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The reconstructed Ishtar Gate of Babylon at the Pergamon Museum in Berlin. Source: Osama Shukir Muhammed Amin / CC BY-SA 4.0

Babylon's Monumental Ishtar Gate Travelled from Iraq to Germany

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If you've ever stood in awe beneath the towering 14-meter (46 ft) high Ishtar Gate at Berlin’s Pergamon Museum, you might have questioned how on Earth this Babylonian marvel came to be there—6,000 km (3,730 miles) from its original location in central Iraq.

Uncovering Babylon: The German Excavations of the Ishtar Gate

The improbable journey from the sands of Mesopotamia to the halls of a European museum is part of a curious story that entwines ancient history with modern-day institutional looting. Inspired by tales of the Tower of Babel and Hanging Gardens of Babylon, archaeologist Robert Koldewey and architect Walter Andrae—working with the German Oriental Society—hoped to acquire artifacts to take back to museums in Germany.

Aspiring to uncover the fabled city of Babylon rebuilt by Nebuchadnezzar II (604 to 562 BC) in the sixth century BC, what they discovered was an archaeologist’s dream come true. Their most impressive find was the excavation of the Ishtar Gate in 1902, an architectural masterpiece adorned with vibrant glazed brick reliefs in blues, reds and yellows.

Serving as a ceremonial entrance to the ancient city of Babylon, one of the largest metropolises in the ancient world, it marked the beginning of Babylon’s Processional Way. After the defeat of Persian King Darius III in 331 BC, Babylon was gradually abandoned, and the Ishtar Gate lay hidden under the desert landscape of modern-day Iraq.

Excavations of the Ishtar Gate in 1902, by Robert Koldewey. (Public domain)

Excavations of the Ishtar Gate in 1902, by Robert Koldewey. (Public domain)

From Babylon to Berlin: The Herculean Task of Relocating an Architectural Marvel

During 15 years of excavations, the German team collected a plethora of artifacts, including hundreds of boxes filled with thousands of fragments of the Ishtar Gate ordered according to a complex numbering system. With the outbreak of WWI in 1914, excavations were abandonned, but not before Germany managed to smuggle out their finds.

Following the war, Andrae—then serving as the director of the Museum of the Ancient Near East—undertook the monumental task of reconstructing the outer section of the Ishtar Gate starting in 1928. Over the course of two years, teams of skilled professionals meticulously assembled 72 animal reliefs, resembling an intricate jigsaw puzzle.

Reconstructing the colossal structure, towering at 15 meters (49 ft) in height and 10 meters (33 ft) in width, demanded meticulous planning and impeccable precision. They also commissioned ceramic workshops to replicate the ancient Babylonian glaze colors found on certain fragments. Approximately 80% of the façade comprises these modern replica bricks.

The reconstructed gate was finalized in 1930 and unveiled alongside the newly established Pergamon Museum in Berlin. It remains open to visitors today, offering insight into the splendor of Nebuchadnezzar's Babylon over 2,600 years ago.

Despite ranking among the most intricate architectural reconstructions in history, the presence of the Ishtar Gate within the Pergamon Museum has sparked debates and controversies regarding cultural heritage and restitution. Some voices within the international community advocate for the return of the Istar Gate to its country of origin, arguing for the rightful repatriation of this iconic relic.

Top image: The reconstructed Ishtar Gate of Babylon at the Pergamon Museum in Berlin. Source: Osama Shukir Muhammed Amin / CC BY-SA 4.0

By Cecilia Bogaard

 
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Cecilia

Cecilia Bogaard is one of the editors, researchers and writers on Ancient Origins. With an MA in Social Anthropology, and degree in Visual Communication (Photography), Cecilia has a passion for research, content creation and editing, especially as related to the... Read More

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