Pergamon Museum: marble & man-bags in Berlin

Sometimes, stupidity can result in happy accidents. It’s rare, but it happens… and it happened to me in Berlin.

Focused entirely on the warm weekend to come, I was completely, stupidly underdressed for the first two days of my trip. I knew I should be out seeing the city, but was grumpy at the thought of being cold. “Let’s go to a museum,” suggested my clever husband, who is always highly invested in preventing my grumpiness.

So we chose to visit the Pergamon Museum, which stands at the tip of Museuminsel, an island on the river Spree that houses five museums and is on the UNESCO World Heritage list.

Berlin Pergamon Museum

The Pergamon Museum is probably not a top-of-mind name like the Louvre in Paris or the Met in New York. It houses no famous masterpieces or household names in art. That doesn’t make it any less breathtaking. In fact, I’d say it was of the most awe-inspiring museum experiences I’ve had.

What the Pergamon Museum does have are monumental reconstructions of ancient buildings—such as its showpiece, the Pergamon Altar. The little rectangle on the map marked simply “Altar Room” could not have prepared me for this.

Pergamon Altar

Unearthed by German archaeologists in the 1800s, the Great Altar is like nothing I’ve ever seen inside a museum. It was believed to have been a temple to Zeus, and to have been mentioned in the Book of Revelation as “Satan’s Throne.” This scale model shows the Altar as it was built in the 2nd century B.C in the ancient Greek city of Pergamon (modern-day Bergama, in Turkey).

Pergamon Altar scale model

All around the Altar is the Great Frieze, showing the Olympian gods battling the giants, children of Gaia. I found everything about this room incredibly moving, both in terms of sheer scale…

Pergamon Altar Room

… and detail.

Pergamon Great Frieze

These fragmented figures, and the distance between them, hit me like a punch in the gut. Chalk it up to residual sadness from a long-distance relationship. Then there were the figures of Leto…

Leto Pergamon Frieze

… and Athena kicking some serious ass. Powerful women, I like.

Athena Pergamon Frieze

Hard as it was to tear ourselves away from the Altar, we walked into the next room and were hit with a massive double whammy.

The Market Gate of Miletus, built between 6-8 A.D…

Pergamon Museum Miletus Market Gate

… and when you walk through, the Ishtar Gate of ancient Babylon, built by King Nebuchadnezzar in 575 B.C.

Ishtar Gate

I’ve photographed some huge things with my trusty wide-angle lens, but this 47-foot high monument was one of those rare times my lens came up short. Take note: this is only the smaller front part of the gate. The larger, bigger part behind it couldn’t fit into the museum.

Like the Pergamon Altar and Frieze, the gate dedicated to the goddess Ishtar is equally striking up close. I’ve known the word “cuneiform” since high school history class, but I never thought I’d actually see it for myself. Grainy pictures in newsprint textbook do no justice to this ancient system of writing.

Ishtar Gate cuneiform tiles

Vivid mosaics are a running theme throughout this wing. There’s nothing antiquated about the Babylonians’ eye for color and pattern.

Ishtar Gate tile detail

Tiled patterns on the Ishtar Gate

Processional Way tile detail

Lions lining the Processional Way

Mosaic detail Pergamon Museum

Mosaic marvels

In addition to math (boo) and writing (yay!), it seems we should also thank the ancient Babylonians for the man-purse, and for the blogosphere’s favorite pattern of the moment.

Really, chevron? That’s soooo 800 B.C.!

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  1. says

    Hurrah for clever husbands! 😀

    What an incredible find!! Yet another reason to return to Berlin with my little family – as if I didn’t have enough!

    The plethora of craftsmanship on display here is truly mind-blowing. They certainly don’t make them like they used to and we are the poorer for it.

    • says

      Really, pictures do no justice. It’s one of those places that can bring tears to your eyes when you realize: nobody will ever see all this splendor as it once was. We can only imagine from these bits and pieces. Truly a must-see in Berlin.


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