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The Dragon of the Babylon Gate
by John Meszaros
Babylon. City of legend. Rising from humble origins over four thousand years ago as a small Akkadian town upon the Euphrates River- bisected into equal halves by the life-bringing waters- it became one of the largest cities of the ancient world. The owners of the great city would change many times as empires rose and fell across the Fertile Crescent. But regardless of who ruled, Babylon would remain a major hub of culture and trade throughout its existence. Its most powerful, and certainly one of its most famous, kings was Nebuchadnezzar II, who surround the city with high, thick walls both to demonstrate the power of his rule and to deter attacks from invaders who coveted Babylon’s riches. Entry to the city was via eight gates, the most famous of which was dedicated to Ishtar the goddess of love, fertility, war and political power. The Ishtar gate was constructed of fired bricks painted a deep blue that must have glowed to match the cloudless desert sky.
Bas-reliefs of sacred beasts picked out in yellow enamel strode against this rich backdrop. The procession leading up to the gate was flanked by lions, while the great arch itself was decorated with the aurochs- a massive ancient breed of cattle that was associated with Hadad, the god of storms- and with a much stranger beast called the mushussu (pronounced mush-hush-shu). This beast, sacred to the city’s patron deity, Marduk, was a hybrid with the scaled body of a dragon, the head and forked tongue of a serpent, front paws of a lion, back paws of an eagle, and a long tail tipped by a scorpion’s sting. It’s serpentine head was also topped by a pair of long, straight horns on the snout and what appears to be a pair of curving, ram-like horns at the back.
Although mushussu may initially seem like purely mythological animals in the vein of griffons, qilin, manticores and other chimerical beasts, some researchers have wondered if they may have been real animals. Robert Koldewey, the German archaeologist who rediscovered the ruins of the Ishtar Gate in 1902, was the first to propose this idea. He argued that the appearance of the beast in Babylonian art had remained largely consistent over several hundred years, in contrast to the changing depictions of other beasts that were known by the people of Babylon to be purely mythological. He also pointed out that Marduk’s dragon was depicted alongside real-life aurochs and lions, indicating that it was a real animal the Babylonians were familiar with.
Another hint at the mushussu’s possible existence comes from the biblical Book of Daniel. In the Roman, Greek and Eastern Orthodox Catholic versions of the Old Testament, chapter 14 of Daniel briefly mentions a dragon worshipped by the Babylonians as a living god which the titular hero slays by feeding it cakes made of pitch, fat and hair. It’s quite possible that the writer of this tale misinterpreted the Babylonians’ respect for the mushusu’s sacredness to Marduk as outright worship of the animal itself as a deity.
Creatures similar to the mushussu have appeared in the mythology of other cultures. According to the legends of the Apatani people of the Ziro valley at the base of the eastern Himalayas, a species of large, semi-aquatic reptiles known as buru once inhabited the marshes around their villages. These creatures were said to have long necks, short, robust legs with mole-like claws, and long, powerful tails. Aside from the short legs, this description bears a fair resemblance to the mushussu. Though there is no mention of the buru bearing the iconic snout-horns or the fleshy curls at the back of the head. Unfortunately, these giant lizards were apparently driven to extinction when the Apatani drained the animals’ wetland home and no physical evidence of them remains. If they were ever truly real in the first place.
In his book The Marsh Arabs, explorer Wilfred Thesiger made mention of the belief among the river-dwelling Arabic tribes of Iraq in the afa, a large semi-aquatic reptile that resembled a snake with legs. Though the account is extremely brief, the reference to an unknown large serpentine reptile in the lands around ancient Babylon is intriguing.
Ancient Egyptian and Mesopotamian art often depicted strange creatures that resembled leopard with long, serpentine necks. The ancient names for these creatures are unknown, thus archeologists have given them the portmanteau name “serpopards”. Although the creatures are more feline than reptilian, it is possible they are another interpretation of the long-necked beast that inspired the dragon of Babylon, though in this case with more exaggerated mammalian features.
Yet another mushussu-like creature is the Questing Beast, or Beste Glatisant, of Arthurian legend. The monster is the quarry of several knights including King Pellinore, Sir Percival and King Arthur himself. The appearance of the Questing Beast varies depending on the text, but one version describes it as having a serpent’s head, a leopard’s body, and a stag’s feet. Though this description might simply be a case of another fanciful chimera so common to folklore and mythology, it’s interesting to wonder if the author who first came up with this depiction was not basing it off a real animal he had seen, or at least read about.
If the mushussu was a real animal, what was it though? Koldewey himself initially proposed that it was a surviving dinosaur, perhaps a relative of Iguanodon, which was one of the most well-known prehistoric beasts at the time. A glance at a modern reconstruction of Iguanodon, however, will show a heavyset, stiff-tailed, beaked saurian quite unlike the agile, almost mammalian-looking mushussu.
Perhaps the mushussu was another type of dinosaur? Cryptozoologist Willy Levy compared the serpentine appearance of the mushussu to accounts of the Mokele-mbembe, a long-necked monster reported to inhabit the swamps and rivers of Central Africa. European investigators have frequently suggested that the mokele-mbembe is a surviving sauropod similar to Apatosaurus. When this connection was initially made in the 1950s, it was believed that sauropods had to spend their lives half-submerged in water to support their great weight. Thus the idea of a surviving long-necked dinosaur living in swamps in a relatively unexplored (by white scientists, anyway) region of Africa made some sense to cryptozoologists. In the 1970s, however, changing ideas in paleontology showed that sauropods could indeed support their own weight on land and thus did not need to rely on an amphibious existence. Even so, given millions of years of evolution, it would not be impossible for a sauropod to adapt to an aquatic lifestyle like a capybara or a hippopotamus. Dinosaurs have, of course, survived into the modern day in the form of birds. So it is not completely out of the realm of possibility that a non-avian dinosaur such as a sauropod may also have survived into the age of humans. Although the lack of any sauropod fossils after the Mesozoic extinction makes this a highly unlikely proposal.
What else could the mushussu have been, then? Several researchers have suggested that it may have been a species of giant, unknown monitor lizard even bigger than the Komodo dragon- an identity that has also been proposed for the afa of the Marsh Arabs and the Himalayan Buru. A monitor lizard explanation is not all that far-fetched, considering that smaller species of these reptiles actually do inhabit the Arabian peninsula. There is even precedence for other giant monitors aside from the Komodo dragon in the form of a 16-foot long monitor called Megalania that roamed Australia thousands of years ago.
What of the long, paired horns on the mushussu’s snout? Or the supposed “ram’s horns” on the back of its head? While no living monitor has horns or other head ornamentation, the aforementioned Megalania did have a small crest between its eyes. Perhaps Marduk’s sacred beast had similar, but more pronounced and paired crests on its snout. Regarding the curling horns on the back of the head, it’s worth noting that these features were not present on many other depictions of the animal. It’s possible they were simply an artistic embellishment of a fleshy fringe or neck flap on the real animal.
Did a large horned reptile roam the lands of Babylon and Central Asia, serving as a sacred beast to some and a nuisance to others? There is, unfortunately, no scientific evidence just yet. No preserved skins or bones. No fossils. But perhaps one day some explorer will unearth some remains lying forgotten in a temple under the sands or buried in the peat of an ancient bog. And the world will see get to marvel at Marduk’s dragon once again.