The Lion of Babylon
Site and Significance
The Lion of Babylon in History
The Lion of Babylon, a 2,600-year-old black basalt statue of a lion trampling a man, is among the most celebrated archeological artifacts in the history of Iraq. The first sculpture to be rediscovered in Babylon in the late eighteenth century, the basalt lion is believed to have been taken from a Neo-Hittite city in Syria to be finished in Babylon.
The theme of the Lion is ubiquitous throughout the history of the region as a symbol of power and overcoming adversity and enemies. In Babylon, the Lion was associated with the Goddess Ishtar, and in fact the statue’s back has marks indicating it was likely meant to carry a sitting goddess Ishtar.
One of the most prominent monuments in Babylon, the Lion is 2.6 meters long and 1.95 meters high (when off its podium). It is located at the northern end of the Processional Way near the Northern Palace.
The Lion That Never Sleeps
The Lion of Babylon appears on the 25,000-dinar note, bank logos, napkins, restaurant menus, photocopy shop signs, and tourism literature of Iraq. A singular landmark uniquely popular for the photo opportunity it represented and routinely unguarded, the Lion was often climbed on by visitors.
The Lion’s popularity grew such that the Iraq State Board of Antiquities and Heritage (SBAH) had to ring the statue with a tangle of razor wire to prevent further damage to the statue due to climbing visitors. After complaints that the cage was unbecoming of a national symbol, the SBAH asked World Monuments Fund (WMF) for help to improve the Lion’s presentation and protection in 2012.
The Lion and the Future of Babylon
World Monuments Fund, active at the archaeological site since 2009 with the Future of Babylon project, intervened to address the Lion’s presentation and protection. In the process of installing a new perimeter around the statue, the WMF team discovered dangerous fractures in the 12-ton Lion’s brick and concrete base which threatened to topple it altogether.
In 2013, emergency measures were taken to stabilize and reinforce the base through the construction of a new reinforced concrete belt, replacing and replicating the steel rebar reinforced concrete system installed in the 1930s. During this time, the Lion was also cleaned, reinforced, and restored to its modern appearance. The stabilization of the Lion of Babylon’s concrete encasement was a necessary conservation intervention and opportunity to improve the statue’s presentation.
In late 2015, after an interruption due to political and security issues, work resumed to wrap the statue’s base with a new gravel moat to discourage climbing, as well as curbing and a barrier line. These physical interventions were part of an effort by WMF, the SBAH, and local police to improve security and reduce vandalism. New signage was also put in place to protect the Lion from overzealous visitors.
A Model for Other Sites
Work at the Lion of Babylon was completed in 2015, although routine maintenance work is expected in the near future. Looking beyond the initial interests of the SBAH, the Lion of Babylon project offered a low-cost opportunity to explore presentation and hardscape designs, and provides WMF with the opportunity to set in place a vocabulary of forms and materials that it can implement at Ishtar Gate and other Babylon sites.
You can learn more about the Lion of Babylon and WMF's work there on Google Arts & Culture.
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Work is supported by the US Department of State and private donors.