Venetian Red in Berlin: Pergamon—The Story That Wasn’t

By LIZ HAGER

Temporarily Closed (photo ©2008 Liz Hager)

The sign that greeted me outside the Pergamon Museum blared its message in hot-pink, as if there were a chance that one otherwise might fail to digest the supremely-disappointing news. “Vorübergehend geschlossen.” To non-native speakers this phrase, like many in the German language, sounds oppressively final. A death-knell was ringing in my ears.  Pergamon was perhaps the art reason for my trip to Berlin. The cheery English translation—”temporarily closed—offered no solace.

Since wandering all over the hilltop site of ancient Pergamon last October, I had been dreaming about the day when I could actually see the Great Altar of Pergamon in all its marmoreal grandeur. Widely considered to be the finest intact altar of the Greek Hellenistic period, since its discovery, the Altar has resided in its eponymous Berlin museum.

Pergamon site itself is worth the visit—though located on a somewhat inhospitable promontory about 10 miles inland from the Aegean,  it boasts a beyond-dramatic view to the Turkish city of Bergama in the valley below. However, one feels alternately cheated and sad that just about everything in the city, except for the remains of a few of the acropolis buildings, has been stripped away long ago. The site of the altar, which was orginally built in the 2nd c. BCE on an outcropping below the acropolis, is now marked by ruins (below).  The dusty hillside, the sorry remains of the grand altar, and accompanying trees only heightened the already necropolitan air of the whole site.

Pergamon—Site of the Empty Altar (photo ©2008 Liz Hager)

Nineteen century Europeans were obsessed with ancient and exotic cultures. In the accepted practices of the day, archeologists “liberated” thousands of artifacts from sites, and weren’t always too careful about how they did it. In particularly friezes and wall paintings were often removed using methods that disregarded the condition of what would remained. One likes to think that this was all in the name of scholarly study, but regrettably a lot of it was also for fame and fortune, both individual and national. (See Swimmers in the Desert and On the Trail of Alexander.) The Germans were no exception. Their particular interest lay in ancient Greece and her sphere of influence.

In 1878 three men—Carl Humann, Alexander Conze and Wilhelm Dörpfeld—began to excavate Pergamon. Carl Humann (1839-1896), leader of the group, was a self-educated archaeologist. An innkeeper’s son, he studied engineering until a diagnosis of tuberculosis necessitated a move to a southern European climate.   He worked as a surveyor in Turkey on railway and road construction departments.  There, Humann gained a personal familiarity with the classical-era ruins. The same year he started at Pergamon, Humann was named foreign director of Royal Museum in Berlin, responsible for all Prussian archaeological expeditions in the Near East.  He continued at the Pergamon site until 1886.   After Pegamon he went on to excavate Tralles, Magnesia-on-the-Maeander, Priene, and Ephesus. At his death in 1896 Humann was buried in the Catholic cemetery in Smyrna, but fittingly his remains were re-interred at Pergamon in 1967.

Beyond Pergamon, Dörpfeld directed much of his energy toward proving that Homer’s Odyssey was based upon real places.  He would became famous for his specific method of dating archeological sites based on the type of building materials found in the strata in which objects were found. A young Heinrich Schliemann convinced Dörpfeld to assist him with the excavation of Troy in 1882.

Like a good citizen, Humann shipped the altar and other items back to the Museum, where from 1901 to 1909, a small building on the site of the current Museum accommodated the important excavation finds of the Berlin Museums. As the collections grew, the building required enlargement; the current structure, though started in 1910, was finished in 1930.

After WW2, the frieze reliefs from the altar were relocated to the Hermitage Museum, ostensibly as a compensation for damage inflicted by the German invaders on Soviet museums. At the behest of Nikita Khrushchev, the frieze reliefs were returned to the Pergamon Museum (at that time under East German jurisdiction) in 1956.

Pergamon—Remains of the Acropolis (photo ©2007 Liz Hager)

In its heyday Pergamon must have been spectacular site to behold. Considered in some ancient circles as a Wonder of the World, in addition to its temples, the city was reputed to have had a library bested only by the one in Alexandria.

A full conception of the glory of Pergamon would have to wait until another day. I reminded myself that the setback was only “vorübergehend,” which sounded a whole lot less final without the “geschlossen.

Wider Connections

Germany Stole Pergamon —interesting tidbits about the Pergamon theft of the sort that are rocking the world of antiquities.

Down from Olympus: Archaeology and Philhellenism in Germany, 1750-1970

Telephos Frieze from Pergamon

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