Ancient Iraq: Lion of Babylon

World Monuments Fund

The Lion of Babylon is a great symbol of the resiliency of ancient and modern Iraq. World Monuments Fund was privileged in the course of its work at Babylon with the Iraq State Board of Antiquities to conserve the Lion of Babylon, allowing this ancient sculpture to continue to exist as a beacon for all those who visit the site.

History & Origins
The Lion of Babylon, a 2600-year-old black basalt statue of a lion trampling a man, is among the most celebrated archaeological artifacts in Iraq. The statute does not seem to be of Mesopotamian or Babylonian origin despite the fact that it was unearthed in the heart of the ancient city of Babylon. Most archaeologists believe that the statue was created by the Hittites who lived in Babylon in the second millennium BC.
The Lion's Symbolism
Associated with the Goddess Ishtar, its back has marks indicating a saddle upon which the goddess Ishtar would sit was part of the original composition. The Lion is one of the prominent monuments in Babylon, measuring 2.6 meters long and 11.95 meters in height. The Lion of Babylon remains in place, although many other features of the ancient city’s heritage such as Ishtar Gate—now at the Pergamon Museum in Berlin—have been removed and are on view in museums. Symbolizing the strength of Babylonians, the statue appears in official emblems and seals for government agencies and private companies reflecting its popularity among the people of Iraq.
Conservation Issues & Measures of Intervention
Located in the northern end of the Processional Way, the Lion of Babylon is a singular landmark, popular with visitors for the photo opportunity it presents. Visitors, eager to interact with the lion, routinely climbed the structure, which was often left unguarded.

When World Monuments Fund began working with the Iraq State Board of Antiquities in 2007 to create a Site Management Plan for Babylon, it was not possible to visit the site. We collaborated with many partners to research the history of the site and begin the discovery process of what was most significant about Babylon.

Archaeologists expressed concerns over the future of the statue and the fact that it lacked protection from vandalism. Razor wire was installed by the State Board of Antiquities and Heritage of Iraq to prevent visitors from climbing the monument.

World Monuments Fund, in collaboration with the SBAH, removed the razor wire, stabilized the lion’s pedestal, and installed more attractive protective measures to allow a continuing appreciation for the monument, while providing the necessary barriers to keep the Lion safe.

A hole in the west side of the base was made by people climbing the statue. Erosion caused by groundwater and humidity made the base easy to damage.

WMF intervened in 2013 as the base was deteriorating and the statue’s stability was threatened. Partially peeling back the rotted concrete plaster on the base and modern fill around it revealed the original masonry, a stack of Babylonian baked mud bricks that Claudius Rich used in the 1830s. The sculpture, which weighs about 12 tons, sits on broken brick rubble or voids in the foundation. During this time, the lion was cleaned, reinforced, and restored to its modern appearance.

Workers removed the old concrete frame from the base. Stabilization of the Lion's concrete encasement was a necessary conservation intervention and opportunity to improve the statue’s presentation.

A rebar cage was affixed around the base, and this was followed by finishing the base, casting a new plaster edging.

The final stages of conservation work included adding further gravel around the base, cleaning the lion of dirt, setting curbstones and railing around the perimeter.

New signage was added to protect the lion from visitors. Iraq’s heritage sites are recognized as assets for education, cultural tourism, and economic development. A revived Babylon will attract tourists, media, and academic interest, raising Iraq’s cultural profile and reconnecting it to the world.

The Lion of Babylon Today
Visitors can now enjoy the site, with the Lion of Babylon surveying the remains of the ancient city, the mighty Euphrates River at its back.
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