You’ll find him on the third floor of the Royal Ontario Museum. He’s tucked away in a quiet, easy-to-miss corner far at the back of a room filled with artifacts from Asia and the Middle East. He’s a big, snarling, golden lion on a field of blue brick. And once upon a time, he was part of one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. Two and a half thousand years ago, the ROM’s lion sat at the heart of the city of Babylon.
Back then, Babylon was the greatest city in the world. It was home to 200,000 people — more than any other city on earth. It stood on the fertile banks of the Euphrates River, in a spot that’s now part of Iraq (not far from Baghdad), but was then in the middle of a mighty empire that stretched all the way across the Middle East. The Babylonians ruled everything from the shores of the Mediterranean in the west to the Persian Gulf in the east. And their ruler was one of the most famous rulers in history: King Nebuchadnezzar II.
Nebuchadnezzar is best remembered for being in the Bible and for being a great warrior. He waged war against the pharaohs of Egypt. Captured and destroyed Jerusalem. Brought Tyre and the Phoenicians to their knees. Under his rule, Babylon flourished. And to celebrate his empire’s wealth, he embarked on ambitious new construction projects, lavishing the city with some of the most famous landmarks in history. It was Nebuchadnezzar who finished building the giant tower in his city — thought to be the source of the story of the Tower of Babel. And it was Nebuchadnezzar who is said to have built the Hanging Gardens of Babylon. It’s not entirely clear if they ever really existed, but that didn’t stop them from being listed as one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.
And the gardens weren’t the only Babylonian wonder on that list. The walls of the city were just as impressive. During his reign, Nebuchadnezzar made them even more so. In about 575 BC, he built a new entrance to the inner city — it was the most spectacular of them all.
The Ishtar Gate was a great double-gate the size of a fortress, towering nine storeys into the air above the citizens who passed through it into the inner city. It was built of bright blue brick; the technology required to make a glaze of that colour is so advanced that even today we’re not entirely sure how they managed to pull it off. It was dedicated to Ishtar — the goddess of love, sex, fertility and war — and became the focal point for a yearly religious festival, as enormous statues of the gods were carried by huge crowds down the wide street toward the gate.
In fact, the street itself had been included in the construction of the gate. There were bright blue brick walls extending along either side of the processional way, decorated with golden flowers, dragons and bulls. Plus: lions. Lots of ferocious lions. The big cats were the symbol of Ishtar.
It wasn’t until hundreds of years later that tourists from Ancient Greece began to travel around the Mediterranean making lists of the most amazing things they saw. They liked to call their lists “The Seven Wonders of the World” — an ancient version of a travel guide. And when they did, they made sure to visit Babylon. Many of the oldest versions of the list included the Ishtar Gate, or even all of the city’s walls.
But by then, Babylon was in ruins. The empire had crumbed. It didn’t last long after Nebuchadnezzar’s death. Soon, the Persians swept in from the east and conquered the Babylonians. The great city fell into disrepair, doomed to be buried by the shifting sands. In time, history and legend were mixed and confused. More than two thousand years later, no one was sure if Babylon had ever really existed at all — or if it was just a wonderful myth.
It was in the early 1900s that the city was finally discovered again. It was a self-taught German archeologist who found it. He spent the next eighteen years digging at the site, uncovering the mysteries of the ancient metropolis. His most impressive find was the enormous blue gate. The ruins were dismantled; the bricks shipped to Germany where they were cleaned, catalogued and then reconstructed. The Ishtar Gate now stands in a museum in Berlin — at least, part of it does: not all of it could fit inside the building.
Many of the beasts who once stood watch over Babylon’s processional way have now found new homes in museums around the world. There are dragons and bulls and lions in Istanbul, Copenhagen, Munich and Vienna, in Boston and Chicago and at Yale, at the Louvre and at the British Museum and at the Detroit Institute of Arts.
One of them even came to Canada. In 1937, just before the outbreak of the Second World War, the Royal Ontario Museum bought one of the lions from the State Museum in Berlin. He was shipped all the way across the ocean to a new home on Bloor Street. And so today, one of Nebuchadnezzar’s snarling lions stands tucked away in a corner of the ROM, watching over Torontonians and tourists as they marvel at a tiny slice of one of the Wonders of the Ancient World — nearly ten thousand kilometers away from the ruins of the marvelous city that he once helped to guard.
A version of this post originally appeared on the The Toronto Dreams Project Historical Ephemera Blog. You can find more sources, images, links and related stories there.