The Lion of Babylon (Asad Bābil) is a 2600-year-old black basalt sculpture of a lion trampling a man. It is believed that the statue was built by king Nebuchadnezzar II of Babylon (605-562 BC), especially because it was discovered in the ancient city in 1876 by a German archaeological mission. As mentioned by Benjamin Sass and Joachim Marzahn in their Aramaic and figural stamp impressions on bricks of the sixth century B.C. from Babylon (2010), the lion was intimately associated with Mesopotamian royalty, in many cases the lion impression appearing by themselves on brickwork where royal cuneiform impressions are habitually found, as if replacing them.
Lions were common all across Arabia, Mesopotamia, Persia and India until the 19th century. This Asiatic lion, as it is scientifically called, became an important part of Mesopotamian monarchical imagery. The famous lion hunt of Ashurbanipal relief and the different lions depicted on the famous 6th century BC Ishtar Gate attest to this role, in addition to the vast amount of lion impressions found on brickwork and ceramics inside the historical region. The Lion of Babylon statue should be considered from this point of view. The lion as the king’s embodiment trampling and subjugating his enemies. This enemy was distinctively kept human, to emphasize his unroyal nature.
The Asiatic lion, and this statue in particular, became national symbols for the modern Iraqi nation-state since at least the 1930’s. It symbolizes strength, royalty and resilience and serves as a means of imperial legitimacy and historical continuity. The latter was especially true after the 1958 Republic or Iraq overthrew the Hashemite monarchy, effectively changing many of the government’s public imagery from Arab to pre-Islamic era symbols in order to build on its legacy. Postage stamps, coins, locally manufactured rifles and even the association crest of the Iraq national football team, known by its fans as Usūd al-Rāfidayn (the Lions of Mesopotamia), all feature the proper Lion of Babylon statue. The Lion of Babylon was also an Iraqi locally manufactured T-72 battle tank during the late 1980s. The tank saw service in the 1991 Persian Gulf War as well as the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
Today, the two meters long majestic statue stands lonely at the northern end of the Processional Way of Babylon. The World Monuments Fund intervened in 2013 due to the deteriorating state of the landmark. The lion was cleaned, reinforced and restored after which new signs were added to protect the lion from visitors and tourists.
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Omer Sayadi (*1993) is a former student of the Catholic University of Leuven with a special love for the Middle East and North Africa. After receiving his Master’s degree in Arabic Language and Islamic Studies, he’s working with both refugees from the region as well as foreigners seeking to learn the Dutch language. He wrote columns on Islam in Europe and migration, and started MENA Symbolism as a means of combining everything history, politics, symbolism and society in one place.