The Ishtar Gate was discovered, subsequently excavated and reconstructed in the Pergamon Museum, in 1902 CEby a German archaeologist named Robert Koldewey. Koldewey's team spent several years excavating the gate, transporting the pieces to Berlin and then reconstructing it. It took about 35 years from the discovery to the reconstructed exhibition at the Berlin Museum (Pergamn Museum).
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.”
circa 1897-99 CE
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
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
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.
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