The Pergamon Museum, located on the Museum Island, has been a mainstay of Berlin’s attractions since its construction in the early 20th Century. Even when the Communist Regime controlled on the Eastern side of the wall, it remained one of the most popular attractions, world famous for its archaeological holdings. The Pergamon consists of three separate museums in one – the Collection of Classical Antiquities, the Museum of the Ancient Near East, and the Museum of Islamic Art. These exhibit some of the most exquisite buildings excavated, transported, and reassembled from man’s earliest cultural histories.
The highlight of the Collection of Classical Antiquities is the 2nd Century Pergamon (Zeus) Altar (180-160 BC). An entire room is dedicated to this structure, providing the visitor with a visual idea about the scale of Greek architecture. The building was excavated in Bergama, Turkey, and was brought to Berlin near the turn of the 20th Century. It displays a basal frieze, with characters in relief up to 40 cm from the stone, showing a battle between the Olympian gods against the Titans. This, alone, took curators more than 20 years to reassemble from thousands of fragments. You pass part of the frieze as you climb the steps from the museum floor up to the colonnade and only can be amazed by the artisan’s abilities across the frieze’s expanse.
In the adjacent room is the Market Gate of Miletus, an example of Roman architecture. It was built in Mitelus, Anatolia, in the 2nd Century AD probably during the reign of Emperor Hadrian, and destroyed in an earthquake in the 10th or 11th Century. German archaeologists excavated and shipped it from 1899-1911, and rebuilt and placed it on display in the museum between 1925-1929. It was last renovated in 2008. The marble gate is about 30 m wide, 16 m tall, and 5 m deep, and has three doorways and a number of projections and niches. Ornate, carved friezes and flower reliefs adorn the roof level which is supported by Corinthian and composite columns. One gets an idea about the extent and magnitude of buildings throughout the Roman Empire by standing under its portico.
The Museum of the Ancient Near East ranks as one of the world’s best collections of treasures from this region. It is dominated by the imposing bright blue glazed-brick Ishtar Gate of Babylon from 6th Century BC. The clay tiles depict dragons, lions, and bulls, all of which were principal gods of the Babylonins. The façade of the throne hall of King Nebuchadnezzar II is exhibited in addition to a reconstruction of an Neo-Assyrian palace from the 12th Century BC. As can be seen in the image, the Ishtar Gate and the Procession Way of Babylon that follows, are an impressive sight, even more so because the original colors of the city, often lost over time due to oxidation, are as vivid as they were more than 2500 years ago.
The Museum für Islamische Kunst (Islamic Art Museum) opened in 1904 and originally was part of the Bode-Museum. Besides stellas and reliefs, mainly carved in basalt (!), is a 17th century Aleppo Zimmer. This is a strikingly colored wood-paneled room from a merchant’s house in that Syrian city during the Ottoman Empire. Witness, today, the destruction of Aleppo by Syrian forces as the country experiences civil war and an attempt to ouster the ruling Assad family, and you can get some feeling for the loss of artistic and cultural remains that the conflict.
Museum für Naturkunde
The Museum für Naturkunde, or Humboldt Museum, is the city’s natural history museum originally based on collections from Berlin’s Mining Academy. The Department of Petrography and Geology was established in 1854, followed by the Department of Paleontology in 1857, and collections occupied the present building since 1889. As with other parts of the city, bombing during WWII damaged the collections, with a number of scientifically important specimens lost to science. Politics isn’t just restricted to governments, and severe political infighting resulted in the separation of the Museum from Humboldt Universität since 1 January 2009. Due to the animosity, the Museum has received but little attention and many “behind the scenes” areas are in dire need of renovation nearly a quarter century after reunification.
The Museum displays several unique paleontological specimens including a Jurassic skeleton of Giraffatitan brancai, the largest mounted dinosaur in the world, and other reptiles in the main display area. What is remarkable is that nearly all of Giraffatitan’s skeleton, except for a few caudal (tail) vertebrae, come from one individual from the Tendaguru beds of Tanzania, collected betweenn 1909-1913. The animal was almost 13 m tall, more than 22 m during life, and is estimated to have weighed ~50 t. Reconstruction the Museum’s display space began in 2008 with a more modern concept of visitor engagement. Similar to the USNM in Washington, DC, there is an open design and space where visitors can see how preparators, scientists, and researchers work on the collections, and how skeletons are assembled and analyzed.
The Museum is home to one of the first collected specimens of Archaeopteryx lithographica from the Solnhöfen Limestone in Bavaria. The original specimen is on display in the central exhibit hall. The dinosaur-like body in a “death repose” shows a tooth-filled set of jaws, wings with clear impressions of feathers, claws, and a long lizard-like tail. The specimen, collected shortly after the publication of Darwin’s 1859 book On the Origin of Species, was the first clear evidence of a link between reptiles and birds, now considered to be Avian Reptiles. Prior to the discovery of the entire skeleton, a single feather had been found at Solnhofen in 1860; it, too, remains in the Museum’s collection. I had the opportunity to see and hold the specimen in the Tyler Museum, Haarlem, The Netherlands, several decades ago. But, wasn’t able to spend much time with the material due to its fragility. Seeing the skeleton of Archaeopteryx on display in the museum, and not a cast or reproduction as is necessitated in other settings (only 9 complete specimens are known to science), is exciting because it is possible to examine, for one’s self, the transitional features of the creature that mark the evolution of a new animal lineage.