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Gates and Doors

Gates and Doors


City Walls. By the end of the fourth millennium b.c.e. defensive walls were a regular feature of Mesopotamian cities. Immediately flanking the right (west) bank of the Euphrates in north Syria, the Late Uruk period (circa 3300 - circa 3000 b.c.e.) site at Habuba Kabira (south) was a well-planned rectangular city enclosed on its three exposed sides by rectilinear sundried mud-brick walls. Along the length of the walls, which were about 3 meters (10 feet) thick, were nearly fifty protruding square defensive towers; two gates set among the defensive towers along the western wall provided overland entry into the city, which was otherwise accessible only from the river. During the Early Dynastic I period (circa 2900 - circa 2750 b.c.e.) the wall enclosing Uruk, a city in southern Mesopotamia some thirty times the size of Habuba Kabira, was 9.5 kilometers (6 miles) long. Tradition, as preserved in the late second millennium b.c.e. composition The Epic of Gilgamesh, attributed the construction of the walls of Uruk to Gilgamesh, the legendary king of Uruk. Twice the narrator exhorts the listener/reader of the tale to “climb up onto the walls of Uruk and walk about, examine the foundation and inspect the brickwork,” and see firsthand “if the brickwork is not kiln-fired brick.” When Nebuchadnezzar II (604-562 b.c.e.) rebuilt Babylon, he completed the task begun by his father, Nabopolassar (625-605 b.c.e.), of surrounding the more or less rectangular city center—with its palaces, temples, and ziggurat—with a double wall more than 8 kilometers (5 miles) in length. Made of sun-dried mud brick, the outer wall—named Nemitti-Enlil, “(the god) Enlil is my support”—was almost 4 meters (13 feet) thick, while the outer wall–named Nemitti-Enlil, “(the god) Enlil is my prayer)”—was 6.5 meters (21.5 feet) thick. A road more than 7 meters (23 feet) wide ran between the walls, while beyond the outer wall, across a 20-meter-wide (66 feet) berm, lay a moat, 50 meters (165 feet) wide, connected at both ends to the Euphrates. The city at large lay behind another, outer ring of three walls, supplemented by a wide moat that stretched for 18 kilometers (11 miles). Nebuchadnezzar bragged that no arrow fired


The historian Herodotus, writing in Greek in the mid-fifth century b.c.e., recalled that when the Babylonians learned of the preparations by the Persian king Cyrus II to march on Babylon, they took to the field, attacked him, were defeated, and were forced to retire behind their defenses. However, they had taken the precaution of accumulating in Babylon a stock of provisions sufficient to last many years, and, in light of the city’s massive defenses, they regarded the prospect of siege with indifference. But the Persians devised and executed a plan to take advantage of the city’s fortifications, taking into account the fact that the Euphrates ran directly through the heart of the inner city:

Then somebody suggested or he (Cyrus) himself thought up the following plan: he stationed part of his force at the point where the Euphrates flows into the city and another contingent at the opposite end where it flows out, with orders to force an entrance along the river bed as soon as they saw that the water was shallow enough. Then, taking with him all his noncombatant troops, he withdrew to the spot where (the mythical Babylonian queen) Nitocris had excavated the lake, and proceeded to repeat the operation which the queen had previously performed: by means of a cutting he diverted the river into the lake—which was then a marsh—and in this way so greatly reduced the depth of water in the actual bed of the river that it became fordable, and the Persian army, which had been left at Babylon for the purpose, entered the river, now only deep enough to reach about the middle of a man’s thigh, and, making their way along it, got into the town. If the Babylonians had learned what Cyrus was doing or had seen it for themselves in time, they could have let the Persians enter and then, by shutting all the gates which led to the waterside and manning the walls on either side of the river, they could have caught them in a trap and wiped them out. But as it was they were taken by surprise. The Babylonians themselves say that owing to the great size of the city the outskirts were captured without the people in the center knowing anything about it; there was a festival going on, and they continued to dance and enjoy themselves, until they learned the news the hard way.

In a cuneiform inscription on a clay cylinder from Babylon, Cyrus attributed his victory to the Babylonian god Marduk, who had chosen the Persian king after having searched for a righteous ruler to replace the last native Babylonian king, Nabonidus (555-539 b.c.e.):

Marduk, the great Lord, protector of his people, beheld with pleasure his (Cyrus’) good deeds and his (Cyrus’) upright heart, (and therefore) ordered him to march against his city Babylon. He made him set out on the road to Babylon going at his side like a real friend. His widespread troops—and number, like that of the water of a river, could not be established—strolled along, their weapons packed away. Without any battle, he made him enter his town Babylon, sparing Babylon any calamity. (Oppenheim)

Sources: Herodotus, The Histories, translated by Aubrey de Sélincourt, revised, with an introduction and notes, by A. R. Burn (Harmondsworth, U.K.: Penguin, 1954).

A. Leo Oppenheim, “Babylonian and Assyrian Historical Texts,” in Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament, edited by James Bennett Pritchard, third edition with supplement (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1969), pp. 265-317.

from the outer wall could reach the inner defensive walls.

City Gates. People and goods had to be able to enter and leave a walled city. Under ordinary conditions and during times of siege, individuals could move in and out of the city through posterns, small, usually hidden, entrances to narrow, easily blocked tunnels through or beneath a city’s walls. Yet, providing access for animal herds, transport vehicles, royal and religious processions, and, in wartime, large numbers of soldiers and their equipment demanded a substantially larger opening in the wall. City walls of stone and mud brick provided the best protection by being built as massively thick and tall as reasonably possible. However, a gate large enough to accommodate potentially large volumes of traffic and light enough to be opened and closed rapidly—even if it could be locked quickly and securely—created an inherent weakness in the defensive system and invariably became the focus of would-be attackers. Ancient-city planners faced the problem of how to build a strong, secure city gate that could provide necessary access yet withstand enemy attack. For large cities with long walls, the problem was compounded by the need for many gates distributed widely around the city. For example, the walls

of the seventh century b.c.e. Assyrian city of Nineveh were 12 kilometers (7.5 miles) long, necessitating the construction of fifteen gates. During the more than three thousand years of ancient Mesopotamian history prior to the Macedonian conquest (331 b.c.e.), a common solution developed, although with considerable differences in details of design and construction: a heavily fortified gatehouse variously straddling the city wall was located between a pair of defensive towers projecting from the wall. Set within the gatehouse, the main gate itself typically consisted of a pair of solid wooden doors heavily clad in thick metal sheets or bands. The doors, pivoting inward, were hung on gateposts, often capped with metal, set between a stone threshold and a stone or wooden lintel. A heavy wooden or metal bolt secured the door leaves from within. The overall intention was to create a space that left an attacker as little opportunity as possible to approach the gate, or—failing that—to offer him as little room as possible to maneuver under cover when close to the gate, all the while allowing the defenders the greatest possible latitude to defend the doors and repel the assailants. The Ishtar Gate was the most spectacular of the nine city gates constructed at Babylon by Nebuchadnezzar II (604-562 b.c.e.). It was a double gate, reinforced with bastions, traversing the 17.5-meter-wide (58 feet) twin defensive walls that surrounded the

central city. In its final form, this monumental gateway rose perhaps more than 23 meters (76 feet) in height and was clad in molded blue-glazed bricks decorated with dozens of striding bulls and long-necked dragons, symbols of the gods Adad and Marduk, respectively.

The City Gate as a Significant Public Space. In the epilogue to a late third millennium b.c.e. Sumerian-language law compilation, perhaps the end of the Laws of Ur-Namma (circa 2112 - circa 2095 b.c.e.), the curse on any despoiler of the inscription wishes, “May his city be a city despised by the god Enlil; may the main gate of his city be left open …,” that is, undefended. The city gate was significant in early second millennium b.c.e. laws concerning slavery: according to the laws of the city of Eshnunna, slaves might not leave through the city gate without their owner (LE § 51), while a slave brought into the city would be kept safe for his or her owner (LE § 52). Hammurabi’s laws (circa 1750 b.c.e.) imposed the death penalty on anyone allowing a slave to escape though the main city gate (LH § 15). Mesopotamian texts suggest that the area near a large city gate was a place for business. The gatekeeper collected taxes from merchants as they entered or left the city. Required to have witnesses for the validity of any transaction, businessmen could either bring their own to the gate or seek them from among the citizens present near the gate at the time. If it were required that a given transaction be recorded, scribes were also available at the gate. Judges might sit in the gate and hear grievances or take note of comings and goings. The area near a city gate also served for public proclamations and for the public display of the punishment of criminals.

Doors. An individual home might have a door made of woven reeds, or the door of a wealthier family might be made of wooden planks equipped with metal hardware. When a home with such a wooden door was sold, because its cost was not trivial, the contract might include specific clauses as to whether the door and its hardware would be removed from the house or remain with it.

Entrance Guardians. In addition to serving as a physical means of permitting or preventing communication between “inside” and “outside,” gates and doors, by their nature as zones of transition, also required magical means of protection. Such liminal zones were envisioned by the Mesopotamians as magical boundaries across which spirits could pass into the everyday world. To combat such potential evil, magical apotropaic figurines might be buried beneath the doorway; pure barley flour might be sprinkled in front of the doorway; or clay plaques depicting scenes of sexual intercourse might be placed on the doorjamb. Entranceways to or within temples and palaces might be flanked by figures carved in the round or in relief. Gates and doors in first millennium b.c.e. Assyrian walls and palaces were guarded against evil by colossal human-headed bulls and human-headed lions that gazed with quiet strength at any who approached, and by winged genii posed as exorcists with bucket and sprinkler in hand blessing all who passed by. In Syria and the Levant, pairs of lions in the round, with jaws threateningly agape, were favored to protect temple and palace entrances. Further north, in the Hittite regions of north Syria and Anatolia, anthropomorphic deities in the round or in high relief often stood guard.


The Mesopotamians believed that the gods offered mankind omens, signs foretelling possible future events. Scattered throughout the omen series Shumma alu ina mele shakin (“If a city is set on a height”), one of the largest collections of unsolicited omens and their portended outcomes, are several that concern the fortification walls and main gate of a city.

[If a city]’s dump grows bishopweed, an enemy will surround that city’s gate.

If an owl makes a nest in a hole in a city gate and fire spontaneously consumes the (temple) Bit Apsi—destruction of (the city of) Eridu.

If the parapet of a fortification-wall looks [like a monkey (but) you climb up the wall and] it is normal—destruction of (the city of) Nippur.

If the latch-hook of (all) the doors of the goddess’s temple is persistently sticking, an enemy will approach the front of the city gate and cattle […]

If the latch-hook of the goddess’s temple has been lifted and changed position and latched, an enemy will […] the city gate.

If lichen […] on a city wall—dispersal of the city.

If lichen […] on the city gate, that city gate will be closed.

If lichen is seen in the temple […], that city’s gate will be seized but not locked.

If a mongoose gives birth in the lower courses of the city gate—dispersal of the city.

If there are ants in the entrance to the city gate—restriction of access.

If a wild ox is seen in front of the city gate, an enemy will surround the city.

If bitches bark in the city gate, there will be pestilence in the land.

Source: S. M. Freedman, If a City is Set on a Height: The Akkadian Omen Series Šumma Alu ina Mëlè Šakin, volume 1: Tablets 1-21, Occasional Publications of the Samuel Noah Kramer Fund, 17 (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Museum, 1998).


Julia Assante, “Sex, Magic and the Liminal Body in the Erotic Art and Texts of the Old Babylonian Period,” in Sex and Gender in the Ancient Near East. Proceedings of the 47th Rencontre Assyriologique International Helsinki, July 2-6, 2001, part 1, edited by Simo Parpola and Robert M. Whiting (Helsinki: Neo-Assyrian Text Corpus Project, 2002), pp. 27-52.

Kay Kohlmeyer, “Habuba Kabira,” in The Oxford Encyclopedia of Archaeology in the Near East, 5 volumes, edited by Eric M. Meyers (New York & Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), II: 446-448.

Amihai Mazar, “The Fortification of Cities in the Ancient Near East,” in Civilizations of the Ancient Near East, 4 volumes, edited by Jack M. Sasson (New York: Scribners, 1995), III: 1523-1537.

Joan Oates, Babylon (London: Thames & Hudson, 1979).

Martha T. Roth, Law Collections from Mesopotamia and Asia Minor, second edition, Society of Biblical Literature, Writings from the Ancient World Series, volume 6 (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1995).

Yigael Yadin, The Art of Warfare in Biblical Lands in the Light of Archaeological Study, 2 volumes, translated by M. Pearlman (New York, Toronto & London: McGraw-Hill, 1963).

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