Zoologist, media consultant, and science writer, Dr Karl Shuker is also one of the best known cryptozoologists in the world. He is the author of such seminal works as Mystery Cats of the World (1989), The Lost Ark: New and Rediscovered Animals of the 20th Century (1993; greatly expanded in 2012 as The Encyclopaedia of New and Rediscovered Animals), Dragons: A Natural History (1995), In Search of Prehistoric Survivors (1995), The Unexplained (1996), From Flying Toads To Snakes With Wings (1997), Mysteries of Planet Earth (1999), The Hidden Powers of Animals (2001), The Beasts That Hide From Man (2003), Extraordinary Animals Revisited (2007), Dr Shuker's Casebook (2008), Karl Shuker's Alien Zoo: From the Pages of Fortean Times (2010), Cats of Magic, Mythology, and Mystery (2012), Mirabilis: A Carnival of Cryptozoology and Unnatural History (2013), Dragons in Zoology, Cryptozoology, and Culture (2013), The Menagerie of Marvels (2014), A Manifestation of Monsters (2015), Here's Nessie! (2016), and what is widely considered to be his cryptozoological magnum opus, Still In Search Of Prehistoric Survivors (2016) - plus, very excitingly, his first two long-awaited, much-requested ShukerNature blog books (2019, 2020).

Dr Karl Shuker's Official Website - http://www.karlshuker.com/index.htm

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Tuesday 18 January 2011


The dragon of the Ishtar Gate (Vorderasiatisches Museum)

In the summer of 1983 I visited the Vorderasiatisches Museum, part of Berlin's Staatliche Museums, to gaze upon one of the most spectacular monuments from ancient history - the magnificent Ishtar Gate of Babylon. Many other visitors were also peering intently at this marvellous edifice, sumptuously decorated with life-like depictions of various animals, but to me it had an extra significance - for out of all of the people there, it is possible that I alone realised that we could well be looking at the portrait of a living dinosaur!


During his reign (605-562 BC), King Nebuchadnezzar II of Babylonia in Mesopotamia oversaw the creation of his empire's capital, the holy city of Babylon, dedicated to Babylonia's supreme deity - Marduk. Babylon was encircled by huge walls, wide enough for chariots to be driven along their summits, and pierced by eight huge gates. The most magnificent was the Ishtar Gate, through which visitors passed in order to enter the city.

Befitting such an important edifice, the Ishtar Gate was a spectacular sight, comprising a colossal semicircular arch, flanked by enormous walls and leading to a breathtaking Processional Way, along which visitors walked to reach the city's religious centre. The gate, its walls, and the procession walls were covered by a brilliant panoply of highly-glazed enamelled bricks, yielding a backdrop of vivid blue for numerous horizontal rows of eyecatching and very realistic bas-reliefs of animals. On the gate and its flanking walls, six rows of fierce grey bulls alternated with seven rows of grim golden dragons, and along the processional walls were two rows of haughty marching lions, but the most important member of this trio of mighty beasts was the dragon - for this was the sacred beast of Marduk.

Following the eventual fall of Babylonia, its walls and gates became buried underfoot, and their glory was hidden for many centuries - until 3 June 1887 when German archaeologist Prof. Robert Koldeway, during a visit to the site of Babylon, found a fragment of an ancient blue-glazed brick that stimulated his curiosity and led to a full-scale excavation beginning in 1899. Three years later, the animal-adorned Ishtar Gate rose up from the dust of the past like a cobalt phoenix, revealing its bulls, its lions - and its exalted but enigmatic dragons.

Most commonly referred to as the sirrush or mushrushu (two different transliterations of an Akkadian word loosely translated as ‘splendour serpent’), the Ishtar dragon was a source of great bewilderment to Koldeway. For whereas archaeologists were well aware that the depicted appearance of all other seemingly fabulous, mythical animals in Babylonian tradition had changed drastically over the centuries, depictions of the sirrush (as also present on seals and paintings predating the Ishtar Gate by at least a millennium) had remained the same - just like those of real animals, like the lion and bull. Did this mean, therefore, that the sirrush was itself a real-life species? But if it was, what could it be?

Certainly, it did not - and still does not - resemble any animal known to be alive today. After all, what modern-day species has a slender scaly body, with a small head bearing a pointed horn (or a pair - the Ishtar sirrush is only depicted in profile) on its forehead and ringlet-like flaps of skin further back, a long slender neck, a pair of forelimbs with lion-like claws, a pair of hindlimbs with eagle-like claws, and a long tail? Some authors have suggested a giant monitor lizard, but the sirrush’s horn(s), ringlets, and extremely long neck contradict this identity.

Boldly, Koldeway announced in 1913 that the creatures to which the sirrush most closely corresponded in his opinion were the dinosaurs. Moreover, he deemed it possible that in order to explain the unchanging nature of sirrush depictions, and also various mentions of dragon-like beasts in the Bible, some such creature must have been kept within one or more of Babylon's temples by the priests of Marduk. By 1918, he had refined his belief, identifying the ornithischid dinosaur Iguanodon as the closest fossil relative of the sirrush. If, however, the sirrush was truly a creature of historic, rather than prehistoric, times, where had it originally come from - there is no evidence that giant reptilians were ever native to Mesopotamia - and how could it have evaded scientific detection?

This mystery greatly intrigued cryptozoological investigator Willy Ley, who suggested that the only locality from which such a creature could have been originally transported to Babylon during the reign of Nebuchadnezzar but yet remain wholly unknown to modern-day science was Central Africa, and in his book Exotic Animals (1959) he recalled various accounts concerning the mokele-mbembe and other swamp-dwelling dinosaurian beasts reported from this portion of the Dark Continent. In addition, when Schomburgk returned to Europe from Central Africa during the early 20th Century with tales of living dinosaurs, he also brought back a glazed brick that he had found there - a brick just like those in the Ishtar Gate. Is this where the far-travelling ancient Babylonians had obtained them, along with stories - and perhaps even the successful capture from time to time - of real-life dragons?

Others have since expanded upon Ley's views, and the prospect that the sirrush was a living dinosaur has gained interest, but opinion as to the precise type of dinosaur has moved away from Iguanodon toward a sauropod dinosaur, notwithstanding the sirrush's horn(s).

Initially, the sirrush is hardly reminiscent of such creatures. If, however, the Chaldean artists responsible for the Ishtar Gate bas-reliefs and other sirrush portrayals had not actually seen a living sauropod with their own eyes but were relying solely upon descriptions of one, then it is not too difficult to accept the resulting sirrush as nothing more dramatic than a distorted depiction of a sauropod, no doubt embellished by its creators' imagination.


One Biblical reference that inspired Koldeway's belief in the onetime existence of a real-life sirrush maintained by Babylon's temple priests is an episode documented in the Apocrypha concerning Daniel, who, after discounting an earlier deity as nothing more than a brass idol, was shown a mysterious creature housed within the temple of the Babylonian god Bel, and which was venerated by the fearful populace.

"And in that same place there was a great dragon or serpent, which they of Babylon worshipped. And the king said unto Daniel, Wilt thou also say that this is of brass? Lo, he liveth, he eateth and drinketh; thou canst not say that he is no living god: therefore worship him. Then said Daniel. I will worship the Lord my God: for he is a living God. But give me leave, O king, and I shall slay this dragon without sword or staff. The king said, I give thee leave."

True to his word, Daniel accomplished his vow - via the unusual if effective expedient of choking the creature to death by forcing lumps of bitumen, hair, and fat down its throat - a brave act if genuinely faced by a conflagrating dragon, but one that will not endear him to cryptozoologists if it is ever shown that his adversary was nothing more rapacious than a morose mokele-mbembe a long way away from its home amid the Congolese swamplands.

Another biblical monster that has never been satisfactorily identified with any known animal alive today is the behemoth, which is described in the book of Job (40:15-24) as follows:

"Behold now Behemoth, which I made with thee; he eateth grass as an ox.
Lo, now, his strength is in his loins, and his force is in the navel of his belly.
He moveth his tail like a cedar: the sinews of his stones are wrapped together.
His bones are as strong pieces of brass; his bones are like bars of iron.
He is the chief of the ways of God; he that made him can make his sword to approach unto him.
Surely the mountains bring him forth food, where all the beasts of the field play.
He lieth under the shady trees, in the covert of the reed, and fens.
The shady trees cover him with their shadow; the willows of the brook compass him about.
Behold, he drinketh up a river, and hasteth not: he trusteth that he can draw up Jordan into his mouth.
He taketh it with his eyes: his nose pierceth through snares."

Over the centuries, four principal identities have been touted by theological and zoological scholars - the ox, Nile crocodile, elephant, and hippopotamus. Least popular is the ox - apart from its herbivorous nature, it has no similarity to the behemoth. Only the New English Bible supports the crocodile's candidature - certainly, the concept of a vegetarian crocodile is an implausible one, to say the least. The elephant's supporters are also few - only Prof. George Caspard Kirschmayer in Un-Natural History of Myths of Ancient Science (1691) and Dr Sylvia Sikes in The Natural History of the African Elephant (1953) have seriously attempted to link the two great beasts with one another.

The most popular and (until recently) most favourable pairing of the behemoth has been with the hippo - whose cavernous mouth, prodigious drinking capacity, mighty build, sturdy skeleton, swamp-dwelling lifestyle, herbivorous diet, and status as the largest animal native to the Bible lands compare satisfactorily with the behemoth - but not conclusively. How, for example, can the hippopotamus "moveth his tail like a cedar"? This description implies a very long, powerful tail - not the puny, inconspicuous appendage sported by the hippo.

And then came a late entry in the identity stakes - a living sauropod. As veteran cryoptozoologist Prof. Roy Mackal, seeker of the elusive Congolese mokele-mbembe during the 1980s, persuasively pointed out in A Living Dinosaur?, not only the description of the behemoth's tail but also all of the features hitherto likened to the hippopotamus are equally applicable to one of these giant vegetarian dinosaurs. Moreover, the great size attributed to the behemoth, while far exceeding that of the hippo would be much more compatible to a sauropod of mokele-mbembe proportions. Compare the Bible's description of the behemoth (given above) with Mackal's defence of his sauropod identity for it (given below), and judge for yourself.

"The behemoth's tail is compared to a cedar, which suggests a sauropod. This identification is reinforced by other factors. Not only the behemoth's physical nature, but also its habits and food preferences are compatible with the sauropod's. Both live in swampy areas with trees, reeds and fens (a jungle swamp). Indeed, the identification of the biblical behemoth as a sauropod dinosaur provides excellent correspondence between the descriptive features in the biblical text and the characteristics of these dinosaurs as inferred from the fossil record."

Equally interesting concerning this sauropod link is that the book of Job was written sometime between 700 and 2000 BC, thereby considerably predating the Ishtar Gate's depictions of the sirrush. Clearly, then, the gate did not inspire the behemoth account - instead, this was based upon something very large and visually impressive that was known in the Middle East long before the birth of Nebuchadnezzar.

Initially, the Bible must seem the last place where zoologists would expect to find details of living dinosaurs - but if living dinosaurs (or travellers' reports of them) were known in this region of the world at this particular time in man's history, the Bible is unquestionably the first place where zoologists should look for evidence of their existence.

Perhaps now, then, thanks to a long-overdue cryptozoological scrutiny of this ancient treasure trove of natural history lore, the vital evidence has at last been disclosed.

This is an excerpt from one of my books-in-progress, The Creatures That Time Forgot: Still In Search Of Prehistoric Survivors


  1. Laurence Crossen18 January 2011 at 21:15

    Is this the long awaited revised and updated new edition or a second volume?

  2. An interesting little aside - on the side (ahem) of the biggest rune stone in Denmark, is a depiction of an animal looking very much like the sirrush. It is entangled in something - perhaps christianity vanguishing the pagan beliefs, as the inscription of the stone tells of the first christening of the danes. But it still looks like the sirrush!!

  3. The behemoth certainly sounds like a sauropod, I just wish I was not such an "open minded skeptic". I would like nothing more than to see a living dinosaur.

  4. The secret is that this Congo creature is invoked in the male initiation trance songs -- it's part of the kundalini (snake) psychic vision quest. Yes it's African in origin but as Michael Talbot's "The Delicate Dependency" classic noted -- Vampire is derived from the ancient root for worm from vamp. So we have the bat-worm spirit blood energy connection in Sumeria from the Elamites -- a Dravidian-African culture.

  5. @Laurence - This is the revised, updated edition of In Search of Prehistoric Survivors (1995).

  6. I'll order the book Karl! Concerning the KJV verison of the Bible, there are references in Isaiah 30:6 speaks of the fiery flying serpent. This creature is mention in the same passage along with known animals that inhabited the Middle east at that time, such as the lion and the viper. See the following references:

    Isaiah 14:29: "Do not rejoice, all you of Philistia, because the rod that struck you is broken; for out of the serpent's roots will come a viper, and its offspring will be a fiery flying serpent."
    Isaiah 30:6: "The burden against the beasts of the South. Through a land of trouble and anguish, from which came the lioness and the lion, the viper and the fiery flying serpent, they will carry their riches on the backs of young donkeys, and their treasures on the humps of camels, to a people who shall not profit;"
    References to "fiery serpents" lacking a mention of flight can be found in several places in the Hebrew Bible.

    Deuteronomy 8:15 "Who led thee through that great and terrible wilderness, wherein were fiery serpents, and scorpions, and drought, where there was no water; who brought thee forth water out of the rock of flint;"
    Numbers 21:6-8 "(6) And the LORD sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people; and much people of Israel died. (7) Therefore the people came to Moses, and said, We have sinned, for we have spoken against the LORD, and against thee; pray unto the LORD, that he take away the serpents from us. And Moses prayed for the people. (8) And the LORD said unto Moses, Make thee a fiery serpent, and set it upon a pole: and it shall come to pass, that every one that is bitten, when he looketh upon it, shall live."

    One wonders what these fiery serpents were, although the flying fiery serpent in Isaiah 30:6 does remind one of the Ropen of Papua New Guinea which apparently has a bioluminescent glow when airborne.

    Bill Gibbons

  7. Pastor Billy Crone has a great audio and video discussions of this topic. You can find the audio at radioliberty.com. You will find the truth there.

  8. Might as well be talking about UFO's...

    It occurs to me that we have no clue what sorts of creatures our ancestors came up against. We find fossils and we assume that what we see is what was. Animals are far more elusive than we think. Previously unknown species are being discovered every day. Couple that with the fact that our ancestors--- as much as we would like to believe that just because they didn't have iPhones they weren't as intelligent--- were very much aware of the world they lived in. If they said they saw a FIERY FLYING SERPENT then they saw a serpent, glowing... and flying.

  9. I agree with Tina! We do, (wrongly, i feel) assume ancient people that had the same things as we have today only in different ways (running hot and cold water,cisterns even 'automatic doors' true!) were
    unintelligent oafs walking around grunting making imaginary animals up to suit their 'lack of understanding'about the world around them. If they mention them they were there... perhaps some embellishment -human nature??- but there non the less. There are stories of dragons from across the globe and a fossil record of 'them' surely it is not difficult to believe humans saw these creatures??? I think it is unintelligent of us to assume them wrong!

  10. I agree with Tina, too, but with a caveat. I don't think people are any smarter today than they were thousands of years ago. What could be different, however, is how and why we like to talk about things like dragons. Maybe when ancient people say they saw a fiery flying serpent, they did see one, or maybe it was more important to frame their report in terms of flying serpents than it would be in terms of say meteors or other more common phenomena. The guy who sees a dragon now has something special about them, just like the modern UFO witness.

    So, if we agree that humans are pretty much the same now as they were back in the day, I wonder if people thousands of years from now will find depictions of monsters that we have made (in movies, TV, books) and wonder whether those monsters were real or whether we were just using our imaginations, something humans can always be counted on to do.

  11. I doubt the Babylonians ever went as far as central Africa, or they would have animals like forest elephants or monkeys or okapi on the Ishtar Gate too, or somewhere else. My theory is that back then, an actual species of sauropod LIVED in Babylon and the Holy Land! And why stop there? Is it possible that wyverns are based on tyrannosaurs? Could those "fiery serpents" be a pterodactyl with orange and yellow plumage, and the phoenix too? Could dragons be a form of theropod dinosaur that took to the skies? My, I'm really exercising my imagination! I should probably wrap this up before I blow it up! (it being my imagination)

    Thank you for this fascinating and brilliantly thought article, Carl.

  12. In fact, there are ancient Middle Eastern depictions of okapi-like beasts and small elephants.

  13. Well, that's still interesting. A babylonian voyage into the green abyss. Wait a minute- some expeditions, including the Megatransect, into the Congo, have reported that the ground seems to have been affected by farming (see National Geographic, Megatransect Part 1)! How long could those babylonians have stayed?

    And another thing. If the Babylons went to Africa and brought back dinosaurs- well, it can be hard to keep such a large animal in captivity. If an escape occurred... you've heard of introduced species, right? How long do you think that a Mokele-Mbembe could live in Europe? Do you think that there could be some truth to dragon slaying in the Middle Ages?

  14. Dragons, dinosaurs and babylons, oh my! I have got to write a book about this. As for that idea of mokele-mbembe escaping into Europe, it has a lot of evidence backing it up, except for one thing - where are the bodies?

    I have always thought dragons as living animals a possibility. First of all, some scientists projected the evolution of a primitive lizard relative, called a coelurosaur, into the present. And they came up with a dragon! Second, there are dragon reports from the Far North to China to Europe. Cultures that never met. Separated by vast oceans and millions of miles of land. And yet the indonesian quetzalcoatlid looks just like a south american one! Europe's wyrms look like Chinese dragons. All cultures tell of a sea serpent. So if these legends weren't being handed down the generations as stories, the only option seems to be that all these people actually saw dragons! Third, a group of brilliant scientists in Oxford, men who would not tell a lie in fear they might lose their reputation, said they saw a dragon. Fourth, a man in a plane flying over Tibet reportedly photographed two dragons in the clouds below. All this evidence suggests real dragons. But then, of course, there is a missing puzzle piece: where are the bodies? Surely, an animal that size would leave a skeleton. Mysterious! All the evidence contradicts on itself and traps you in a swirling, chaotic void of hypothesis, mystery, contemplation, red herrings, dead ends and hoaxes. But I can't stop thinking about it!

    All the best, Anonymous

  15. Karl, do you think that Raptors might have survived?

  16. Dragons a fantasy made real, by animal planet. One of the most interesting videos I've ever seen.

  17. While the Sirrush seems to have been based on something real, I doubt the same could be said of Behemoth.
    The Hebrew word BHMH (behemah) is used several times in Genesis to indicate cattle. My copy of Peaked's concordance suggests that Behemoth is symbolic of God's power,, a purely allegorical creation.

  18. I've always thought behemoth to likely be a sauropod too, especially considering the comparison of its tail to a cedar. Reading the Bible, the cedar comes across as the most impressive tree to the people of those lands, the go-to metaphor for something tall and strong.

    Also, I recall a depiction of a sauropod on an Egyptian stela. All the other animals on the stela are real, and like one of the other animals, it is leashed, its leash held by a human. Whatever may be said about scale in Egyptian art, I guess it wasn't one of the larger sauropods! :)

    I can't find the stela online right now. I'm blaming the late hour and my poor search skills, but I have to admit it could have been a hoax. There is this finding of a sauropod of (I guess) about the right size fossilized in Egypt: https://www.upi.com/Science_News/2018/01/29/Egyptian-sauropod-reveals-ancient-link-between-Africa-Europe/7161517251293/

    Returning to the Biblical description, here's an easier to read translation with a rather different take on the cedar tail than I'm familiar with. The translation is a very new revision; 2013.
    There are some other translations under the layered book icon on the right. Byington's reminds me of the Walking With Dinosaurs depiction of sauropods: "It holds its tail stiff as a cedar". :)

    1. I found more info, in part by dropping 'stela' from the search terms; the Egyptian carving I remember wasn't a stela, it was a palette; wider at the top than the bottom. Now I see it wasn't unique amongst Egyptian palettes in displaying a very long-necked animal.

      These palettes I've found now don't show very sauropod-like creatures in that the tails are much smaller than their necks. I couldn't guess whether this is Egyptian priority-scaling, whether the Egyptians were working on poorly-transmitted information, or whether this art has any connection to sauropods at all. There is much more sauropod-like art in the Americas, the resemblances are astonishingly good! Some in China well resemble other kinds of dinosaur. Oh, and there's a long tail on the Mesopotamian seal of Uruk; the creature seems more sauropodal than the one on the Ishtar gate.

      I got all this from the many pictures at the following link. I'm not so keen on the text of the page; the author stretches the sauropod resemblance of many pieces more than I'm comfortable with. All the same, some of the arguments he presents surprised me very much!


      Between these and other things, I get the impression ancient Egypt was something of an outlier in the mythological spectrum of the ancient world. Perhaps they put their own interpretations on common myths. On the other hand, it seems the further from Egypt a carving is found, the more dinosaur-like it may be. Mesopotanian representations are not so good as Chinese. Perhaps the distortions may be due to powerful organized religions early in history, but... that's too difficult for me to work out. I think it's interesting that they found remains of organized worship in a 3,000 year old city in China, and the Olmec civilization of central America is also from that time period, so I wonder what was going on at that point in history? I don't believe in archetypes.

      Oh... the presence of these better representations of dinaosaurs from cultures perhaps descended from these later civilizations suggests that dinosaur skeletons were systematically researched in the ancient world, and knowledge improved over time. One has to assume communication between scholars, which must have happened at times, or how could a library like Alexandria's arise? I'm getting ever further from cryptozoology, but I suspect another thing investigated was how to manipulate relatively primitive people into gathering in cities and becoming "great" nations, according to their opinions of greatness. Perhaps some scholars set out to do this, likely founding priesthoods, and some of the dinosaur research came along for the ride.

      It's all speculation, but I do think unscrupulous scholars would have researched how to manipulate people on such grand scales as these. Almost all. One Egyptian legend about the origin of the great pyramids essentially says the first Pharaoh to build one was talked into it one day, by a shepherd of all people, and a stranger at that! They met when Pharaoh went down to the Nile to bathe. What would a shepherd know about either stonemasonry or the immense organization needed to build such a thing, or getting the people to go along with it, or most of all, convincing the leader of a nation that it was a good idea?

      That's far more speculation than I set out to write, but I had fun with it. :)

    2. Thanks for all the info. The most famous examples of these depictions are a pair of such beasts on the ancient Egyptian Narmer Palette, which I was fortunate enough to see when visiting the Cairo Museum back in 2006. Here's my ShukerNature blog article dealing with it and similar artefacts portraying such beasts: https://karlshuker.blogspot.com/2010/12/narmer-palette-palaver.html