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Statue of a lion

© 1988 RMN / Pierre et Maurice Chuzeville

Near Eastern Antiquities

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This bronze lion was discovered during excavations at Mari, a wealthy city in the region of the Middle Euphrates. It was found inside a temple dedicated to a deity known as "King of the Land," together with an almost identical companion statue, which is today housed in the museum of Aleppo, Syria.

Guardian lions?

The two lions were found in their original positions: they were sited side by side on a two-stepped podium attached to the wall, to the left of the entrance to the sanctuary. Only the animals' forequarters are represented, the rear of the two sculptures being built into the wall in such a way that the lions seemed to spring out of it. With their straining necks and their heads turned towards the right, they give the impression of being on the alert, ready to leap into the temple.
The inlaying of the eyes, made of limestone and shale, accentuates the intensity of the animals' gaze; the two lions are shown with their mouths open, snarling or roaring. Their curled-back lips revealed teeth made of bone, of which some traces remain in the statue in the Louvre. Crouching in the shadows of the temple, they kept watch as visitors came and went. Although statues of animals as guardians are well documented in the Near East, it was customary to place them outside, as portal sculptures on either side of the entrance to the temple or palace they were supposed to protect. The fact that these lions were located in the interior of the cella suggests that they had a different role from conventional statues of animal guardians.

The masterly craftsmanship of the bronzesmiths of Mari

Exemplifying a technique whose practice is well-documented in Mesopotamia, these two sculptures were made by attaching copper sheets to a frame, probably wood, of which no trace remains. This wood frame had been carved in the shape of the animal, then cold-hammered metal sheets were fastened to it with copper rivets. Eighteen copper sheets were needed to make the Louvre lion. The details of the mane and whiskers are meticulously carved. On the left shoulder, a star-shaped tuft of fur characterizes the young, vigorous animal. A few details are chased, for example the small ribbon at the base of the animal's right ear. This might indicate that this lion was an animal held in captivity, dedicated perhaps to the deity.

"The Temple of the Lions"

This temple was located in the holy part of the city, built on the southern flank of the High Terrace. The debris of the foundations found buried within its walls indicates that it was built by the Shakkanaku (Prince-Governor) Ishtup-Ilum, who reigned in Mari during the twenty-second century BC. It was dedicated to a god known as "King of the Land," whose exact identity remains unclear. The lions probably were installed when the sanctuary was being rebuilt, at the beginning of the second millennium.
André Parrot, the first archeologist to excavate Mari, found several dozen pairs of eyes of the same type as those of the two bronze lions in the vicinity of the temple, and put forward the theory that a pack of about thirty lions once stood guard on the esplanade, which was located in front of the sanctuary. But a recent study showed that not all of these eyes belonged to statues designed to adorn this site. If guardian lions were indeed placed outside the temple, they were fewer in number.


Parrot A., "Les Fouilles de Mari, quatrième campagne 1936-1937", in Syria, n 19, 1938, pp. 21-27.
Beyer D., Forrièes C., Lemaire F., Bargain F., "Les Lions du temple du"Roi du Pays"de Mari", 1993, MARI, pp. 79-105.
Margueron J.-C., Exposition Syrie : Mémoire et civilisation, Paris 1993, n 132.
Benoit A., Les Civilisations du Proche-Orient ancien, Paris 2003, pp. 290-291.

Technical description

  • Statue of a lion

    Early 2nd millennium BC 

    "Temple of the Lions", Mari

  • Copper

    H. 40 cm; W. 70 cm

  • A. Parrot excavations, 1936-37

    AO 19520, AO 19824

  • Near Eastern Antiquities

    Richelieu wing
    Ground floor
    Mesopotamia, 2nd and 1st millennia BC
    Room 227

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