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.

Friday, 3 February 2012

An afternoon in the Death Strip

I suppose a time will come when no one remembers the Berlin Wall or the division of the city into Occupied Zones. 

I was 23 when I first went to Berlin – to play there in my band, A Witness – and it was still divided then. We took a U-bahn to the East and were amazed to see a city free of advertising hoards and yes, the shelves in the shops really WERE bare. I would swear you could still see bullet holes in the walls.

 But I guess we didn't really think too deeply about what day to day life was actually like for East Germans or what that regime was ACTUALLY doing to its own people. It's only since I've been travelling to the East a lot that I've stopped to think about this in depth, and read some of the stories. It's pretty bad.

I didn’t have time last time I was in Berlin to visit the preserved areas of The Wall. I was too busy wandering round Alexanderplatz and Checkpoint Charlie muttering to myself in amazement.

It might have been twenty years ago but it all seemed SO LONG AGO. Berlin? Divided? Unthinkable nowadays. And all those poor buggers trying to crash through checkpoints in Trabants, pole vault the Wall or swim across the Baltic just to get away? Oh my God. What right did these people have to keep an entire population prisoner?

The sections of The Wall that have been preserved make for a fascinating afternoon imaging how miserable life could be. 

The first picture shows visitors hecking out the space that used to be where the wall was: the second photograph shows what went into that space. 

This is the Original Death Strip: landmines, machine guns, trip wires, floodlights, dogs.

I’m sure sprinters will have looked across this pace and thought: ‘Ten seconds. That’s all I need’ but those walls are pretty high.

Walking along the Wall is a strange but sobering experience. At intervals there are monuments to people who tried to escape the East and were shot down, or were fatally injured, by the rifle-toting East German guards.

To get a better look at the dimensions of everything I climbed up the three storey watchtower across the road, which doubles as a visitor and research centre. 

One corner of the city block it faces is a road leading into the heart of Berlin, a well-known pre-war route into the centre, first damaged by the war and the bombing, blocked off by the Russians, then bricked up by the East regime. 

It really is like someone built a 10 foot wall across your local main road and put armed guards on it. 

Who then really DID shoot your mum and dad.

World War Three nearly broke out in Berlin because this wall was a line in the sand. American and Soviet tanks came face to face at Checkpoint Charlie: this stretch of wall was where a lot of escape attempts were made. And I guess none more famous than East German soldier Conrad Schumann who saw the wall going up in 1961 and clearly saw the writing on it.

Here’s the place where he did it (left) at the corner of Bernauer Strasse, and here’s an account of his defection:

On 15 August 1961, Schumann was sent to the corner of Ruppiner Straße and Bernauer Straße to guard the Berlin Wall on its third day of construction. At that time, the wall was only a low barbed wire fence. 

From the other side, West Germans shouted to him, "Komm rüber!" ("Come over!"), and a police car pulled up to wait for him. 
Schumann jumped over the barbed wire fence and was promptly driven away from the scene by the West Berlin police. West German photographer Peter Leibing photographed Schumann's escape, and this picture has since become an iconic image of the Cold War era.” (source:

Sadly Conrad suffered from depression and hanged himself in 1998 aged 56.

To the left of the picture is a U-bahn that was closed through the Cold War, bricked and boarded up, finding itself at the epicentre of the Superpower confrontation. It’s open now, and all very normal. 

East Looking West.. watch the watchtower
I wish I could say that about all of Berlin, but there’s just something skewed about a place that’s seen so much history.. the sense of bad things happening in days gone by just never seems to leave me, whether it’s the Wall, or the Alexanderplatz, or the Unter den Linden leading down to the Brandenburg Gate and the Reichstag. 

Berlin is a fantastic, matchless city with history everywhere. There's still one post in this blog which will deal with the visit I made to the Pergamon Museum, revisiting the Babylon exhibition I last saw in 1992 when it had only recently reopened. Germans and archaeology go together like dal and chapattis. That Pergamon Museum, on the island of museums, is well worth a visit.

Once again I didn’t get through enough Berlin and I need to go back: next time I’m checking out the Tempelhof area and having a look at the Airlift in a bit more detail.