Saturday, 11 February 2012

The Pergamon Museum, Berlin

The Pergamon Museum (das Pergamonmuseum) is one of the must-see museums of Berlin, and probably of Europe. Taken together with the other museums and galleries of art and sculpture on Museum Island (die Berliner Museuminsel), plus the adjacent Museum of German History (das Deutsches Historisches Museum), it forms part of an impressive ensemble of historical, archaeological, and cultural interest to rival the Musée du Louvre or the British Museum. No wonder that Museum Island is on the Unesco World Heritage list.

The treasures on display could have been much greater: at the end of the Second World War much of the Museum Island collections were broken up and either looted or taken away for safe-keeping by the Soviets (depending on your point of view).

That's quite apart from the even greater number of treasures that were bombed to smithereens by the Allies during the war. If it wasn't for them being stored in packing cases beneath the flak tower at Berlin Zoo, almost everything could have ended up as just so much rubble to add to add to Berlin's Teufelsburg, and provide archaeologists in the far future something to puzzle over when they found large depositis of fragmented Grecian and Roman urns mixed with Egyptian mummies.

Though many of the former artefacts have found there way back to Berlin, there still remains a great deal that is stored in the Pushkin Museum in Moscow, the Hermitage Collection in St Petersburg, and in private collections 'acquired' by the liberators of Berlin. To the victor, the spoils, if not the 'Fallen Madonna With the Big' ... never mind, you're too young to know that reference.

The Pergamon Museum was built in 1930 to house monumental reconstructions of  Classic era architecure excavated in Turkey and brought to Berlin at the end of the nineteenth century; notably the Hellenic Greek altar and friezes from the acropolis of Pergamon (hence the museum's name), and the Roman Market Gate of Miletus. In addition, you can also see there the 575BC Ishtar Gate and Procession Way from Babylon, and the 8th century Mshatta Facade from a residential desert palace of the Umayyad Caliphate in Jordan. Be re-assured though that unlike the Elgin Marbles from the Parthenon of Athens now at the British Museum, the Pergamon collections were either legally acquired and paid for or gifted. Or so they say. I've seen 'Raiders of the Lost Ark' so I have a good idea what these German archaologists were like.

The Pergamon Museum is actually three museums in one: the Antiquity Collection, the Museum of the Near Middle East, and the Museum of Islamic Art (which apart from the Mshatta facade also has numerous items of exquisite pottery, metalwork and tapestries). The architectural reconstructions are spectacular starting points, which you can follow up with the more human-sized artefacts in the nearby Altes, Neues, and Bode museums. There you will also find much from Ancient Egypt (including the bust of Nefertiti), Byzantium, Troy, mediaval Europe, and lots more.

Be warned though: the entrance price isn't cheap (13€ as I write), and could well eat up an afternoon - and that's without also visiting the temporary Pergamon Panorama by Berlin artist Yadegar Asisi which is seemingly housed in a gasometer in front of the Pergamon museum (also 13€, or 18€ together with the museum ticket). You should also be warned not to go on a busy Saturday in high season, as it is a popular place with coach parties of everyone from visiting Japanese Handball teams to American Missionaries of Scientology.

Better, I think, to get a three-day pass to all the Berlin SMB museums (19€, Panorama not included) and see them at your leisure. Or, get an annual pass as we did (40€), and visit all the museums as many times as you want over a year (special exhibitions like the Panorama not included). [I could at this point launch into a rant about how until recently all the Berlin museums stayed open later on a Thursday, and entrance was free, but I won't. There, aren't I good to you?]

All that said, if you only have the time and inclination to visit one museum, visit the Pergamon!

(But hurry if you are reading this in 2014: the altar exhibition will be closed from October 2014 for three years for restoration.
If you are reading this in 2015 - tough.
If you are reading this in 2016 - is the Internet still going then?)

Below are a few of my photo impressions of the Pergammon (all copyright me. Click for bigger).

On the steps of the Pergamon altar
'Athena' depicted on one of the friezes. I really love those wings and the serpent's coils.
Close-up of a horned, man-eating lion on a frieze.
I am reminded that St John of Patmos referred to Pergamon as the place where Satan lived and had his throne (Revelation 2:13).

Headless statue in the altar area. I really should listen to the audio guide and perhaps discover who it is. The audio guides are available in English by the way, and are included in the entry price (so no excuses).

Entrance to the Temple of Athena from the Pergamon acropolis. Why the woman on the steps and the unrelated attendant have both chosen to pose for me in that similar way, I don't know.
Colossal statue of Athena Parthenos. Love those ionic columns in the background.
Bull's head and swags of foliage.
And my shadow.

Part of the Market Gate of Miletus. 17 m high and 29 m wide, and too big for a photo to do it justice.
Balcony facing the Market Gate.
Statue of a Roman Dude. Very 'Life of Brian' I thought.
Roman ancestor of Thing from the Addams Family?
You walk through the Market Gate of Miletus, and immediately find yourself at the Ishtar Gate from Babylon. The eigth gate to the inner city, built by order of Nebuchadnezzar II in 575 BC. The gate was actually a double gate, and this is the smaller, frontal part. The larger part was too big for the museum and is in storage at the museum!
The blue stone is actually lapis lazuli. That's the incredibly rare pigment that was used in the Rennaissance to make the heavenly blue paint for e.g. the Madonna's robes. The more blue you see in a painting by the old masters, the richer the patron, so you can imagine how costly these gates were. And this is just one gate. And you haven't seen the Processional Way yet!
And here's a small part of the partial reconstruction of the Processional Way up to the gate. It is decorated with prowling lions, companions to Ishtar, which protected the street leading to the temple in the inner city. 

Ceramic frieze of ancient Babylonian/Assyrian warriors.
Assyrian reliefs in shadow.
Colossal Assyrian 'Lamassu' - part man, part lion, part eagle guardian.
The museum of Islamic Art has many examples of incredibly beautiful, richly ornamented glazed porcelain, such as this detail from a prayer niche (mihrab).
Carved rock-crystal pitcher, made for the court of the Fatimid rulers of Cairo, Egypt around the late 10th century or early 11th century AD. Incredibly, it was first valued at £100 when it was first put up for sale at a Somerset auction, believed to be a cheap French claret jug. When it was realised what it actually was, it fetched £3.2 million in auction at Christie's in October 2008.

A stunningly beautiful Arabic astrolabe.
Detail from an ivory hunting horn.
Stylised bull's head sculpture. By this time I have become overwhelmed by the number of amazing objects and I have forgotten which period in history or culture I am in. Time for a cup of coffee.

There is much more than I have photographed here to discover at the Pergamon museum. At the risk of sounding like I am in the employ of the Berlin tourist board, I urge you to visit it next time you are in the city.

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