When last year I was told I need to go on business to Berlin and I need to arrive there on Sunday, my first thought was to take a morning flight to be able to visit the Pergamon Museum and see its famous Ishtar Gate.
The Ishtar Gate was originally built in the city of Babylon (in present-day Iraq) during the reign of King Nebuchadnezzar II in the 6th century BCE as part of a larger complex of walls, gates, and palaces. The Ishtar Gate was one of the main entrances to Babylon. It was located on the north side of the city and was considered its most impressive gate. It was dedicated to the goddess Ishtar, who was the patron deity of love, fertility, and war.
King Nebuchadnezzar II was a Babylonian king who ruled from 605-562 BCE. He is known for his military conquests, including the capture of Jerusalem and destruction of the First Temple in 586 BCE. He is also known for his monumental building projects, including the construction of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.
The Ishtar Gate was built using baked bricks of different shades of blue glazed with a glossy finish, which made it stand out as a strikingly beautiful structure. The gate was built in the Babylonian architectural style, which featured a tall arched entrance with towers on either side. The Ishtar Gate is decorated with reliefs of dragons, lions, and bulls in alternating rows, which represent the gods and symbols of Babylon. The animals were molded separately and then attached to the wall. The process of creating the gate was complex and required skilled artisans who specialized in brick-making and glazed tile-work.
The Ishtar Gate was rediscovered in the early 20th century by a team of German archaeologists led by Robert Koldewey. Koldewey had been excavating at the site of Babylon since 1899, and had uncovered many important artifacts and structures from the ancient city. In 1902, Koldewey began excavating the site of the Ishtar Gate, which was known to have existed somewhere in the city but had not been located. After several months of digging, Koldewey’s team uncovered a section of the gate’s foundations, which included the remains of the original blue-glazed bricks. Over the course of several years, Koldewey’s team carefully excavated and documented the gate, which was found to be in remarkably good condition despite its age and exposure to the elements. The gate was eventually dismantled and transported to Germany.
Once the gate arrived in Berlin, it was reconstructed by a team of experts led by the Wilhelm von Bode. The reconstruction process involved fitting together the various pieces of the gate’s elaborate design, which included not only the blue-glazed bricks but also the many carved figures of animals and deities that adorned the gate. The reconstructed Ishtar Gate was installed in the Pergamon Museum’s main hall in 1930. The Pergamon Museum was not constructed specifically for the Ishtar Gate. The museum was originally built in the early 20th century to house the collections of the Prussian royal family, which included artifacts and artworks from around the world. The Ishtar Gate from Babylon was acquired by the museum in the 1920s, along with other objects from the ancient city of Babylon.
German archaeologists in the early 20th century were among the most prominent and influential in the field of archaeology. At this time, archaeology was a discipline that was still in its infancy, and German scholars played a major role in establishing the methodologies and techniques that are still used today. Some of the most important German archaeologists of the early 20th century include Heinrich Schliemann, who is best known for his excavations of Troy and Mycenae in Greece, and Robert Koldewey, who was instrumental in the excavation and reconstruction of the ancient city of Babylon. Other notable German archaeologists of this time period include Ernst Curtius, who worked on the excavation of Olympia in Greece, and Hermann Thiersch, who excavated the ancient city of Pergamon in Turkey. The work of these German archaeologists was often supported by the German government, which saw archaeology as a way to assert its cultural and political influence abroad. Crucial for their efforts was the German Oriental Society (Deutsche Orient-Gesellschaft or DOG) – a scholarly organization based in Berlin. It was founded in 1898 and dedicated to the study of the cultures and languages of the Middle East and Central Asia.
The work of German archaeologists in the early 20th century has been criticized for various reasons. One of the main criticisms is that they were motivated by nationalist and imperialist interests and used archaeology to support these agendas. For example, some archaeologists saw themselves as uncovering the roots of a supposed Aryan race and used their work to support Nazi ideology. Another criticism is that German archaeologists were often more interested in exporting artifacts back to Germany rather than preserving them in the country of origin. This led to the removal of many important artifacts from their original context, which made it difficult for subsequent generations of archaeologists to properly study and interpret them. Additionally, some scholars have criticized German archaeologists for practicing a “top-down” approach to archaeology, which prioritizes the study of elites and high culture rather than the experiences of ordinary people. This approach can result in a skewed understanding of the past, which ignores the perspectives and contributions of marginalized groups.
In the late 1970s, Iraq expressed a desire to repatriate the Ishtar Gate and other artifacts from the Pergamon Museum. However, the request was not granted due to various factors, including concerns about the safety and preservation of the artifacts, as well as disputes over ownership and legal claims.