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  • Writer's pictureWill von Behr, MA

A Brief History of the Pergamon Museum in Berlin

What is the Pergamon Museum?

The Pergamon Museum is a Museum that was founded in the early 20th century and whose collection of artefacts from across Europe and the Middle East spans 6,000 years, and includes the 2nd-century-BC Pergamon Altar.

Kids listening to audio guide inside Pergamon Museum

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Pergamon Museum History

In the winter of 1864, while overseeing the construction of roads and railway lines in the west of modern-day Turkey, German civil engineer Carl Humann came across some of the most remarkable antiquities ever unearthed. Humann, who had left northern Europe for the sake of his health, had accepted a role working for Ottoman Grand Vizier (or Prime Minister) Fuad Pasha. In his diary, the engineer recorded his discovery: ‘Sadly I stood there and saw the magnificent Corinthian capitals almost of a man’s height, the rich bases and other building elements, all overgrown with scrub and wild figs. Beside them smoked the lime kiln into which each block of marble went, reduced in size after yielding to the heavy hammer blow… This, then, was all that remained of the proud, invincible lordly seat of the Attalids!’

Humann had stumbled across the monumental remains of the ancient citadel of Pergamon. Founded two and a half thousand years ago, the city served as residence of the great Attalid dynasty, successors of Alexander the Great. Steadily conquering a number of neighbouring Greek cities, the Attalids eventually ruled much of western Asia Minor. Pergamon, a city of great wealth and culture, was their capital. It was home to a magnificent library, ornate sculptures executed by some of the finest craftsmen of the time, and King Eumenes II’s Great Altar – a sacrificial altar, and general centre of cultural gravity, which ancient historians consider the most extraordinary and influential monument of the period. Humann contacted the relevant Berlin museums, but it wasn’t until 1878 that excavations began, 14 years after the site was rediscovered. Rather than return to his homeland to celebrate his discovery and amass a fortune, Humann remained in Asia Minor for the rest of his life and became an archaeologist. In 1967, some 70 years after his death, his remains were transferred to Pergamon.

Pergamon Museum in Berlin

Naturally, the bounty of the treasures Humann stumbled upon mandated brand-new premises. In 1901, the first incarnation of the Pergamon Museum opened. Just seven years later, however, ‘irreparable architectural damage and a deteriorating foundation’ resulted in the building’s demolition. The much larger Neoclassical, three-winged structure you see today was designed by Alfred Messel and executed, after Messel’s death, by Ludwig Hoffmann; it took a total of 20 years to complete. The architect’s design set the building’s main hall around the museum’s most treasured and impressive showpiece: the 2nd-century-BC Great Altar of Pergamon. The enormous monument’s west façade, with its 20-metre-wide staircase leading up to the altar courtyard, has been reconstructed using fragments from the original architecture. The Altar’s relief friezes, widely considered a masterpiece of Hellenistic art, are also on display. In fact, Carl Humann, reflecting on his discoveries, commented that ‘we have found here not just a dozen reliefs but an entire epoch of art which had been buried and forgotten’.

Although the Pergamon Museum takes its name from the Great Altar, the complex showcases a diverse range of artefacts from across Europe and the Middle East. Its three wings now house three separate collections: part of Berlin’s Collection of Classical Antiquities, the Museum of the Ancient Near East, and the Museum for Islamic Art. Highlights include the colourful 6th-century-BC Ishtar Gate from the ancient city of Babylon; the towering 2nd-century-AD Market Gate of Miletus; the ornate façade of the caliph’s palace in Mshatta, Jordan, from the 8th century AD; and beautifully decorated 17th-century painted wooden panelling from Syria. As a result, the Pergamon Museum is so much more than its name suggests. It offers you an enchanting journey through 6,000 years of cultural history and art.

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