Inside the 30-Year Quest for Babylon’s Ishtar Gate

Patience and perseverance paid off for German archaeologists who found the beautiful blue portal built by a king and buried by time.

Babylon was a city famous for many things, but most notable was its wondrous architecture. Both the Tower of Babel and the Hanging Gardens were associated with the city and referenced in many historic and sacred texts. The siren calls of these famous monuments drew Robert Koldewey and Walter Andrae, two German Oriental Society archaeologists, to Babylon in March 1899. At the site (in what is today central Iraq), they aimed to uncover the splendid city built by Nebuchadrezzar II of the sixth century B.C.

Although they did not find the Hanging Gardens, the Babylon that they unearthed was richly endowed with spectacular art and architecture. Among the marvels they did discover was the glorious Ishtar Gate, constructed of vibrant glazed bricks and adorned with depictions of fantastic beasts.

The principal entrance to the city, the Ishtar Gate was designed to make a big impression. It was built over earlier structures erected during the reign of Nebuchadrezzar II’s father, King Nabopolassar (r. 626-605 B.C.). As the main gateway to the city, its function was to awe visitors with the power and grandeur of Nebuchadrezzar’s restoration. The Babylonian king installed a plaque on the gate explaining its purpose and design: “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.”

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