Detail of the Ishtar Gate

Detail of the Ishtar Gate

Detail of the Ishtar Gate, Babylon, c604-c562 BC.

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The Museum Island is so-called for the complex of internationally significant museums, all part of the Berlin State Museums, that occupy the island's northern part:

  • The Altes Museum (Old Museum) named as the Königliches Museum when it was built on August 3, 1830, until it was renamed in 1841. The museum was completed on the orders of Karl Friedrich Schinkel.
  • The Neues Museum (New Museum) finished in 1859 according to plans by Friedrich August Stüler, a student of Schinkel. Destroyed in World War II, it was rebuilt under the direction of David Chipperfield for the Egyptian Museum of Berlin and re-opened in 2009.
  • The Alte Nationalgalerie (Old National Gallery) completed in 1876, also according to designs by Friedrich August Stüler, to host a collection of 19th-century art donated by banker Joachim H. W. Wagener
  • The Bode Museum on the island's northern tip, opened in 1904 and then called Kaiser-Friedrich-Museum. It exhibits the sculpture collections and late Antique and Byzantine art.
  • The Pergamon Museum, constructed in 1930. It contains multiple reconstructed immense and historically significant buildings such as the Pergamon Altar and the Ishtar Gate of Babylon.
  • The Humboldt Forum opened in late 2020 in the Berlin Palace opposite the Lustgarten park, and incorporated the Ethnological Museum of Berlin and the Museum of Asian Art both are successor institutions of the Ancient Prussian Art Chamber, which was also located in the Berlin Palace and which was established in the mid 16th century.

In 1999, the museum complex was added to the UNESCO list of World Heritage Sites.

A first exhibition hall was erected in 1797 at the suggestion of the archaeologist Aloys Hirt. In 1822, Schinkel designed the plans for the Altes Museum to house the royal Antikensammlung, the arrangement of the collection was overseen by Wilhelm von Humboldt. The island, originally a residential area, was dedicated to "art and science" by King Frederick William IV of Prussia in 1841. Further extended under succeeding Prussian kings, the museum's collections of art and archeology were turned into a public foundation after 1918. They are today maintained by the Berlin State Museums branch of the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation.

Museum Island further comprises the Lustgarten park and the Berlin Cathedral. Between the Bode and Pergamon Museums it is crossed by the Stadtbahn railway viaduct. The adjacent territory to the south is the site of the former royal and imperial Berlin Palace and the Palace of the Republic.

The Prussian collections became separated during the Cold War during the division of the city, but were reunited after German reunification, with the exception of some art and artifacts removed after World War II by Allied troops. These include the Priam's Treasure, also called the gold of Troy, excavated by Heinrich Schliemann in 1873, then smuggled out of Turkey to Berlin and smuggled out of Germany to Moscow. Today it is kept at the Pushkin Museum in Moscow.

As for the city's major museums, it took much of the 1990s for a consensus to emerge that Museum Island's buildings should be restored and modernized, with General Director Wolf-Dieter Dube's cautious plan for their use finally approved in January 1999. Then, six months later, Peter-Klaus Schuster took over and set in motion a far more ambitious program intended to turn Museum Island into a Louvre on the Spree. [3] The federal government pledged $20 million a year through 2010 for projects to enhance Berlin's prestige and Unesco declaring the island a World Heritage Site. [4]

The contents of the museums were decided on as follows: The Pergamon, with the Greek altar that gives it its name, retained much of its collection and was defined as a museum of ancient architecture. The Neues Museum presented archaeological objects as well as Egyptian and Etruscan sculptures, including the renowned bust of Queen Nefertiti. The Altes Museum, the oldest on the island, displayed Greek and Roman art objects on its first floor and hold exhibitions on its second floor. The Bode Museum's paintings went from Late Byzantine to 1800. And, as now, the Alte Nationalgalerie will cover the 19th century. [3] Once this process is completed, perhaps by 2020, the Gemäldegalerie’s painting collection will be transferred to the Bode, and a new annex, and Museum Island will present all art from the ancient civilizations to 1900. [5] The James Simon Gallery, a $94 million visitors’ center designed by the British architect David Chipperfield, is being built beside the Neues Museum. It will in turn be linked to the Neues, Altes, Pergamon and Bode Museums by an underground passageway decorated with archaeological objects. [5]

Once the Museum Island Master Plan is completed, the so-called Archaeological Promenade will connect four of the five museums in the Museum Island. The Promenade will begin at the Old Museum in the south, lead through the New Museum and the Pergamon Museum and end at the Bode Museum, located at the northern tip of the Island. Before World War II, these museums were connected by bridge passages above ground they were destroyed due to the effects of the war. There have never been plans to rebuild them instead, the central courts of individual museums will be lowered, which has already been done in the Bode Museum and in the New Museum. They will be connected by subterranean galleries. In a way, this archaeological promenade can be regarded as the sixth museum in the Island, because it is devised not only as a connecting corridor but also as a strung-out exhibition room for interdisciplinary presentations. The Archaeological Promenade may be characterized as a cross-total of the collections that are shown separately (in accordance with cultural regions, epochs, and art genres) in the individual museums of the Island. The Archaeological Promenade will address multi-focus topics that have occupied the human mind irrespective of time and cultural region, be it a question of life after death or issues of beauty and other topics. [6]

Museum Island is referenced in the song "On the Museum Island" by folk artist Emmy the Great.

The southern section of the island, south of Gertraudenstraße, is commonly referred to as Fischerinsel (Fisher Island) and is the site of a high-rise apartment development built when Mitte was part of East Berlin.

Ishtar Gate

The Ishtar Gate (Assyrian: ܕܵܪܘܲܐܙܲܐ ܕܥܵܐܫܬܲܪ translit: Darwaza D'Ishtar, Arabic:بوابة عشتار) was the eighth gate to the inner city of Babylon. It was constructed in about 575 BC by order of King Nebuchadnezzar II on the north side of the city.

Dedicated to the Babylonian goddess Ishtar, the Gate was constructed of blue glazed tiles with alternating rows of bas-relief sirrush (dragons) and aurochs.

The roof and doors of the gate were of cedar, according to the dedication plaque. Through the gate ran the Processional Way which was lined with walls covered in lions on glazed bricks (about 120 of them).

Statues of the deities were paraded through the gate and down the Processional Way each year during the New Year's celebration.

Originally the gate, being part of the Walls of Babylon, was considered one of the Seven Wonders of the world until, in the 6th century AD, it was replaced with the Lighthouse of Alexandria.

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 47 feet high and 100 feet wide (14 meters by 30 meters). The excavation ran from 1902-1914 and during that time 45 feet of the foundation of the gate was uncovered.

The gate was in fact a double-gate. The part that is shown in the Pergamon Museum today is only the smaller frontal part, while the larger back part was considered too large to fit into the constraints of the structure of the museum. It is in storage.

Parts of the gate and lions from the Processional Way are in various other museums around the world. Only three museums acquired dragons while lions went to several museums. The Istanbul Archaeology Museum has lions, dragons, and bulls. The Detroit Institute of Arts houses a dragon. The Röhsska Museum in Gothenburg, Sweden, has one dragon and one lion the Louvre, the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology in Philadelphia, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the Oriental Institute in Chicago, the Rhode Island School of Design Museum, the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, and the Yale University Art Gallery of New Haven, Connecticut, each have lions.

A smaller reproduction of the gate was built in Iraq under Saddam Hussein as the entrance to a museum that has not been completed. Damage to the reproduction gate has occurred since the Iraq war (see Effects of the U.S. military).

UNESCO, the United Nations cultural organization, has issued a report outlining the extensive damage caused by US occupation forces in Iraq to the archeological site of ancient Babylon, about 100 Km (60 miles) south of Baghdad.

The report was based on examinations of the site by prominent specialists, including John Curtis, John Russell and Elizabeth Stone.

It charges American and Polish forces with carrying out “a grave encroachment on this internationally known archaeological site.”

The report continues, “During their presence in Babylon, the MNF-I [Multi-National Forces] and contractors employed by them, mainly KBR, directly caused major damage to the city by digging, cutting, scraping, and leveling. Key structures that were damaged include the Ishtar Gate and the Processional Way.”

The site of Babylon is of major historical and scientific importance. Babylon was a leading city of ancient Mesopotamia in what is now modern Iraq. It is one of the oldest centers of civilization in the world, and the origin of many social and technological discoveries that form the basis of modern culture. Babylon is first mentioned in baked clay tablets from the area over 4,000 years ago.

The city is best known for two of its rulers: Hammurabi (1792-1750 BC), who enacted one of the world’s first codes of law and Nebuchadnezzar (604-562 BC), who built the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, one of the Seven Wonders of the ancient world. Babylon was conquered by Alexander the Great, who died there in 323 BC. The city figures prominently in the Old Testament. After the Islamic period, the location of the city was forgotten.

Babylon was first scientifically excavated by the German archaeologist Robert Koldewey in 1899, and many important finds were made in the subsequent colonial period, including that of the splendid Ishtar Gate. A reconstruction of the gate, with materials supplied by Koldewey, now stands in Berlin’s Pergamon Museum.

Archaeologists from the German Archaeological Institute made significant finds between 1962 and 1973. Excavations have been conducted since 1977 under the auspices of the Iraqi State Board of Antiquities and Heritage (SBAH).

The Baathist regime of Saddam Hussein initiated the Babylon Archaeological Restoration Project. The aim of the regime was to reinforce nationalist sentiment, and, alongside serious study of the site, there was the irresponsible addition of new structures. A palace for Hussein was built there, in addition to parking lots, a restaurant, artificial mounds and canals. In addition, according to the UNESCO report, faulty restorations of ancient buildings were made.

Shortly after the American invasion, the Nebuchadnezzar and Hammurabi museums on the site were looted. Only plaster replicas of ancient objects were stolen. Much more serious was the burning of the Babylon Library and Archive, which contained valuable archaeological records.

In April 2003, the United Sates military, and eventually Polish troops, occupied the site and later made a permanent installation called Camp Alpha that remained there until December 2004, when the site was handed back to SBAH.

The US military cordoned off the area with barriers and barbed wire and contracted the notorious subsidiary of Halliburton, KBR, to do much of its construction work.

Coalition forces or KBR dug eight trenches—including one over 160 meters long—all over the site of the ancient city. The soil that was removed was either piled up on the sides of the trenches or put into barricade-like HESCO containers. UNESCO reports that in case after case, the soil removed contained “fragments of ancient baked brick and pottery.”

Even small ceramic fragments have scientific importance since they can help archeologists date the layers or reconstruct the layout of the city. When they are moved from their context, this becomes nearly impossible. In some cases, the trenches themselves cut into ancient surfaces.

In order to build roads or erect earthen barriers, the military occupation forces dug pits on the ancient site and cut into mounds or tells, which have been formed by thousands of years of accumulation of human debris. One description in the report reads, “A section through the cut shows a deposit with various archaeological fragments.” Some cuts removed entire sides of mounds or extended into ancient walls of baked brick.

Occupation forces scraped and leveled a number of archaeological areas and tells. Some were subsequently covered with sand and gravel to make parking lots for military equipment.

The report notes, “This operation covered broad areas of Babylon and entailed the use of heavy equipment to compact the soil, which may have destroyed any antiquities beneath the surface. The effects of chemical treatment on the archaeological sub-surface layers are not yet known.”

Banks of earth were constructed with debris from the trenches, which, according to the UNESCO report, contained bricks with inscriptions from the Nebuchadnezzar period.

The occupation forces also drove steel stakes into ancient walls, which also included fragments with inscriptions from the time of Nebuchadnezzar.

The report outlines the direct damage inflicted by occupation forces on ancient monuments that constitute some of the most important artistic accomplishments of ancient Mesopotamian cultures, such as the remnants of the Ishtar Gate.

“The damage to the gate includes smashed bricks on nine of the bodies of animals adorning the gate. These animals depict the legendary dragon-snake, the symbol of Marduk, the god of the city of Babylon.”

There was also egregious damage to the Processional Way of the city. The report notes the marks of heavy vehicles that broke the ancient paving of the street. In addition, “Three rows of 2-ton blocks were placed in the middle of the Processional Way on top of the paving,” which were removed by helicopter in 2004.

The vibrations of heavy equipment in the area damaged other archaeological structures. The roof of the Ninmakh Temple, which had a busy helicopter pad constructed next to it, collapsed.

To compound the damage, the occupation forces refused to allow SBAH personnel onto the site to conduct maintenance and restoration of the ancient buildings.

Occupation forces also damaged the modern buildings of the site, including the offices the Museums and the Study Center, “rendering them shells devoid of doors, windows, and electrical fixtures,” according to the report.

Since the withdrawal of foreign military forces from the area, the site has continued to be disrupted by the infighting within the US-installed Iraqi government. The local governor of the province is currently building a large garden on the site and has flattened an area of the site with a bulldozer. He and SBAH have disputed the rights to access the area.

The UNESCO report makes a number of recommendations, including an investigation of the long-term implications of the damage to the site. It also calls for making the archaeological area of Babylon a World Heritage Site, the most prestigious and best-funded status that the organization can grant to a historic site.

While necessary, these suggestions take no account of the criminal nature of the destruction of the site that took place under the auspices of the American occupation.

In spite of repeated warnings by archaeologists before and during the war, the American-led occupation forces acted with deliberate disregard for the cultural heritage not only of the Iraq people, but indeed, of the entire planet.

The Bush administration and the American political establishment, including the Democratic Party, which facilitated the invasion of Iraq, are responsible for the lootings and burnings of libraries, archives and museums all over Iraq after April 2003—and the continued looting of archaeological sites to feed the illegal market in antiquities.

The UNESCO report, by the very nature of the organization issuing it, cannot draw the logical conclusion that flows from its findings: that the damage to Babylon is part of a larger war crime, for which those responsible should be criminally investigated and tried.

But the details of the report speak for themselves: the American presence led to the vandalism of one of the oldest cities in the world.

That this crime is largely overlooked is only because it pales in comparison to the deaths of over a million Iraqis and the continued displacement and poverty of millions more since the 2003 American invasion.

The damage to Iraq’s archaeological sites, libraries, and museums and to the educational system remains, however, a crucial part of the sociocide—the destruction of a whole society—carried out in Washington’s attempt to seize control of its natural resources and strategic location.


What a truly magnificent structure, I love architecture and the stories behind it. I had never heard of this gate before, I’m glad you chose it for your post and gave us the opportunity to see it. The story about the dragon is really interesting, I was just talking to a friend not too long ago about how many cultures have dragon-like creatures in their ancient art or folklore. My personal theory is that the myths most likely stem from dinosaur bones these various civilizations must have unearthed, but who knows. The idea of a dragon living in the temple is much more fun. Great post, very informative, if I ever make it to Germany I’m going to put this on my list of things to see.

Comment by Nannette | November 25, 2009

Great information. At first, I wasn’t too crazy about the gate, but after reading about the history and the meaning behind the dragon I can say that I think it is a great piece of art. I wish I could see the gate in person so I can see the glow. I’m sure it looks gorgeous.

Comment by Murial | November 25, 2009

I found these gates to be astonishing as well. I have always been a fan of architecture, especially that of past civilizations. Despite living in Germany for 6 years i never managed to visit Berlin however, I was quite amazed with all the other historic architecture I was able to visit during my time in Europe. I love the colors of this work, and how every stone comes together to create a larger images and such an amazing arch. In addition, i find it even more amazing that something from 572BC has survived all these years and was able to be unearthed in 1902 for a whole new audience to impress. Overall, I found your blog very interesting and informative. Good job with your explanations and historical details.

Comment by sflippo | December 1, 2009

Wow, great job. I too have been to Germany and seen all of the amazing architecture. You did a good job of describing everything there is to know about the gate. I enjoyed that you you went into the meaning and the history of the dragon symbol that are on the walls. Its sad that we (united states) do not really have much ancient art to look at!

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Domestic Architecture

Mesopotamian families were responsible for the construction of their own houses. While mud bricks and wooden doors comprised the dominant building materials, reeds were also used in construction. Because houses were load-bearing, doorways were often the only openings. Sumerian culture observed a rigid division between the public sphere and the private sphere, a norm that resulted in a lack of direct view from the street into the home. The sizes of individual houses varied, but the general design consisted of smaller rooms organized around a large central room. To provide a natural cooling effect, courtyards became a common feature in the Ubaid period and persist into the domestic architecture of present-day Iraq.

Ishtar Gate

“I placed wild bulls and ferocious dragons in the gateways and thus adorned them with luxurious splendor so that people might gaze on them in wonder…” These are the words of Nebuchadnezzar II, King of Babylon describing the Ishtar Gate. Thousands of years later, his words ring true as many the world over gaze in wonder when first encountering the ancient entryway.

Built in 575 BC, the Ishtar Gate was conceived as part of a grand processional way into the city of Babylon. The king envisioned it as a magnificent homage to the goddess Ishtar, for whom it takes its name. It is the eighth gate to the city of Babylon and is adorned in glazed bricks and vibrant blue tiles thought to be lapis lazuli.

A conqueror king, Nebuchadnezzar was as brutal and merciless as the dragons he placed on his Gate. He fought many campaigns west of Babylon, including against the Egyptians. His conquests are chronicled in the Bible including his siege of Jerusalem where he destroyed Solomon’s Temple and initiated the Babylonian captivity of the Jewish population.

In the early 20th century, German archeologists began excavating Babylon and came across the Ishtar Gate. They dismantled it and brought it to Berlin, where its facade controversially stands in the Pergamon Museum. The replica seen here stands in its original place as the Iraqi government fights for the return of the original.

3.3: Neo-Babylonia

The Neo-Babylonian Empire developed an artistic style motivated by their ancient Mesopotamian heritage.

Learning Objectives

Describe the artistic and architectural accomplishments of King Nebuchadnezzar II, including the city of Babylon

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • The Neo-Babylonian Empire was a civilization in Mesopotamia between 626 BCE and 539 BCE. During the preceding three centuries, Babylonia had been ruled by the Akkadians and Assyrians, but threw off the yoke of external domination after the death of the last strong Assyrian ruler.
  • Neo-Babylonian art and architecture reached its zenith under King Nebuchadnezzar II, who ruled from 604&ndash562 BC. He was a great patron of art and urban development and rebuilt the city of Babylon to reflect its ancient glory.
  • Most of the evidence for Neo-Babylonian art and architecture is literary. Of the material evidence that survives, the most important fragments are from the Ishtar Gate of Babylon.
  • Neo-Babylonians were known for their colorful glazed bricks, which they shaped into bas-reliefs of dragons, lions, and aurochs to decorate the Ishtar Gate.

Key Terms

  • glazed:Having a vitreous coating whose primary purposes are decoration or protection.
  • aurochs:An extinct European mammal, Bos primigenius, the ancestor of domestic cattle.
  • ziggurat:A temple tower of the ancient Mesopotamian valley, having the form of a terraced pyramid of successively receding stories.

The Neo-Babylonian Empire, also known as the Chaldean Empire, was a civilization in Mesopotamia that began in 626 BC and ended in 539 BC.

During the preceding three centuries, Babylonia had been ruled by the Akkadians and Assyrians, but threw off the yoke of external domination after the death of Assurbanipal, the last strong Assyrian ruler. The Neo-Babylonian period was a renaissance that witnessed a great flourishing of art, architecture, and science.

The Neo-Babylonian rulers were motivated by the antiquity of their heritage and followed a traditionalist cultural policy, based on the ancient Sumero-Akkadian culture . Ancient artworks from the Old-Babylonian period were painstakingly restored and preserved, and treated with a respect verging on religious reverence. Neo-Babylonian art and architecture reached its zenith under King Nebuchadnezzar II, who ruled from 604&ndash562 BC and was a great patron of urban development, bent on rebuilding all of Babylonia&rsquos cities to reflect their former glory.

It was Nebuchadnezzar II&rsquos vision and sponsorship that turned Babylon into the immense and beautiful city of legend. The city spread over three square miles, surrounded by moats and ringed by a double circuit of walls. The river Euphrates, which flowed through the city, was spanned by a beautiful stone bridge. At the heart of the city lay the zigguratEtemenanki, literally &ldquotemple of the foundation of heaven and earth.&rdquo Originally seven stories high, it is believed to have provided the inspiration for the biblical story of the Tower of Babel.

It was also during this period that Nebuchadnezzar supposedly built the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, although there is no definitive archeological evidence to establish their precise location. Ancient Greek and Roman writers describe the gardens in vivid detail. However, the lack of physical ruins have led many experts to speculate whether the Hanging Gardens existed at all. If this is the case, writers might have been describing ideal mythologized Eastern gardens or a famous garden built by the Assyrian king Sennacherib (704&ndash681 BCE) at Nineveh roughly a century earlier. If the Hanging Gardens did exist, they were likely destroyed around the first century CE.

19th-century reconstruction of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon: Two lamassu sculptures in the round face each other in the foreground, while another reconstruction of the ziggurat Etemenanki dominates the background.

Most of the evidence for Neo-Babylonian art and architecture is literary. The material evidence itself is mostly fragmentary. Some of the most important fragments that survive are from the Ishtar Gate, the eighth gate to the inner city of Babylon. It was constructed in 575 BC by order of Nebuchadnezzar II, using glazed brick with alternating rows of bas-relief dragons and aurochs. Dedicated to the Babylonian goddess Ishtar, it was a double gate, and its roofs and doors were made of cedar, according to the dedication plaque. Babylon&rsquos Processional Way, which was lined with brilliantly colorful glazed brick walls decorated with lions, ran through the middle of the gate. Statues of the Babylonian gods were paraded through the gate and down the Processional Way during New Year&rsquos celebrations.

Ishtar Gate detail: An aurochs above a flower ribbon with missing tiles filled in (Ishtar Gate bas-relief, housed in the Pergamon Museum in Berlin). A prominent characteristic of Neo-Babylonian art and architecture was the use of brilliantly colorful glazed bricks.

The reconstruction of the Ishtar Gate and Processional Way, built at the Pergamon Museum in Berlin in 1930, features material excavated from the original site. To compensate for missing pieces, museum staff created new bricks in a specially designed kiln that was able to match the original color and finish. Other parts of the gate, which include glazed brick lions and dragons, are housed in different museums around the world.

Ishtar Gate at Pergamon Museum: This was reconstructed in Berlin in 1930, using materials excavated from the original build-site.

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