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Ishtar Gate

The Ishtar Gate (Arabic: بوابة عشتار‎) was the eighth gate to the inner city of Babylon. It was constructed in about 575 BCE by order of King Nebuchadnezzar II on the north side of the city. Even though the Ishtar Gate is referred to in cuneiform texts as early as in the late Old Babylonian period, its known material evidence stems from the work projects carried out by Nebuchadnezzar II.

Overview

It was part of a grand walled processional way leading into the city. The walls were finished in glazed bricks mostly in blue, with animals and deities in low relief at intervals, these also made up of bricks that are molded and colored differently.

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 BCE). As the main gateway to the city, its function was to awe visitors with the power and grandeur of Nebuchadrezzar’s restoration.

King Nebuchadnezzar II ordered the construction of the gate and dedicated it to the Babylonian goddess Ishtar. The gate was constructed using glazed brick with alternating rows of bas-relief mušḫuššu (dragons), aurochs (bulls), and lions, symbolizing the gods Marduk, Adad, and Ishtar respectively. The gate, being part of the Walls of Babylon, was considered one of the original Seven Wonders of the World. It was replaced on that list by the Lighthouse of Alexandria from the third century BCE.

Pergamon Reconstruction

circa 575 BCE

A reconstruction of the Ishtar Gate and Processional Way was built at the Pergamon Museum in Berlin out of material excavated by Robert Koldewey and finished in the 1930s. It includes the inscription plaque. It stands 14 meters (46 feet) high and 30 meters (100 feet) wide.

The reconstruction of the Ishtar Gate in the Pergamon Museum is not a complete replica of the entire gate. The original structure was a double gate with a smaller frontal gate and a larger and more grandiose secondary posterior section. The only section on display in the Pergamon Museum is the smaller frontal segment (illustration).

In-situ Babylon Remains

circa 575 BCE

Today only the lower parts of the Ishtar Gate remain in-situ at the site of ancient Babylonian city, known today as Babil. The gate depicted only gods and goddesses with alternating rows of bas-relief mušḫuššu (dragons), aurochs (bulls), and lions, symbolizing the gods Marduk, Adad, and Ishtar respectively. Total length of the ancient gate is about 45 meters from north-south. Parts of the Ishtar Gate and lions from the Processional Way are in various other museums around the world.

Google Arts & Culture

circa 575 BCE

In an effort to illustrate this ancient site in a new way, the Staatlichen Museen zu Berlin and Google Arts & Culture have virtually reassembled Ishtar Gate (inspect), in its original location. This work of this project illustrates how the ancient landmark would have looked like before it was parted.

Notable Structures

circa 575 BCE

Gate Complex
The Ishtar Gate was only one small part of the design of ancient Babylon that also included the palace, temples, an inner fortress, walls, gardens, processional routes, and other gates. The lavish city was decorated with over fifteen million baked bricks, according to estimates. Most notable of these structures are Street of the Processions, Ninmakh Temple, and the city walls.

circa 575 BCE

Street of the Processions
Through the gate ran the Processional Street, which was lined with walls showing about 120 lions, bulls, dragons, and flowers on enameled yellow and black glazed bricks, symbolizing the goddess Ishtar. The Processional Way, which has been traced to a length of over half a mile, extended north from the Ishtar Gate. Friezes with sixty ferocious lions representing Ishtar decorated each side of the Processional Way, designed with variations in the color of the fur and the manes. The Processional Way was paved with large stone pieces set in a bed of bitumen and was up to 66 feet wide at some points.

circa 575 BCE

Ninmah Temple
Several important buildings stood around the Ishtar gate, including the Ninmakh Temple to the south-east. The E-mah (great temple of Ninḫursaĝ) as seen from the west, looking over the Ishtar Gate in the bottom foreground. Currently the walls and roofs of the temple are in a very bad condition and no recent renovations have been done. Due to its use as military base by US the site has suffered extensive damage, according to a study by the British Museum, the damage was extensive: some 300,000 sq m (4,000 acres) was covered with gravel.

circa 575 BCE

Replica Ishtar Gate
A replica of the Ishtar Gate was installed some 250 meters north of the ancient gateway to the city of Babylon. It is located at the entrance to the Nebuchadnezzar Museum. It is a very simplified model of the original ancient Ishtar Gate, and is not to scale. The construction was meant to emulate the techniques that were used for the original gate. The purpose of the replica's construction was an attempt to reconnect to Iraq's history. Damage to this reproduction has occurred since the US-Iraq War, specially due to the use of this area by the US military as a camp.

Did you know?

The Ishtar Gate led to Babylon’s Processional Way, which stretched for over half a mile across the city. A statue of the god Marduk was carried along it during the New Year Festival. When Robert Koldewey unearthed it, he imagined what the great New Year’s procession in the time of Nebuchadrezzar II might have been like. Having once seen a Catholic festival in Syracuse, Sicily, he recalled how the figure of the Madonna had been borne “high above the assembled crowds, with inspiring music and fervent prayers [and] after the same fashion, I picture to myself the god Marduk, borne from his temple [the Esagila] through the enclosed courtyard to proceed in triumph along the Processional Way.”

Photograph: Artistic illustration.

Timeline of Excavation & Reconstruction

circa 1897-99 CE

Discovry
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." -Robert Koldewey

circa 1899-1914 CE

First Excavations
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.

circa 1914-1928 CE

Putting It Together
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.

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.

circa 1928-1930 CE

Pergamon Exhibition
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.

See Also

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