mankind.