The Great Altar of Pergamon

The Great Altar from Pergamon as seen in the image above is today rebuilt in a museum in the centre of Berlin, Germany. Historians know that it was still standing in Pergamon in the 7th century CE when an Arab army was attacking the city. The defenders used parts of the structure to build a defensive wall around the acropolis but were unsuccessful in defending their citizens. Since then, the Altar lost any relevance in both the Christian era and eventually the Islamic era and so was allowed to fall apart and lay on the top of the mountain in ruins. Its only local use was as an above-ground quarry. In 1625, an English traveller to Pergamon collected two panels from the altar for a noble art collector back in England. They were not recognised for what they were until the 1960s.

The German engineer, Carl Human was building roads in the area in the 1860s and came across the ruins of the altar and began looking for partners who could assist in the process of restoring the ancient altar. His work in Pergamon came to the attention of the German government who during the mid 19th century were competing with Great Britain and had decided they needed an impressive Museum with significant artifacts that could compare favourably with the British Museum. A licence to excavate was obtained in in 1876 and a year later the German Government made a deal with the Ottoman Empire that somehow enabled them to ship the fragments of the altar back to Berlin. The rest is history! The pieces were put back together by Italian artisans and the first of three museums was built to house the huge altar.

While most historians agree that the altar was constructed sometime in the second century BCE, very few other details of its origin have been agreed on. As a former Director of Excavations stated: “No research is undisputed concerning this most famous artistic masterpiece of Pergamon, neither the builder nor the date nor the occasion nor the purpose of the construction”…Wolfgang Radi.

There are two separate sculptural friezes that adorn the sides of the Pergamon Altar. One is a ‘Gigantomachy’ showing a battle between the original Gods of the Greek Religion, the Giants, versus the next generation of divinities, their successors Hera, Zeus, Athena and Ares; a favourite human son, Hercules was called in to assist the Olympian Gods in this battle. The other frieze tells the story of the life of the ancestral founder of Pergamon, Telephos; his pedigree claimed he was a son of Hercules.

It seems that the altar was a stand-alone piece for votive offerings to the Gods, but it was built on the level below the Temple of Athena. It was aligned with this Temple which was at least 150 years older than the altar. It is probably not surprising that the Proplyon of the courtyard of the Temple of Athena was also brought to Berlin and will be seen in the same exhibition as the Great Altar when the new museum building is opened.

It is not surprising that in 1998 and 2001, the Turkish Minister of Culture demanded the return the altar and all its associated artifacts but this was refused by the German Government. Presumably, Museum and Government officials made the point that the altar would not have survived into the 21st century unless they had rescued it from the destruction that was its natural environment around Bergama in the late 19th century. There has been a lot of money spent to restore this famous work of art that Turkey would not have been able to raise. However, like its old competitor, the British Museum, charges of colonial theft will always be at the back of visitors’ minds when they view both the items in the Pergamon Museum and the Elgin marbles in the British Museum

Not all artifacts to be found in the Pergamon Museum in Berlin are associated with the Altar of Zeus. There is also to be found in this Museum a curious sculpture that is a reminder to the world of so much great art that has been lost to the world due to war and the consequent theft of the ‘spoils’ of war. It is a statue of Athena Partharnos, a third century BCE copy of the huge cult statue that once stood in the Parthenon in Athens. The original was a statue created between 447-432 by Phidias, the master sculptor of the Golden Age of Greece who also sculpted the sixth wonder of the ancient world, the statue of Zeus at Olympia. It lasted for a thousand years in Athens before it was probably taken to Constantinople where it disappeared, presumably destroyed in one of the many wars associated with that city. Arts historians have been wondering ever since what the Statue of Athena from the Parthenon actually looked like. I am not sure how informative the discovery of this copy has been to assist in this debate. It was recovered from the ruins of the Library of Pergamon where it once stood to gaze upon the ancient researchers as they went about their business amongst the scrolls and pigeon-holes of what was once the second largest library in the ancient world.

Like Pergamon two thousand years before the twentieth century, Berlin itself couldn’t resist the ‘barbarians at the gates of the city’ at the end of World War Two. Most museum displays were stored during the war and this included the pieces of the great Altar which were stored in an air-raid shelter near Berlin Zoo. They were taken back to the Soviet Union as spoils of war but luckily Russia’s political alignment with East Germany meant the pieces were returned to Berlin in 1959, unsurprisingly, not to Turkey!

But not all archaeological masterpieces that were removed from the Middle east by 19th century German archaeologists and displayed in German Museums were returned after World War Two. The 1830’s archaeological find by Heinrich Schliemann, Priam’s treasure, was taken as spoil by the Russians at the end of the war and never returned. The headdress from the collection is on display in the Pushkin Museum in St Petersburg today. The Russian Government explains that the Bronze Age treasure is retained as compensation for the destruction of Russian cities by Hitler’s doomed invasion. It is difficult to argue against some form of compensation for over a million casualties and the 40000 civilians who died in the battle of Stalingrad (1942-43). It is hard to escape the idea that many Museums worldwide may be implementing the primitive law of the jungle, ‘To the Victor, the Spoils!’

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