Berlin’s Pergamon Museum

The Pergamon Museum in Berlin is the most visited art museum in Germany, with 850,000 annual visitors.  Built between 1910 and 1930, the building was designed by Alfred Messel and Ludwig Hoffmann and  I hate to say it, but the building has not aged gracefully. The design fits well on the Museum Island, but the interior spaces feel dated and old, and most of the skylights desperately need a wash!

Museums, however, are usually more about their collections that their housing, and the collection of the Pergamon is stunning. Just like the British plundered the ancient artifacts of Greece and Italy, the Germans sought out the sights in Turkey.  Pergamon was an ancient Greek city in modern-day Turkey, located about 16 miles from the Aegean Sea.  If you look for it on a map today, you won’t find it, but it’s not far from the city of Bergama and Izmir.

What is interesting about the Pergamon Museum is that they have taken incredibly large pieces and reconstructed them (partially, anyway) in real-life size.  So instead of seeing just little pieces of an altar, you see the entire thing!  It’s quite impressive. I couldn’t get the entire altar in the frame of my camera, so I’ve used this image from Wikipedia to give you an idea of the space. Don’t the people look tiny?

The Pergamon Altar. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

The Pergamon Altar was built during the reign of King Eumenes II, and while it’s not known for certain as to the purpose of its construction, some scholars believe that he ordered the altar in gratitude for surviving an assassination attempt. Others suggest it was built to commemorate a battle, while others still maintain that it’s original purpose has not yet been discerned.

In 1878 Carl Humann began excavating the site at Pergamon. His goal was to “save” the altar from destruction, and a deal was made with the Turkish government that all artifacts uncovered would become the property of the Berlin Museums. There is debate today about whether or not these priceless artifacts should be returned to their country of origin, but like the Elgin Marbles in London, I can’t imagine the Pergamon Museum will ever return the altar to Turkey.

In addition to the Pergamon Altar, the Pergamon Museum is also home to the Market Gate of Miletus, which dates from 120 AD. Unfortunately, in World War II the glass ceiling of the Pergamon was damaged, and water seeped into the room. This left the Market Gate exposed to the elements, and significant damage occurred. Interestingly, the original pillars of the Gate were too heavy for the conservators to move, so they were hollowed out and shored up using metal rods!

The Market Gate of Miletus. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

The third large installation at the Pergamon Museum is the Gate of Ishtar, which was the 8th gate to enter the city of Babylon (in ancient Iraq).  King Nebuchadnezzar II ordered the gate to be built in 575 BC, and it stood on the north side of the city. The Babylonians used fired tilework to create the gate, which has preserved the brilliant cobalt colors on the stone. A unique feature of this gate is the three-dimensional features, especially the lions (which represent Ishtar) that protrude from the wall’s surface. This gate stood at the end of the Processional Way, and was in fact only the smaller of two gates. The larger gate doesn’t fit into the Pergamon, and is in permanent storage!

Ishtar Gate. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

The last of the big four installations at the Pergamon is the Mshatta Facade. Originally from an 8th century palace located in Jordan, the Mshatta Facade is unique because of it’s intricate carvings. The palace was damaged in an earthquake, and completely forgotten beneath the sands of the desert. The bedouin traders in the area named the place Mshatta, which means “camp”, but the original name remains unknown.  I think this was my favorite of the large exhibitions at the Pergamon. I really love the carvings, which depict animals drinking from fountains, and complex abstract designs.  This part of the facade was excavated in 1840, and was given as a personal gift from Ottoman Sultan Abdul Hamid II to Emperor Wilhelm II of Germany. The rest of the facade remains in Jordan.

Mshatta Facade. Photographer: Raimond SpekkingLicense:: cc-by-sa-3.0

The Pergamon also houses the Museum of Islamic Art, but I think that might have to wait for a separate post!  Here are some of my photos, which didn’t always turn out that well. The lighting via skylights meant that the overcast day had a big effect. Also, it was really really crowded, and difficult to get a shot without tons of people!   The last time I was in Berlin (admittedly 16 years ago!), I was totally awestruck by the Pergamon. I particularly loved the Classical Sculptures room, which was my first exposure to Greek and Roman statuary.  I was pretty disappointed last week to learn that this exhibition was closed, and is being moved to the Altes Museum next door.  😦  Oh well,  that’s just an excuse to go back, right?   I also do have to mention that the “30 minute Highlights” audio tour is excellent, and while I stayed far longer than the 30 minutes, it gives a great overview of the collection and isn’t as boring as most museum audio tours, and it’s also free!

Here you can see the 3-D lions of Ishtar!

It really bugs me when people stand right next to stuff without realizing it. Admittedly, this is a plaster cast (the originals are at the British Museum), but still! Have a little respect!

The entrance to the Pergamon, over the River Spree.

I love this intricately carved detail!

This statue really intrigued me. At some point in history, his head was replaced with someone else, and his arm was severed and then reattached in a new position!

A detail from the frieze of the Pergamon Altar. Athena is the central character, and can be identified by her snake-like breastplate!

Posted on 04/01/2011, in travel, Travel to Europe and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. Thanks for using my photo of the Mshatta faccade. Just for the records to comply with the license:

    Photographer: Raimond Spekking
    License:: cc-by-sa-3.0

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