Monday, 6 February 2012

At the Gates of Babylon - Berlin 3

The Ishtar Gate: impressive
The sense of history that pervades Berlin is not all Fuhrer Bunkers and Reichstags. The German capital is home to one of the most amazing collections of architecture from antiquity.

One enduring memory from my previous visit to Berlin in 1992 was seeing the Gates of Ishtar, one of the routes into Babylon. On my visit earlier in 2011 the Pergamon Museum where these treasures are displayed was absolutely packed, so I seized the chance to go back.

The Pergamon Museum sits on an island of three museums, around the corner from the Unter den Linden and the Berlin Cathedral. It was built to house the vast amount of relics excavated throughout the ancient world by German archaeologists between 1899 and 1917, and while there’s always the problem of the stuff not actually being where it should, it is an impressive collection.

The Ishtar Gate (left) was the eighth gate leading into the ancient city of Babylon, built in 575 BC on the orders of King Nebuchadnezzar. It was glazed in blue tiles decorated with lions on glazed bricks and has been restored to how it once looked – it’s an amazing construction.

The Gate straddled the Processional Way into Babylon along which statues of gods were paraded on feast days and the New Year celebrations. It’s difficult to get a sense of the size of the Gate from photographs.. this video helps convey the scale:

Detail of the lions decorating the Processional Way
The Babylon collection raises a number of questions in my mind. How could so little remain of a city so fabled, so central to the ancient world? In-fighting following the death of its final conqueror, Alexander the Great, meant that Babylonian fortunes took a severe downturn from 275 BC onwards. 

Babylonians were forcibly removed to another city. The change in the course of the river took out one side of the city. And the Tower of Babel and the legendary Hanging Gardens? It seems likely that the Gardens were exactly that: a legend. 

The Hanging Gardens of Babylon were considered to be one of the original Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. They were supposedly built by the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar II around 600 BC for his homesick wife, Amytis of Media, who longed for the trees and fragrant plants of her homeland Persia.  

A Processional Way of lions from Babylon
No contemporary accounts of them exist, nor any archaeological evidence and the noted writer Herodotus, source of choice for most students of antiquity, doesn’t mention them. It’s likely the Gardens weren’t in Babylon but actually in Nineveh. 

The Tower of Babel was probably a ziggurat or tower in a temple complex, destroyed during a rebuilding attempt by Alexander the Great, whose death halted the project. The base remains, visible from Google Earth, which places its location at 32.5362583°N 44.4208252°E just south of Baghdad. (source Wikipaedia)
Here’s a good feature about the Gardens:
The latest indignity meted out to Babylon has been a good stomping at the hands of US troops occupying the area after the fall of Saddam, who 'restored' Babylon, using bricks stamped with his name. 

Unimaginable damage has been caused to the site, which now houses a helipad and a parking lot. Good job, guys.

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