Small Model Of The Processional Way

Starting the year like the ancient Babylonians

It has already been a few weeks since the beginning of the year and by now you have either started cementing some new good habits into your daily routine or already resorted back to less than desirable old ones. Old habits die hard.

Whether it was a new workout routine, reading more books, focusing on your goals, spending more time with family and friends, or even finally completing the new year resolutions that you promised yourself five years ago, we have had this habit for over 4000 years.

The ancient Babylonians are thought to have been the very first civilization to make new year resolutions. However, to them the new year began in March and not in January like we celebrate today. Nowadays, we celebrate the new year at the beginning of January thanks to the Romans, more specifically Julius Caesar and a god named Janus.

The Babylonians celebrated the new year in March as it was in March that they re-planted the crops and held a grand religious festival called “Akitu” that lasted 12 days.

During the festival, the King, his royal court and the city’s priests would carry statues of the gods down a long Processional Way, leading up to the Ishtar Gate, the grand entrance to Babylon. From there, they would carry the gods up to the Akitu Temple.

The Processional Way was a long corridor, formed by vivid blue brick and golden depictions of mythical creatures that symbolised the gods. The first god depicted along the walls was Hadad, the god of storms, thunder and rain. He was represented as an auroch, a now extinct species of large wild cattle. The god would have been the equivalent of Zeus to the ancient Greeks and would have been in charge of beneficial rain for the crops.

The second god was Marduk, the patron god of the city. He was depicted as a dragon-like creature with the head and tail of a snake and the scaled body of a lion. He was the god of creation, nature and magic.

Finally, Ishtar, whom the gate was named after was the goddess of sex, love, war and power. The bottom of the walls were also adorned with rosettes, symbols of fertility.

During the 1930s, German archaeologists dismantled the Ishtar Gate, brick by brick, and brought it with them to Berlin where it is now on display at the Pergamon Museum. This allowed me to walk through it a couple of years back during my visit to the German capital. It was by far my favourite museum located on the iconic museum island and also features other massive monuments like the Ancient Greek Pergamon Altar, the Mshatta Facade and the Market Gate of Miletus.

Anyhow, back to the ancient Babylonians. Towards the end of the festival, the Babylonians would make promises to the gods. Maybe they promised to eventually get around to paying their debts or to finally give back the old axe head that they had perhaps borrowed from their neighbour but never returned. Either way, if they kept their promises to the gods, they in return would bestow good fortune for the coming year. Nowadays, we no longer make promises to the gods but to ourselves, which we now call new year resolutions.

As I mentioned earlier, it is because of the Roman Julius Caesar that we now celebrate the new year at the beginning of January. This is the same man who was once kidnapped by pirates and then had them executed because he was insulted by their low ransom demand. The same man who once travelled to Egypt to track down one of his enemies and ended up having a son with the glorious and beautiful Cleopatra. Anyway, I digress.

Julius thought it was fitting we celebrate the new year in January due to the Roman god Janus, named after the month of January. He is the god of beginnings and endings, gates and doorways, transitions and time. He is depicted as having two faces, one looking forward and one looking back; and Caesar thought it appropriate as a time to look back and reflect on the old year and look forward to the next one.

We are more likely to set goals at the beginning of a new week, a new month, or even a new year as a fresh start feels motivating. Even if you didn’t set any new goals or habits at the beginning of the year or if you did but have already resorted back to your usual old habits, then you can always take a page out of ancient Babylonian traditions and try again in March.

By Jay Costa Owen
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Jay recently graduated from the Faculty of Fine Artes in Lisbon. Jay’s interests are exploring new cultures through photography and the myths, legends and history that define them.

The Ishtar Gate
Small Model Of The Processional Way
Julius Caesar sculpture at the Altes Museum