We had left our exploration of Museum Island (Museuminsel) to our last day in Berlin. By now we were comfortable riding the Bahn system and decided, incorrectly, that the Markischers Museum stop would be the closest one for getting to Museum Island. Alexanderplatz is the closest station but mistakes like this often lead to great walks. In this case we found ourselves walking along the Spree in the Nikolaiviertel section of the ‘Mitte’, one of the oldest sections of the city. This was where there was a ford over the Spree between the adjoining old towns of Berlin and Colln, back in early medieval times. The buildings have been reconstructed from damage done during the war but the area was a lovely approach to our destination.
In our walk along the Spree we encountered yet another high quality Berlin bronze sculpture…this one celebrating the victory of St George over the dragon. Coming from this direction we gained great views of the back of the Berlin Cathedral as well as encountering bronze nymphs gazing contentedly into the waters of the Spree.
I had decided I needed to visit Museum Island back in 2014 when we were on a tour of Turkey and we had had a fantastic day wandering the ruins of Pergamon. One of the sadder stories of that day was the sign next to a pile of rocks on the escarpment overlooking the modern city indicating that this was where the Temple of Zeus, one of the wonders of the ancient world, had stood. The story of the transport of the huge pile of broken masonry to an Island in the Spree in Berlin has overtones of the Elgin Marbles controversy plaguing London Museum. Despite this, I immediately decided I needed to go and see the reconstructed altar in Berlin. Come 2018 and the opportunity arose to spend a few days in Berlin meant that a visit to the Pergamon Museum was at the top of my itinerary. After the plans were in place, I checked the Website for the Museum and discovered that the object of my ‘pilgrimage’ was closed for restoration. I would have to be happy with getting very close.
After crossing the bridge from Nikolaiviertel to Museuminsel, our first destination for the day was the Alte Nationalgalerie (Old National Gallery), built in 1876 and modelled on the Parthenon in Athens. It would be a rare site when visiting Museums anywhere in the world that you would see bullet holes scaring the façade of a city’s finest Art Gallery. Not so in Berlin. Nowhere in the centre of Berlin escaped the spray of machine gun bullets and Museum Island did not escape in 1945. Apparently up to 70% of the buildings here were destroyed and so it has been a long process of restoring the buildings and bringing the exhibitions back from other sites where they were removed for preservation. The Old National Gallery did not reopen until 2001 and was the first to reopen after German reunification. Unlike with the Brandenburg Gate, the restorers decided to leave the bullet holes left by the invading Russian Army as they crossed through Museum Island in the last weeks of the war. The bullet holes are perhaps an important reminder to new millennium citizens that there was a harsh price paid in the past in order for them to peacefully appreciate the country’s long cultural heritage. Even the amazing bronze equestrian statue beside the Old National Gallery had a hint of violence that seemed to reflect on the history of Berlin.
I have a loosely developed theory about processing what I see when I go to Art Galleries. I know that there will be too much to appreciate and a limited amount of time to do it in before the mind announces that it is full and needs to eat, drink coffee or stare into space. Therefore, when going to a great gallery, you need to attack the process with military discipline. Choose a limited range of items and finish on time. I chose sculpture and the varied collection of 19th Century paintings; the impressionists in particular were gorgeously represented at the Old National Gallery. An account of this disciplined journey is not necessary; just a glimpse at a few treasures should convince art lovers that Berlin’s National Gallery is well worth a visit.
It was while checking a few minor issues at the main desk in this Gallery that I discovered that it was only the Temple of Zeus exhibition that was closed at the Pergamon Museum, the rest of the displays were still open. This forced us to skip the Neues Museum with its famous bust of Nefertiti and check out the other famous displays at the Pergamon. There is much to see at this world class archaeological Museum but the two displays I was looking forward to checking out were the Babylonian Ishtar Gate and the Market Gate from Miletus (in Modern turkey).
The Ishtar gate is an amazing spectacle. It is by far the oldest display in the Museum having been originally built in the seventh century BCE. It must have been overpowering for its original Babylonian citizens and it is still overwhelming for modern visitors. It is a fair discussion to have as to whether rich countries should sponsor archaeologists to go to subject countries and retrieve from their earth these ancient wonders. The German archaeology teams were very busy all over the Middle East in the thirty years before 1914. The pieces of the Ishtar and the Miletus Gates were brought back in crates to Berlin before World War I. The other side of this argument is whether I and the other intrigued visitors who visited the Pergamon Museum that day would ever have seen these marvels from the ancient world in their original countries? They would probably still be in the earth where time and earthquakes had put them. It is a vexed question, but I am grateful that I have seen the Lions of the Ishtar Gate in person and in all their rugged beauty.
In 2013 we had visited Miletus on our way down the Aegian coast of Turkey. Whilst not a particularly famous place, I had heard that St Paul had visited Miletus back in his Ephesus days before Christianity came to dominate the Roman Empire; it had been a famed Greek city renowned for its multitude of influential Socratic philosophers. It was also geographically interesting because it had once been a great harbour city, but being built on the Meanader River, the silt had built up so much over the eons that the Miletus we visited was a couple of kilometres inland. However its amazing theatre had been uncovered and we spent a lovely morning wandering the hauntingly beautiful ruins of Miletus before driving down to Marmaris on the Mediteranean coast. If we had visited a hundred years earlier, we still wouldn’t have seen much of the Miletus Gate as it had been destroyed by earthquake a thousand years before.
The Miletus Gate has had a rough life. Built at great cost as the entrance to the Miletus Market area in the second century CE, its functional life finished after earthquakes hit the region 800 years later. It was resurrected by German Archaeologists in 1903 and transported in pieces to Berlin where it was painstakingly put back together and opened for display at the Pergamon Museum in the late 1920s. Not every piece of the gate was found, so newly created pieces had to be inserted to finalise the jig-saw puzzle. This created another archaeological controversy; if you don’t have all the bits of an ancient building, is it okay to put it back together again. (If this humpty-dumpty argument was applied to Athens, we would not see the current renovation of the Parthenon rising from the rubble today.) The next crisis to hit the Miletus Gate was World War II where the Pergamon Museum was hit by bombs and the roof and a protecting wall were destroyed so a whole wing of the gate fell down again. If ancient marble gates had a consciousness, this gate would still be in therapy. Having visited its hometown, I was delighted to see it and hoped a future Europe would allow it to continue in its current comfortable habitat.
Like Art Galleries, the same care with information overload has to be monitored carefully with museums like the Pergamon. The excess of riches in the Pergamon Museum means that it should be approached in campaign fashion…come back another day before information overload sets in. On my intended return to Berlin after 2019, I will not only have to return to checkout the new exhibition hall for the Temple of Zeus, visit my old nervy friend from Miletus and still find time to visit the other two great Museums on Museuminsel. I will be exhausted before I find time to check out the newly rebuilt Berlin Palace housing the Humboldt exhibitions.