Understanding what is “traditional” in Near Eastern religions and religious architecture is difficult since there were many religions practiced in the region, each with its own take on architecture based on location, time period, and ritual use. A significant number of civilizations parade in and out of Near Eastern History including: Sumerian, Akkadian, Babylonian, Assyrian, Hittite, and Phoenician. These cultures dominated parts of Mesopotamia at different times and sometimes came into power again many years after their first ascendancy. These resurgences of power add another level of complexity to deciphering when temples were built and who built them. Despite the disparity between cultures, certain important and basic similarities are apparent when the temple architecture of the major Mesopotamian cultures is examined. In studying the plans of one or two temples of either Ishtar or her equivalents from each of these cultures and time periods, a pattern that seems to indicate at least a certain degree of continuity or tradition can be ascertained. In addition, the continuity is strengthened because most of the civilizations in the Near East who worshiped Ishtar were Semitic in origin.(1)
Ishtar’s worship seems to be a product of a basically Semitic tradition. Ishtar and the later goddesses that descend from her, or who at least share many attributes with her, were integral to the religious life of Mesopotamia for thousands of years. Therefore, when the relatively young civilizations of the Greek and Romans encountered the Near East they were naturally influenced by long standing religious traditions of the Near East.(2)
The impact is undeniable, although extremely complex and varying in its effects. The origins of the Ishtar cult, and most especially its architecture, need to be explored in order to gain a better understanding of how traditional her cult and its architecture remained by the time she became known as Atargatis in the Greek and Roman eras.
Sumerian Temples as Basis for the Mesopotamian Style Temple (mid-fourth millennium-late-third millennium BC)
Sumerian temples are the first examples of the temple type that may be an influence for the temple found at cult sites of fertility goddesses in the Greek and Roman Periods. The style is not only used in the Ishtar cult but is typical to most temples of Sumerian deities as well as the temples of later Mesopotamian deities. The Sumerian culture was the earliest true civilization to develop in the Mesopotamian region. In Uruk, one of the major centers of Sumer, the temple of Ishtar, called Eanna, became a major sanctuary around 3300 BC until Neo-Babylonian times, c. 522 BC. The sanctuary consists of multiple temples surrounded by a temenos wall. The temples were located on various terraces with podia upon which the temples were built.(3) The walls were casement walls, or double walls, with space for storage, a kind of wall often used in other later temples as discussed below. These casement walls created multiple open courtyards inside which several antechambers and cellae create more than one temple building. Eanna has the common Sumerian arrangement of one cella dedicated to the main god or goddess of the sanctuary with consorts or other associated deities sharing smaller cellae to the side of the main one. These numerous cult areas and the multiple courts comprise the basic arrangement of the Sumerian type temple.
The seemingly haphazard arrangement of courts and rooms at Eanna contributes to an asymmetrical layout, which is also a hallmark of the Sumerian plan. Entrances from outside of the sanctuary and from room to room do not line up, creating a bent axis approach which cuts off the line of sight to the cult rooms and the cult statues. This arrangement seems to be deliberate because the shrines usually were not meant to be seen by the general public from the outside of the temple and often times only priests were allowed in the room where the cult statue stood, thus the cult room was not visible from the outside.(4) The exterior of Eanna also demonstrates common elements of Mesopotamian temples. The walls of the various temples in the Eanna precinct temple, as can be seen in the plan, were decorated by the niche and projection articulation common to Mesopotamian temples.
The cult rituals and objects of Eanna demonstrate early examples of Mesopotamian practices that would become a standard of Semitic religions and may have influenced Atargatis’ worship. Altars probably stood in the courtyard and sacrifices of animals and liquids as well as burning of incense were preformed on various altars.13 Stepped altars are depicted on vases from Eanna.14 The altars were often architectural and represented miniature versions of temples or “houses” for the gods.(5) Altars in Sumerian times were usually small tables constructed of stone upon which either animal, liquid, grain, or incense offerings were made. Altars were originally not the elaborate “high places” developed by the later Canaanites.(6) The first altars were most likely piles of stones which in early Mesopotamian religion remained smaller than the elaborate high altars of biblical times. Ritual sacrifices to the gods were common Semitic religion and are well attested to in the Bible and other literary sources as well as archaeological finds. Burnt offerings were not as commonly used in Mesopotamian rituals, except for when used during the ritual banquet, since they were not used in the same “sin offering” manner as later Israelite religion.(7)
An important ritual object found in Uruk that was related to Inanna’s worship was the ring-post. It derived from “a doorpost for a structure built of reeds and probably made of a bundle of reeds bound together, with the upper ends bent over to make a loop for the cross-pole.” It was originally the written symbol for her name and came to symbolize her temple. The ring-post features prominently in temple objects that depict cult rituals taking place. A vase found in Uruk depicts Inanna receiving offerings while standing in front of ring-posts which designate her temple. It is interesting that the first symbol for Inanna was a pillar since pillar worship became a large part of later Semitic religion and was prominent in Atargatis’ cult in Hierapolis.
The vase found in Uruk also reveals Inanna’s nature as a goddess of fertility and sexuality. The vase depicts a naked priest offering fruit-symbolizing fertility-to the goddess and a high altar upon which stand worshippers. Fertility and sexual associations were naturally a part of Inanna’s-and later Ishtar’s- worship as she was the goddess of fertility. These aspects of Inanna/Ishtar are recorded in many myths such as The Descent of Inanna and the later version in which she is called Ishtar. This myth originates from the Sumerian period in Nippur but was not recorded until 1800 BC.(8) The story relates how, “[n]o bull mounted a cow, [no donkey impregnated a jenny], no young man impregnated a girl in [the street?]” essentially describing how all sexual activity on earth had stopped because Inanna/Ishtar had descended into the underworld.(9) Since her power of sexual attraction was what kept the world going and without her all fertility ceased, it is natural that cult objects associated with fertility would be found in her temples. Other myths, such as the Epic of Gilgamesh, also record her power over sexuality. Ishtar’s proposal of marriage to Gilgamesh, the mythical king of the Early Dynastic II (2800 and 2600 BC), reveals Inanna/Ishtar’s insatiable lust. In the story, Gilgamesh refuses her advances by brusquely enumerating the horrible fates faced by many of her previous lovers. Since Eanna is mentioned as the local temple for Gilgamesh in this tale and Inanna/Ishtar is portrayed as a goddess of fertility and sexuality this proves that she was worshiped as such at Eanna.
Cult paraphernalia found at other Sumerian temples such as the Temple of Ishtar in Nippur bring to light other typical Mesopotamian religious rituals. On the inside of the temple next to the main entrance was a drainage facility which was probably used for washing or libation rituals.(10) Libations were a common practice in later Semitic religions, especially that of the Jews. Other rituals of Inanna practiced in Nippur may have also included ritual banquets as seen in votive plaques found in her temple which date from c. 2750-2600 BC. Ritual banquets were practiced in many ancient Semitic religions and were also an important part of the later Atargatis temple rituals in both Delos and Dura Europos. In Mesopotamia the sacred banquet was celebrated in order to provide food and drink for the gods, one of the roles humans were created to provide.(11)
The Sumerian plan temple took hold in Mari in Syria because of ties with Sumerian culture.(12) Despite its architectural and religious dependence on Sumerian culture, Mari was also influenced by Syro-Palestinian culture. A raised podium located in the courtyard upon which sacrifices were probably offered reflects a typical Semitic cult object. This podium may be what is referred to in the Old Testament as the “high place” where the Ancient Israelites worshipped the idols of Ashtoreth-the Canaanite version of Ishtar- and Baal.(13) The podium ties the temple to traditional Semitic religious practices. There is also the interesting feature of a drainage canal leading from the offering table and many small basins found in the courtyard of the temple. These were probably used for ritual libations.(14) A vase depicting snakes and lions found in the temple represents a cult object which further attests to Ishtar’s fertility aspects and association with lions in Mari.
Akkadian Temples (c. 2300-2150 BC)
Because of the strong hegemony that the Sumerian civilization had over the region Akkadian rulers took on much of the trappings of Sumerian civilization in order to tie themselves to the powerful culture of the previous Sumerians. The deities of the Akkadians were melded with those of the Sumerians which seemed most similar and given Akkadian names. Thus, Inanna became Ishtar but retained her same fertility aspects while gaining some more militant masculine elements. This early Semitic religion, as will be demonstrated, featured much of the same elements found in the West Semitic Israelite religion of about one thousand years later.
One of the main cult centers of the Akkadian period was the nineteenth-century BC Temple of Ishtar at Nineveh. As Akkadian power grew so did the popularity of Ishtar in Nineveh and abroad because she was main goddess of the Akkadian pantheon. Although built in the Akkadian period, the best remains of her temple in Nineveh temple come from the Assyrian period and are attributed to Shamshi-Adad I (r. 1813-1791). Although Shamshi-Adad I ruled after the Akkadians fell he rebuilt the Nineveh temple after the Akkadian manner in order to legitimize his rule by tying himself to the glory of the Akkadian empire.(15) Little of Akkadian religious architecture is known thus the exact plan of the Akkadian period temple is unknown. Therefore Shamshi-Adad’s reconstruction in the Akkadian manner may give us some idea of the original structure. The temple exhibits the typical Sumerian plan with the addition of towers flanking the entrances.
The decoration and cult objects and rituals of the temple at Nineveh reveal its dedication to Ishtar. Shalmaneser I (c. 1263-1234 BC) recorded that he refurbished the lion decoration on the temple, thus demonstrating Ishtar’s early association with lions. During Assyrian times obelisks were added in front of the entrance gate, a trait influenced by Egyptian temples. Typical Semitic cult objects were found at Nineveh during the Neo-Assyrian period. As recorded by the kings, the objects included a bed, either used for sexual rituals or ritual dining, built by Ashurnasirpal I (r. 1050-1031 BC) and altar built by Ashurbanipal (r. 669-631 or 627 BC).(16) In addition, the typical libation offering of wine (water is also used) was also present in Nineveh as recorded by Ashurnasirpal and Ashurbanipal.”
The fertility nature of Ishtar continued in her worship in Nineveh. Sexual rituals were practiced at the temple in Nineveh and Ishtar is often mentioned in hymns from Nineveh as a patron goddess of prostitution.(17) One hymn dates from sometime between 2000 and 1600 BC and although not from the Akkadian period it reflects beliefs about Ishtar from the time period of Shamshi-Adad’s reconstruction of the temple. Ishtar’s relation to fertility and sexuality seemed to be quite fluid. She was often worshipped as an androgynous deity and referred to as being bearded.(18) Ishtar’s relation to sexual ambiguity is further attested to in the early myths The Descent of Inanna and The Descent of Ishtar. In these myths Asushunamir, a eunuch created by Ea, helps Ishtar escape from her sister Ereshkigal who is holding her captive in the underworld. Asushumanir succeeds in entertaining Ereshkigal who then lets Ishtar go free. Her early worship involved an astral relationship to the planet Venus as the male morning star and the female evening star. Her dual characteristics as the goddess of sex and procreation and the goddess of war further support this gender dichotomy.(19)
Ishtar’s sexual ambiguity is also demonstrated by some of her male cultic personnel. Many of them were eunuchs who may have practiced self-castration or were transsexual. It seems strange for a goddess of fertility and sexuality to have eunuch followers. However, they may have been attempting to emulate their patron goddess who herself transcended gender boundaries. Their castration may also reflect Ishtar’s dual nature as goddess of creation and goddess of destruction. She may have possessed a kind of “creative negation” since she was the one who perpetuated fertility and the power to end it. These hymns and myths also reveal Ishtar’s notorious cruelty in punishing followers, in this case with gender change but which could also include diseases or other misfortunes.48
Ishtar’s cult seems to have been one in which the general populace could act out certain rituals in which social norms were ignored. Sexual rituals, gender transcending, play acting, and a general carnivalesque atmosphere prevailed during her festivals.49 Her cult eunuchs were probably an integral part of the play-acting that occurred in her worship. Harris relates that, “Bawdy theater was very much a part of the celebration in which the goddess’s personnel enacted (probably with appropriate costumes and masks) the roles of their goddess.”50 The presence of theater in the cult of Ishtar may be an important precedent for the theatral areas found in the temples of Atargatis in Delos and Dura Europos. Some of this “bawdy theater,” may have involved prostitution and ritual reenactments as seen in the sacred marriage between Ishtar and her consort Dumuzi (Tammuz) as portrayed by a priestess and priest (or priest-king).
Assyrian Temples (fifteenth-tenth century BC)
Temples of Ishtar continued to be built as the Assyrian civilization came into power in the Mesopotamian region. Under the reign of the Assyrian king Tukulti-Ninurta I (1243 BC - 1207 BC) the Temple of Ishtar was rebuilt in the capital city of Assur. The plan of this Middle Assyrian temple follows the typical Sumerian style. The altar of the temple was located in the main shrine which was at the top of a staircase. The altar in the shrine would have been stepped, similar to those depicted on vases at Eanna, and decorated with birds, serpents, and lions since altars of that kind were found in the oldest levels of the Temple of Ishtar in Assur. These stepped altars as depicted on cylinder seals may be influenced by the ziggurat, a high tower or podium upon which the temple stood or which was located in the sanctuaries of many Sumerian and later Babylonian temples. The cult room seems to have been raised at least since Level D which predates Tukulti-Ninurta’s level.(19) Mesopotamian temples were often set on podia although to have the inner shrine raised as well seems to be an Assyrian invention. Both the ziggurat connections and the raised cult room demonstrate a preference for “high places” because these “high places” brought the worshipper and the home of the god closer to heaven.
Cult objects found in Tukulti-Ninurta’s temple attest to the continued association of Ishtar with fertility. Ritual phallic and pubic amulets found in the temples reflect the sexual nature of Ishtar and relate to the sexual rituals practiced in her temples to insure fertility. Additionally, various votive offerings decorated with date palms, a symbol of fertility, were found in graves near the temple.(20) The date palm symbolized the tree of life because one plant was male and one female. The tree was very fertile and produced life sustaining fruit. Its association with Ishtar is natural as she is the goddess who represents “the creative force of nature.”(21) Ishtar’s ties with the symbolism of the date palm during the Assyrian period are further attested to by a Neo-Assyrian cylinder seal dating from c.750-650 BC. This seal depicts Ishtar astride her characteristic lion standing next to a date palm.
An altar or pedestal found in Tukulti-Ninurta’s temple reveals an interesting part of Assyrian religion. The altar depicts two worshippers in front of a pedestal holding a rectangular stone. This scene indicates that pillar worship was common in Assyria beginning in at least the thirteenth century BC. Mesopotamian religion generally used anthropomorphic representations of their divinities.(22) However, sometimes a deity’s symbol, such as the star of Ishtar on the Victory Stele of Naram-Sin, would stand in for the normal anthropomorphic representation. The symbols of deities are also found on stones in temples, called kudurru, which represent land grants to the temple and define the temple border.
Neo-Babylonian Temples (seventh century-sixth century BC)
In their second rise to power the Neo-Babylonian’s built on the architectural and iconographic traditions of their predecessors. The Temple of Ishtar of Agade (Akkad) in Babylon probably dates to the reign of Nabupolassar (c. 625-605 BC). The temple had a regular Babylonian ground plan based on the Sumerian prototypes. Two towers, the typical grooved pattern and the bent-axis approach are combined in the developed Mesopotamian style.(23) Smaller sanctuaries surrounded the cella complex which was completely separate from the walls of the temple. Various rooms and hallways ran behind the cella and to the side, an arrangement echoed in the side rooms of the later Temple of Solomon.(24) Common Semitic rituals were also practiced in the Ishtar temple in Babylon. The hall behind the cella probably had a ramp to the roof since many Babylonian temples had roof access so animal sacrifice, burning incense, and the pouring of libations could be performed on the roof.(25) The water tank or apsu located in the courtyard, similar to the Inanna temple in Nippur, demonstrates that water rituals were practiced in this temple. Also an open-air altar near the front entrance, or more commonly in the courtyard, was an integral part of Semitic religion.
In addition to the sanctuaries and cults of Mesopotamia, those of the ancient Syro-Palestinian region are also important in understanding the development of the cult of Atargatis. Hierapolis and Delos, two major centers of the cult of Atargatis in the Greco-Roman Period, were located in Syria. These centers are thus tied to the Syro-Palestinian tradition because of location as well as the Mesopotamian one because of Mesopotamian cultural influence in the Syro-Palestinian region. During the Bronze and Iron Ages the regions of Syria and the Levantine Coast were highly influenced by the various cultures that ruled it throughout its history. As seen in the Temple of Ishtar at Mari the Sumerian style architecture that was common in areas in eastern Mesopotamia was introduced early into Syria.
Despite the rule of strong civilizations over the region, the Syro-Palestinian style managed to produce a unique culture and temple architecture of its own. This architectural style seems to be a mix of Egyptian and Babylonian influences with its own distinctive style that is commonly referred to as Phoenician since the Phoenicians seem to be its most prolific users.(26) However, pre-Phoenician cultures as well as the Hittites used the style before the Phoenicians, as will be discussed. The predominance of the Syro-Palestinian style seems to demonstrate that the conventions of the powerful empires of the East were not the only traditions that may have contributed to the later Atargatis cult. Thus, important temples of Ishtar found in certain cities in the Syria-Palestine region are necessary to explore in order to understand their architectural and cultic impact on Greek and Roman temples of Atargatis. In addition, other temples most evocative of the Syro-Palestinian style and Semitic religion will be examined.
Ebla (third millennium BC-1600 BC)
The two temples dedicated to Ishtar in Ebla both demonstrate a Syro-Palestinian temple style. The temple designated P2 in Ebla was built in the lower town sometime between 2000 and 1900 BC with continued additions until about 1600 BC. It was located in a rectangular compound with a temenos wall on the north side, the wall of the acropolis on the east and the street on the other sides. Next to Temple P2 there was a large open courtyard and a high podium on which sacrifices occurred, much as in the temple at Mari and other Mesopotamian temple complexes. This podium is related to the “high place” at Mari and others found in Syria-Palestine. It also most likely had stairs for climbing to the top upon which sacrifices could be offered.(27)
Temple P2 shares elements with Mesopotamian temples including towers and a large niche in the cella where a statue of Ishtar and perhaps her consort Hadad, the North Syrian/Phoenician storm god similar to Babylonian Bel and known as Baal in the Old Testament, would have rested.(28) Hadad’s association with Ishtar reflects a more North Syrian and Anatolian influence on the cult than a Mesopotamian one and is part of the generic Anatolian coupling of a weather god and fertility goddess. Temple D is very similar to Temple P2, although Temple D has both a porch and a pronaos. Unlike most Mesopotamian plans the temples at Ebla strictly emphasize axial symmetry. Both Temples P2 and Temple D seem to represent a classic Syro-Palestinian plan. Temple D, with its porch and pronaos, seems to be the earliest precedent to Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem built around 1000 BC, which will be discussed below.(29)
Common Semitic practices and iconography were part of the Ishtar cult at Ebla and seem to further tie the religion to later Israelite religion as well as earlier Sumerian, Babylonian and Assyrian practices. Water basins for ritual ablutions have been found next to both Temple P2 and Temple D, a cult ritual that seems to echo the font in the court of Solomon’s temple. Food offerings found in the area of the temple attest to large communal food rituals. Several pieces of art, including a basin found in Temple D, depict ritual banquets and tie the banquets to fertility rites. The high podium which sacrifices were made, a common Semitic practice, also had a large courtyard on one side. It has been suggested that the courtyard was either a place where sacred trees where kept to protect them from the wind or where the sacred animals of Ishtar including lions were kept some of which would be used for sacrifices. The use of sacred trees had fertility associations that Biblical prophets would later warn against, as discussed below. Votive statues of snakes and nude female figurines found in ritual pits or cisterns under the courtyard attest further to the fertility nature of the cult.
Other items found at Temple P2 reveal additional traits that were commonly associated with Ishtar. Figurines of lions found near the temple firmly show that the temple was dedicated to Ishtar as do jars depicting doves and nude women, two symbols of Ishtar.(30) Cylinder seals found nearby show the image of a priestess standing next to a standard representing Ishtar and Hadad. The presence of a priestess on this seal indicates that at Ebla the Mesopotamian tradition of having priestesses in Ishtar’s cult continued. Priestesses were often associated with sacred prostitution, sacred marriage, and sacred banquets.
A written document dating from the Middle Bronze Age found in level VII of the excavations at Alalakh, a Syro-Palestinian temple located near Ebla, reveals an important sexual ritual of the cult of Ishtar which may have also been practiced at Ebla. The writer of the document prays that if anyone tries to attack the city that Ishtar will “impress feminine parts into his male parts.”(31) This phrase seems to indicate that Ishtar was worshipped as a “castrating goddess.” The Mesopotamian Great Hymn to the Queen of Nippur also relates that Ishtar “turns men into women and women into men.”(32) The Alalakh document seems to tie the Syro-Palestinian tradition to earlier worship of Ishtar found in Mesopotamia.
Ain Dara (1300 BC-740 BC)
In the Hittite city state of Ain Dara, located in Northern Syria, the inhabitants built a temple to Ishtar around 1300 BC and continued to add to it until c. 740 BC.(32) By the thirteenth century BC the people living in Ain Dara seem to be influenced by a variety of cultures more than the Hittite culture, including a strong Syro-Palestinian tradition.(33)
The Temple of Ishtar at Ain Dara demonstrates the continuity of the Syro-Palestinian temple type because it was built after the temple found at Ebla and serves as precedent for the Temple of Solomon. The plan of the temple at Ain Dara is typically Syro-Palestinian because of its three part division and strict axiality. It strongly resembles the earlier Temple D from Ebla. The cella was elevated and may have been divided from the main hall by a screen. In addition, Ain Dara possesses an outer ambulatory of hallways and storage rooms that seem to reflect the casement walls of Eanna in Uruk and the Temple of Ishtar of Agade in Babylon. This arrangement is also mentioned in the Bible for the Temple of Solomon. Ain Dara appears to corroborate the Biblical account of the Temple of Solomon. The deliberate use of a Syro-Palestinian temple plan in Ain Dara reveals that a strong traditional architecture was present in the area despite influences from other cultures.
The decoration of the temple reveals ties to Ishtar with the many relief sculpture of lions and sphinxes. The most unique depiction of deity found at Ain Dara are giant footprints on the stones entering the temple. Two feet are shown at the entrance, then a left foot followed by a right foot, thus depicting the deity striding forward into the sanctuary. An interesting relation between the anthropomorphic absence of this deity, who is only indicated by feet, and the empty throne found in the Temple of Solomon will be discussed below. Another relief sculpture depicts a goddess wearing a thin see-through gown that reveals her prominent pubic area, indicating her fertility associations, and holding various weapons, demonstrating her martial attributes. The presence of this deity along with the figures of lions has led many scholars to attribute the temple to Ishtar, or Sausga in the Hittite language.(34) The temple decoration also included lily and palmette designs, much like those found in the later Temple of Solomon. A water basin found in the courtyard that flanked the temple, a similar arrangement to the open air courtyards of earlier Mesopotamian temples, also underscores the fertility connections. The many different fertility objects found at this temple demonstrate a mix of Mesopotamian and Syro-Palestinian influences present at Ain Dara. This temple as a whole represents a combination a typically Syrian temple with Hittite sculptural and some similarities with Mesopotamian architecture. It seems to be a truly cosmopolitan sanctuary combining many of the influences that will be important to later temples like the Temple of Solomon and the Greco-Roman temples of fertility goddesses.
Temple of Solomon (c. 1000 BC-586 BC)
Although not a temple dedicated to Ishtar, the Temple of Solomon is one of the best examples showing the combination of Semitic traditions in one site in order to understand the influence of these traditions on the later Atargatis cult. The temple, which dates from around 1000 BC, was surrounded by two courtyards, an outer court which all the people could enter and the inner court, called “the court of the priests.” The temple was set on a podium, a conclusion that comes from the account that it had to be reached by stairs. It was built by the Phoenician Hiram of Tyre and thus was most likely built in the Syro-Phoenician tradition. The porch was probably flanked by towers as it was common in many Syro-Palestinian temples that may have been influenced by Egyptian pylons, through Phoenician influence, as well as Babylonian towers. Most reconstructions by Biblical scholars recreate the temple with towers topped with the characteristically Mesopotamian merlon motif indicating a general agreement of Mesopotamian influence in Phoenician architecture.
The porch of the Temple of Solomon was followed by an antechamber and then the cella, or holy of holies. This cella was raised up from the level of the antechamber similarly to the raised shrine found in the temple of Ishtar in Assur and Ain Dara. Evidence for the raised cella comes from the biblical measurement in which the temple is 30 cubits tall (13.7 m) but the cella is said to be only 20 cubits (9 m) tall from its floor to ceiling. The inner shrines at Ain Dara and Tell Ta’yinat, another Syro-Palestinian style temple, are both raised. These raised shrines may relate to the biblical “high place.” The exact form of the “high place” is unknown but it could take the form of an elevated altar upon which rituals were preformed or even an entire temple elevated on a podium could be considered a “high place” since it raised the worshipper closer to heaven.(35) Only the priests were allowed in the temple itself as was typical of Mesopotamian temples.
Another feature of the temple which demonstrates its eclectic borrowings is the side rooms that flank three sides of the temple. They were probably used to store temple goods and treasures and echo the side rooms found at Ain Dara. Ultimately the precedent for these side rooms comes from 2,000 years earlier in the casement walls of Eanna and subsequent Mesopotamian style temples. Ebla, Ain Dara, and the Temple of Solomon represent a continuous Syro-Palestinian tradition infused with Mesopotamian borrowings.
The temple at Mari also combines West Semitic elements, such as its “high place”, with the Eastern Semitic elements, its Sumerian plan. Thus, is seems that all of these temples embody “a hybrid tradition of high terraces, which unifies western and eastern aspects and which comes down from the Early Dynastic period.”
Dea Syria, "Goddess of Syria"
The Development of the Cult of Atargatis
Kristina Michelle Wimber
Like many earlier temples an altar stood in the courtyard of the Temple of Solomon.(36) According to 2 Chronicles 4:1 the altar was 10 cubits high which is roughly 4.5 meters. This passage indicates that the altar was very tall and would have necessitated stairs to reach the top of the altar on which sacrifices would have occurred. The altar was probably stepped and may reflect influence from Babylonian ziggurats.(37) Many of the altars in the Canaanite region were either tall altars or if they were small they were shaped like towers, which also reflect Babylonian influence of rooftop rituals. The stepped altar may be specifically associated with female deities and the use of one at the Temple of Solomon and other Israelite sites like Beth-Shan may indicate her worship there or at least Mesopotamian influence in the cult. The altar may represent a kind of “high place” because of its elevation. Early altars in Semitic religion were small piles of stone which later evolved into two different practices in the Israelite period: firstly, the setting up of sacred pillar stones and secondly, monumental altars or “high places.” Much like in earlier Mesopotamian religion rituals also occurred on rooftops before reforming prophets in Israel banned them. The temple complex at Dan from the eighth century BC has not only a high stepped altar but also a sanctuary set on a podium.
Water is the life force of the land therefore it is evident that there were fertility associations in the use of water in Semitic temples. A water basin was also located in the courtyard of the Temple of Solomon. This basin possibly derives from the Egyptian use of sacred lakes at their temple sites. It also has a counterpoint in the Babylonian apsu, or tank filled with water, found in temple courtyards. The term apsu stems from the ancient Mesopotamian belief in an underground freshwater ocean which fed the rivers and lakes. The word for the basin in Hebrew was yam, meaning ocean. A link between these basins and the later lake at Hierapolis is thus not inconceivable.
Ritual banqueting was also a part of Syro-Palestinian religions. Side rooms in the sanctuary at Dan may have been used for ritual banquets. But the only evidence for Biblical ritual banquets comes from sources not related to the Temple of Solomon itself. 1 Samuel 19-23 records Samuel inviting Saul to dine with him at a “high place” and Amos 6:7 warns that those who participated in the banquets, or revelries, supposedly of “other” gods, will be taken captive. The passage in 1 Samuel is also important because it reveals that “high places” and ritual banquets were not always a taboo part of the Israelite religion. A Phoenician bronze bowl depicts these lascivious revelries and demonstrates that these rituals were common in Canaanite religion. Mesopotamian rituals of sacrifice were much more tied to sacred banquets than the sacrifices practiced by the later Israelites. “High places” were also associated with the setting up of sacred pillars or trees discussed below.
Besides cult objects, some of the beliefs of the Israelite religion are similar to earlier Semitic religions. One of the key differentiating elements of Israelite worship was the strict ban on any anthropomorphic representations of Yahweh. This aniconism is seen in the lack of a cult statue in the cella of the Temple of Solomon. Rather, an empty mercy seat with flanking cherubim represented the presence of God in the temple. Mettinger calls this phenomenon “empty space aniconism.”(38) The feet prints found at Ain Dara may also represent a kind of “empty space aniconism.” The Bible records that representing deities in the form of pillars, sacred stones, or groves of trees is well attested in the Canaanite religion at the time the Israelites were introduced to it, as will be discussed. This religious atmosphere, coupled with the injunction against “graven images” found in Exodus 20:4, makes Israelite adoption of aniconism seem more understandable.
By the time of Solomon’s reign the worship of Ishtar had traveled across Syria into Lebanon and even penetrated the religious monotheism of Israel.(39) Ishtar became known under the various titles of Astarte, Ashtoreth, and Asherah. Asherah was the chief Canaanite goddess as recorded on tablets found in Ugarit. It is evident that Asherah was a descendent of the Babylonian Ishtar as seen in the account in Ezekiel in which the Israelite women were in the temple weeping for Tammuz, the Babylonian lover of Ishtar whom she rescues from the underworld. This may show that some continuity of mythology was retained from the Babylonian period into Solomon’s time. Asherah was worshipped with the Canaanite god Baal and was one of the “idolatrous” deities that ancient Israel was always attracted to because of her fertility aspects. In the Canaanite context Ishtar’s fertility worship was merged with local aniconic tendencies. Israel’s aniconism not only included “empty space aniconism” but also incorporated more the Canaanite use of sacred stones or pillars, termed massebah in Hebrew. The worship of sacred stones was not new in Semitic religions as evidenced in the altar found in Assur; however, the Canaanites seem to have more widely used the practice.
Pillar worship was especially associated with the goddess Asherah in the Old Testament. The two columns in the porch of the Temple of Solomon are a common element in Syro-Palestinian temples such as those at Ain Dara, Tell Ta’yinat, and Hazor. The fertility cult of Asherah involved setting up a wooden image of her next to an altar of Baal in a wooded area, “high place” or temple. Asherah’s image was set up, removed and replaced in the temple in Jerusalem many times throughout the history of Ancient Israel. King Asa (r. 908-867 BC) was the first to reform the idolatrous practices of Asherah. The Biblical record shows multiple similarities still existed between the Ishtar cult and the Asherah cult including male prostitutes, altars, and pillars. King Josiah (r. 639-609 BC) also reformed the Israelite religion which had reverted to the old ways and still featured male prostitutes and pillar worship. Nude female cult figurines found in various locations throughout the Palestine region reveal that the fertility and pillar symbolism of Asherah may be justified, although some refute that Asherah is associated with these figures. These figurines have the head and bare torso of a woman with exaggerated breasts that rest on a pillar shaped base.
The two pillars found at the Temple of Solomon and Ain Dara may also have had sacred tree associations or phallic symbolism. The decoration of the Temple of Solomon may reveal fertility associations because it was decorated with palm motifs and the pillars featured lilies and pomegranates, two other plants associated with fertility. Even if the palm trees by this time had lost their association with Ishtar or Asherah, they still represented the forces of fertility. Many scholars believe the two pillars in front were free-standing. However, the two pillars in the porch of the temple at Ain Dara and Tell Ta’yinat were load bearing columns and seem to support the idea that the two columns in Solomon’s temple were not freestanding. However, freestanding or not they may still have represented pillar worship and fertility symbolism. Scholars disagree about the form of the Asherah pillars and that they “may signify an image representing the goddess herself, or the wooden pole symbolizing the goddess, or a sacred tree or grove.”
In the prophet Jeremiah’s time, around 640 BC, Asherah was being worshiped in Jerusalem under the epithet, the Queen of Heaven, and had a similar fertility cult to that of Ishtar who was also known as the Queen of Heaven. The relative importance of Asherah over Baal is seen later in Atargatis’ preeminence over Hadad in the Greco-Roman period. This cult demonstrates the continuity of some element of Ishtar’s worship in to the worship of Asherah. In Jeremiah 44:19 her followers burned incense, poured out libations, and made cakes for her. These cakes were made in the form of a nude goddess with exaggerated breasts and pubic region. The burning of incense and making offerings is consistent with earlier Babylonian practices, as evidenced on cylinder seals. By 592 BC Ezekiel records that the Asherah cult still being practiced at the temple only a few years before it was destroyed by priests who burned incense to the image of Asherah and worshipped the sun.
Since the cult of Asherah was still in existence in the sixth century BC in almost the same form, it may be possible that not much change occurred in the worship of Asherah until the Greeks began influencing the cult. A sixth-century BC temple to the god Eshmun in Sidon attests to the continuing worship of Asherah/Astarte. It was built in a Mesopotamian style and had a stepped or ziggurat shaped podium.(40) The temple of Eshmun incorporated a chapel dedicated to Astarte from probably the fourth century BC. At Sidon Asherah was worshipped as Astarte and was associated with the sea.(41) Inside the chapel was a large throne with sphinxes holding up the seat and surrounded by a pool of water. The throne, with its with lions or sphinxes, demonstrates the continuation of one of Ishtar’s most enduring attributes down as far as the worship of Astarte in the fourth century BC.
The Eshmun temple possessed not only the lake but multiple water channels and basins connected to a spring which were probably used for water rites and ablutions. These urns conjure up ideas about the need of water for fertility and the water pouring rituals associated with Astarte. A small bronze in the shape of throne flanked with sphinxes found in Sidon holds an urn similar to those set up in Astarte’s chapel. Dunand believes this urn to be a kind of betyl stone representing Astarte. The throne in the chapel of Astarte in Sidon could have held one of these urns representing Astarte. Or it could have been empty, as was the mercy seat that represented Yahweh in the Temple of Solomon. This kind of “empty space iconism” was also seen also at Ain Dara. The chapel of Astarte in Sidon is one of the last religious structures related to the worship of the long line of female fertility goddesses that was built before Hellenistic culture began to heavily influence the Near East.
The Mesopotamian and Syro-Palestinian temples discussed in this chapter exemplify the basic elements which repeatedly appear in the pre-Hellenistic era. The most common elements include open-air courtyards, non-symmetrical plans, bent-axes, an inner sanctuary or holy of holies, altars, “high places” or podia, some kind of water feature, and gateways with towers or obelisks. These elements are not exclusive to the temples of goddesses. However, combined with the fertility nature of the cults emphasized either through decorative elements and cult objects found in the temples or records of cult practices, these temples clearly belong to fertility goddesses. Associations with aniconism and lion imagery and banqueting are also a typical part of these sanctuaries. These elements, as discussed in the following chapters, were all combined in the eclectic temples of the Greco-Roman period clearly demonstrating that Hellenism was not as strong as has been thought amongst the cults of fertility goddesses in the Near East.
1. Gwendolyn Leick, A Dictionary of Ancient Near Eastern Mythology (London: Routledge, 1998), 96.
2. Jeremy A. Black, Anthony Green, Tessa Rickards, and the British Museum, Gods, Demons, and Symbols of Ancient Mesopotamia: An Illustrated Dictionary (London: British Museum Press, 1992), 174-177.
3. Harriet E. W. Crawford, Sumer and the Sumerians (Cambridge University Press, 1991), 60.
4. J. Kaplan, "Mesopotamian Elements in the Middle Bronze II Culture of Palestine," Journal of Near Eastern Studies 30, no. 4 (Oct., 1971): 295.
5. E. D. van Buren, "Akkadian Stepped Altars," Numen 1, no. 3 (Sep., 1954): 229-30.
6. W. Robertson Smith, Religion of the Semites, (New York: Schocken Books, 1972), 201.
7. Marc J. H. Linssen, The Cults of Uruk and Babylon: The Temple Ritual Texts as Evidence for Hellenistic Cult Practices (Leiden: Brill, Styx, 2004), 129.
8. Edwin M. Yamauchi, “Tammuz and the Bible,” Journal of Biblical Literature, Vol. 84, No. 3. (Sep., 1965): 285.
9. Stephanie Dalley, Myths from Mesopotamia: Creation, the Flood, Gilgamesh, and Others (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989), 158.
10. Richard L. Zettler, The Ur III Temple of Inanna at Nippur: The Operation and Organization of Urban Religious Institutions in Mesopotamia in the Late Third Millennium B.C., (Berlin: Dietrich Reimer Verlag, 1992), 58; Lightfoot, Commentary, 337; Gen 35:14, 1 Sam 7:6, 2 Sam 23:16-17.
11. Linssen, 129; Jean Bottero, Religion in Ancient Mesopotamia (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001), 126.
12. Abraham Malamat, "Mari,” The Biblical Archaeologist 34, no. 1 (Feb., 1971): 3-4; Crawford, 66.
13. N. Marchetti and Lorenzo Nigro, "Cultic Activities in the Sacred Area of Ishtar at Ebla during the Old Syrian Period: The "Favissae" F.5327 and F.5238." Journal of Cuneiform Studies 49 (1997): 3.
14. André Parrot, Mission Archéologique de Mari, (Paris: Librairie Orientaliste P. Geuthner, 1956), 14-15.
15. Julian Reade, “The Ishtar Temple at Nineveh,” in Nineveh: Papers of the XLIXe Rencontre Assyriologique Internationale, London, 7-11 July 2003 edited by Dominique G.A.R Collon, (London: British School of Archaeology in Iraq, 2005), 362.
16. George A. Barton, “The Semitic Ištar Cult,” Hebraica 9, no. 3/4 (Apr. - Jul., 1893): 133, 143, 152.
17. Reade, 372; Mark E. Cohen, "The Incantation-Hymn: Incantation or Hymn?" Journal of the American Oriental Society 95, no. 4 (Oct. - Dec., 1975): 606:19-21. Ishtar often refers to herself as a prostitute in hymns such as this.
18. Theophile J. Meek, "A Hymn to Ishtar, K. 1286," The American Journal of Semitic Languages and Literatures 26, no. 3 (April, 1910): 160.
19. Leick, 96; Rivkah Harris, “Inanna-Ishtar as Paradox and a Coincidence of Opposites,” History of Religions, Vol. 30, No. 3. (Feb., 1991): 268.
19. E. Heinrich and Ursula Seidl, Die Tempel und Heiligtümer im Alten Mesopotamien: Typologie, Morphologie und Geschichte, (Berlin: de Gruyter, 1982), 198.
20. Barbara N. Porter, "Sacred Trees, Date Palms, and the Royal Persona of Ashurnasirpal II," Journal of Near Eastern Studies 52, no. 2 (Apr., 1993): 138.
21. P. Popenoe, "The Date-Palm in Antiquity," The Scientific Monthly 19, no. 3 (Sep., 1924): 313, 316.
22. Theodore J. Lewis, "Divine Images and Aniconism in Ancient Israel," Journal of the American Oriental Society 118, no. 1 (Jan-March., 1998): 38.
23. Robert Koldewey and Agnes Sophia Griffith Johns, The Excavations at Babylon (London: Macmillan and Co, 1914), 296; Heinrich, 315.
24. Phillips E. Osgood, The Temple of Solomon; a Study of Semitic Culture (Chicago: The Open Court Publishing Company, 1910), 43.
25. Heinrich, 315; Anu-Antum in Uruk, Temple of Enlil in Nippur, Sin Temple in Khafaje, Eanna and many other temples. Seymour Gitin, “The Four-Horned Altar as Sacred Space,” in Sacred Time, Sacred Place: Archaeology and the Religion of Israel, ed. Barry M. Gittlen (Winona Lake, Ind: Eisenbrauns, 2002), 99, 105.
26. Osgood, 20-24; Emanuel Schmidt, "Solomon's Temple," The Biblical World 14, no. 3 (September, 1899): 166, 177; Paul L. Garber, "Reconstructing Solomon's Temple," The Biblical Archaeologist 14, no. 1 (Feb., 1951): 22.
27. Paolo Matthiae, “L’aire Sacrée d'Ishtar à Ebla: Résultats des Fouilles de 1990-1992,” Comptes Rendus des Séances de L'année-Académie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres (July/October, 1993): 649.
28. Marchetti, 3; Paolo Matthiae, “A New Monumental Temple of Middle Bronze II at Ebla and the Unity of the Architectural Tradition of Syria-Palestine,” Annales Archaeologiques Arabes Syriennes 40 (1990): 112.
29. Maurizio Forte and Alberto Siliotti, Virtual Archaeology: Recreating Ancient Worlds, New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1997.
30. Frances Pinnock “The Doves of the Goddess. Elements of the cult of Ishtar at Ebla in the Middle Bronze Age,” Levant, 32 (2000), 127.
31. Nadav Naaman, “The Ishtar Temple at Alalakh,” Journal of Near Eastern Studies 39, no. 3 (July, 1980): 210.
32.W. G. Lambert, “Great Hymn to the Queen of Nippur,” in Zikir Sumim: Assyriological Studies Presented to F.R. Kraus on the Occasion of His Seventieth Birthday ed. F. R. Kraus and G. van Driel (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1982), 199:71, 200:28.
32. John Monson, “The New Ain Dara Temple: Closest Solomonic Parallel,” Biblical Archaeology Review 26, no. 3 (May/June, 2000), 22.
33. Paul Zimansky, “The ‘Hittites’ at `Ain Dara,” in Recent Developments in Hittite Archaeology and History: Papers in Memory of Hans G. Güterbock, ed. by Hans G. Güterbock, et. al (Winona Lake, Indiana: Eisenbrauns, 2002), 177, 178, 189.
34. Ali Abou-Assaf, Der Tempel Von `Ain Dara (Mainz am Rhein: P. v. Zabern, 1990), 42-3; Monson, 27; Robert L. Alexander, “The Storm-god at `Ain Dara,” in Recent Developments in Hittite Archaeology and History, edited by Hans G. Güterbock, K. Aslihan Yener, Harry A. Hoffner, and Simrit Dhesi, (Winona Lake, Indiana: Eisenbrauns, 2002), 15.
35. Philip J. King and Lawrence E. Stager, Life in Biblical Israel (Louisville, Ky: Westminster John Knox Press 2001), 320.
36. See Chronicles 2-4, and Ezekiel 40-46.
37. G. E. Wright, “The Temple in Palestine-Syria.” The Biblical Archaeologist 7, no. 4 (December, 1944): 74; Garber, 4.
38. Tryggve N. D. Mettinger, No Graven Image?: Israelite Aniconism in its Ancient Near Eastern Context (Stockholm: Almqvist & Wiksell International, 1995), 19-20.
39. Raphael Patai, "The Goddess Asherah," Journal of Near Eastern Studies 24, no. 1/2 (Jan. - Apr., 1965): 43-44.
40. Maurice Dunand, “La Piscine du Trône d'Astarté dans le Temple d'Echmoun à Sidon,” Bulletin du Musée de Beyrouth 24 (1971): 19; J. Betlyon, "The Cult of Aserah/Elat at Sidon," Journal of Near Eastern Studies 44, no. 1 (Jan., 1985), 53; Glenn Markoe, Phoenicians, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000), 127.
41. John W. Betlyon, “The Cult of Aserah/Elat at Sidon,” Journal of Near Eastern Studies 44, no. 1 (January, 1985): 54.