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The reconstructed Ishtar Gate, displayed at the Pergamon Museum in Berlin, incorporates fragments from the gateway unearthed in Babylon in the early 1900s. To the left of the gate sits the reconstructed facade of King Nebuchadrezzar II’s throne room.

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.

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A dragon is just one of the many creatures that adorn Babylon’s Ishtar Gate.

First Impressions

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.”

The gate’s imposing effect was achieved not only by size but by bold color and fine craftsmanship: Its striking enameled tiles bore reliefs of animals: lions, dragons, and bulls, arranged in tiers. Although Ishtar, the Babylonian goddess of love, fertility, and war, is just one of the deities associated with the gate, her name has become the one associated with it.

Discovering the Gate

Before the excavation officially began in 1899, Koldewey had spotted some intriguing clues during his initial visits. “During my first stay in Babylon, in June 1887, and again on my second visit, in December 1897, I saw a number of fragments of enameled brick reliefs, of which I took several with me to Berlin.” These puzzle pieces turned out to be the first identified with the gate and would lead the archaeologists to uncovering the fuller structure between 1902 and 1904.

Their excavations continued almost uninterrupted for 15 years until the First World War stopped the dig in 1914. During this time, Koldewey and his team had made huge discoveries. As well as the Ishtar Gate, they unearthed remains of the city’s great Processional Way, temples including the Esagila (dedicated to Marduk), the palace of King Nebuchadrezzar, and a ziggurat that some identify as the legendary Tower of Babel. Discovery of the structure itself was only the beginning. It then took until 1914 to reveal how it connected to the Processional Way of Marduk and the city’s complex defensive system of walls and gateways of which it formed a part.

The archaeologists collected tens of thousands of fragments from the gate, enough to fill 900 boxes. But then disaster struck. In 1914, as World War I caused havoc in Europe and the Middle East, the German team—carrying out its work in the name of Kaiser Wilhelm II—was forced to evacuate and abandon its finds. During the upheaval, the boxes of fragments were transported out of Babylon to the University of Porto in Portugal.

By 1926, after Koldewey’s death in 1925, Andrae managed to persuade the university to ship the boxes to Berlin. Appointed director of the Museum of the Ancient Near East (a section of the Pergamon Museum), Andrae took the bold decision to reconstruct the outer part of the magnificent Ishtar Gate in its entirety. The ambitious project began in 1928.

Putting It Together

Sorting and piecing together the myriad fragments was the team’s most daunting challenge. After cleaning them, the fragments were classified according to color and whether they formed part of an animal. Then began the enormous challenge of trying to solve the puzzle.

“We always had six or seven fragments of each face in relief on a tile,” wrote Andrae, “and the person reconstructing had to look for two flat fragments that would fit with them from among hundreds of possibilities.” The aim was to restore the animal figures on the basis of the best preserved brick fragments. Only when a specific piece of tile was missing would it be substituted with a modern replica.

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The reconstructed facade of Nebuchadrezzar’s throne room is decorated with palm trees, a symbol of fertility and long life. Along with the Ishtar Gate, it is also exhibited at the Pergamon Museum in Berlin, Germany.

In two years Andrae’s team managed to complete 30 lions, 26 bulls, and 17 dragons, and parts of various palace facades. The partial reconstructions of the Processional Way and the Ishtar Gate were inaugurated in 1930 at the Pergamon Museum. The museum is only able to display the front part of the gate (the second, larger gate is in storage as of this writing). Visitors can still see them today and share in the experience of what it might have been like to approach the imposing entrance to Nebuchadrezzar’s Babylon 2,600 years ago.