The Vorderasiatisches Museum (Museum of the Ancient Near East) is devoting a scholarly and historical study exhibition at the Pergamonmuseum to one of the Museumsinsel Berlin’s most popular attractions: the Ishtar Gate. From its excavation in Babylon (Iraq) to the visionary reconstruction in Berlin, the special presentation focuses on the origins of the Ishtar Gate and places its excavation, acquisition and handling in the museum in its historical context.
The reconstruction of the Ishtar Gate in the Pergamonmuseum has fascinated visitors to Berlin’s Museum Island for nearly ninety years. The Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar II (604–562 BC) built the spectacular gate in Babylon. After the fall of the Babylonian Empire in the late 6th century BC, the gate gradually disintegrated, so that only small fragments were found during the excavation in Babylon. These were then used to reconstruct a section of the gate in Berlin. Today, many visitors wonder how it made its way to the Vorderasiatisches Museum in Berlin.
1899–1917: Excavations by the Deutsche Orient-Gesellschaft in Babylon
The brick fragments in the reconstruction stem from excavations carried out by the Deutsche Orient-Gesellschaft (German Oriental Society) from 1899 to 1917. Whereas the British Empire and France had been conducting excavations in the Ottoman Empire since the 1840s and transferred numerous artefacts to local museums under enormous media attention, Germany had yet to undertake a major excavation, with its scientific community increasingly having a feeling of falling behind. Beginning in the 1890s, the nascent German Empire under William II expanded its influence in the Middle East, where it was granted a prestigious excavation project in Babylon.
The Restoration and Reconstruction of the Brick Fragments in Berlin
From the very beginning the objective of the excavations included not only scientific research but also the acquisition of exhibits for the Berlin museums. The brick fragments were awarded the museums as their portion of two artefact distributions shared with Istanbul (1903) and Baghdad (1926). In Berlin the arduous restoration and reconstruction work began. The brick fragments were first desalinated, after which the glazes were reinforced with paraffin and the fragments sorted according to their motifs and colours. Work groups of up to thirty people then assembled 72 animal reliefs within just two years. Supplemented with modern bricks, these animal reliefs were used to reconstruct the Ishtar Gate, the Processional Way and the Throne Room façades in the Pergamonmuseum. The reconstructions were presented to the public for the first time when the Pergamonmuseum opened in 1930.
The Visonary Reconstruction of the Ishtar Gate in the Museum
The special presentation in the Pergamonmuseum traces the path of the Ishtar Gate from the excavation of the tiny glazed brick fragments in the rubble of Babylon to the visionary reconstruction at the museum. Archaeological research interests, the German Empire’s imperial ambitions and the creative ingenuity of the excavators and museum staff of the time converged in the reconstruction of the Ishtar Gate. The history of the Ishtar Gate therefore reflects both the history of the period and the history of the Vorderasiatisches Museum, which was founded in 1899.
Through these aspects the special presentation supplements the current permanent exhibition and addresses visitors’ growing desire for knowledge about the origins of the exhibits on display. Beginning with the fragments of glazed brick, the reconstruction of the Ishtar Gate is traced and elucidated in accordance with how it has been conveyed through historical photographs, reconstruction drawings and archival documents.
A special exhibition of the Vorderasiatisches Museum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin.
This exhibition is made possible by the Freunde der Antike auf der Museumsinsel Berlin e.V. and Museum&Location.