Semimythical Beast of the Middle East.

Etymology: Akkadian (Semitic) word, translated as "dragon." Plural, sirrushu. The proper decipherment is now considered to be Mushush or Musrush (plural, mushushu or musrushu), "glamorous snake."

Physical description: Covered with scales.

Head like a snake's, with folds of skin. Single vertical horn on its head. Forked tongue. Long, maned neck. Front legs of a lion. Back legs of an eagle. Slender tail.

Significant sightings: This DRAGONlike animal appears on bas-reliefs adorning the Ishtar Gate, an arch built by the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar II in the sixth century B.C. that became the chief ceremonial entrance to the city of Babylon. The king's inscription reads, in part: "I placed wild bulls and ferocious dragons in the gateways and thus adorned them with luxurious splendor so that people might gaze on them in wonder." The wild bulls were probably Aurochs (Bos primigenius), which survived in Europe until the seventeenth century. The gate was excavated in 1902 by Robert Koldewey near Baghdad, Iraq, and is currently located in the Perga-mon Museum in Berlin. Sirrushu also appear in other Babylonian works of art and on cylinder seals dating from as long ago as 2300 B.C.

In the Old Testament apocryphal book Bel and the Dragon, Nebuchadnezzar II is said to have kept a living dragon in the Temple of Bel (from the Aramaic baal, "lord") in Babylon. It may be this animal that is depicted on the Ishtar Gate. The book was written as an addition to the Book of Daniel in the second century B.C. Possible explanations:

(1) A depiction of a Mokele-Mbembe from Central Africa or a distorted version based on travelers' tales about such a creature. The extent of Mesopotamian knowledge about Central Africa in the sixth century B.C. is unknown. The Babylonians and the Assyrians before them were not particularly renowned for their seafaring prowess, but their conquests and trading ventures put them into contact with people who were. In particular, the Egyptians may have had contact with rain forest cultures as early as 3000 B.C. and were probably the first to circumnavigate Africa about the same time that the Ishtar Gate was built.

(2) Robert Koldewey identified the Sirrush as an iguanodontid dinosaur, a family of heavily built, bipedal or quadrupedal herbivores known from the Cretaceous of Europe and North Africa.

The SlRRUSH or Mushush of the Ishtar Gate, Babylon. (Fortean Picture Library)

(3) An unknown reptile from the Tigris marshes, perhaps the Afa, suggested by Peter Costello.

(4) The Desert monitor (Varanus griseus), suggested by Burchard Brentjes. This brownish-yellow lizard grows up to 3—4 feet long and is found from North Africa to Pakistan.

(5) An imaginary animal incorporating certain characteristics of the Cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus), proposed by Robert Mertens.

Sources: Robert Koldewey, Das wieder erstehende Babylon (Leipzig, Germany: J. C. Hinrichs, 1913), pp. 45-49; Robert Koldewey, Das Ischtar-tor in Babylon (Leipzig, Germany: J. C. Hinrichs, 1918), pp. 27-29; Willy Ley, Exotic Zoology (New York: Viking, 1959), pp. 62-74; Igor I. Akimushkin, Sledy nevidannykh zverei (Moscow: Gos. Izd-vo Geogr. Lit-ry, 1961); Burchard Brentjes, "Der Drache von Babylon: Saurier oder Waran?" Natur und Museum 99 (1969): 97-106; Robert Mertens, "Der 'Drache von Babylon' war kein Waran,"

Natur und Museum 99 (1969): 389-392; Bernard Heuvelmans, Les derniers dragons dAfnque (Paris: Plon, 1978), pp. 291-295, 317-318, 338-345, 351-352; Joachim Marzahn, Babylon und das Neujahrsfest (Berlin: Vorderasiatisches Museum, 1981); Karl Shuker, In Search of Prehistoric Survivors (London: Blandford, 1995), pp. 31-33.

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