Night at the (Pergamon) Museum


Since coming to Berlin, I've wanted to explore the Pergamon Museum. It houses three impressive collections of the State of Berlin - the Collection of Classical Antiques, the Ancient Near Eastern Collection, and the Museum for Islamic Art

I am lucky enough to have a fellow historian friend in Berlin and we enjoy going to museums together. He has the historical and political context knowledge that I am often spotty on, and I offer Art Historical knowledge in exchange. 

Ancient Near Eastern Cultures

Ishtar Gate

Upon walking into the Pergamon's first room, the first 30 seconds were spent in awe. Standing in front of us was an impressive reconstruction of the Ischtar Gate and Processional Way from Babylon. 

Gate of Ishtar

Gate of Ishtar Close-up. The glazed bricks were painstakingly reconstructed - missing bricks were added to project what the gate would have looked like in its hayday. 

Das Ischtar Tor, or Gate of Ishtar, was built in 575 BCE by King Nebuchadnezzar II to honor the goddess Ishtar, the Babylonian "Queen of Heaven".

The gate is constructed of surprisingly modern-looking, brightly colored, glazed bricks of blue, yellow, black. Flower, lion, bull, and dragon imagery repeats throughout the gate and along the processional way representing various gods and goddesses to be honored through parades at New Year. 

The Ishtar Gate inscription in Cuneiform - one of the earliest systems of writing.

A Cuneiform inscription, some 15 meters tall and 60 lines long, accompanies the gate, explaining its benefactor and purpose. 

Upon closer inspection, one notices that many of the bricks have low-relief designs that show the texture of the lions', bulls', and dragons' hair, eyes, and claws. An example of a time when you just want to reach out and run your hand across the tiles to experience the texture yourself!

Architecture of Antiquity

Market Gate of Miletus

Once walking the procession way, we walked through the gate and were transported to the Market Gate of Miletus.

The gate was built in the ancient Greek city of Miletus (in present-day Turkey) in the 2nd Century by the Romans. It served as an entry point to the market, or agora (which means "meeting place") in Miletus. The impressive marble gate features Corinthian columns and delicate floral-motif carvings. 

The gate suffered damage by two earthquakes and incurred more damage during World War II, despite the museum taking measures to protect the gate with scaffolding and extra roof. The gate was restored over the years, but controversially, the restorations included a significant amount of non-original materials (like steel, cement, and mortar) to stabilize the original fragments.

Museum for Islamic Art

Up the stairs we went to to the Museum for Islamic Art exhibition. Before I delve into some of the amazing things on display there, I want to give some context to why it is crucial in Germany, and specifically in Berlin during this time to place value on Islamic Art. 

Many of you who follow the news, know that Angela Merkel (controversially) opened Germany's boarders to Syrian refugees in 2015. Since then many asylum-seekers have poured into the country making it a very colorful and diverse place. Nevertheless, it can be difficult to foster public discourse on Islam, but the Museum of Islamic Art acts as a mediator to enable a discussion and exchange of ideas and cultures.

The Pergamon Museum in Berlin has also made a point to partner with other organizations to document, save, restore, and exhibit as much Art and Culture from this war-torn area of the world as possible. Its exhibitions help foster a better understanding of the political context of Islam within Germany, as well as abroad.

Aleppo Zimmer | Aleppo Room

The Aleppo Room is a wooden-paneled, painted banquet hall from Syria. Interestingly, the designs and inscriptions of this room draw on Islamic, Christian, and Persian motifs - which I found surprising given my Wester (mis)conceptions of Syria. 

The room contains figurative paintings referring to the Christian Old and New Testaments, floral and "worldly" motifs representative of the Persian illuminations of the time, and inscriptions in Arabic with references to the Islamic calendar. 

There is also a secondary installation within the Aleppo Room called Perched. Feleksan Onar created 27 blown-glass birds represent the dire situation of Syrian refugees in the artist's hometown of Istanbul. The birds are confined to the ground, as their wings have been clipped and their glass medium renders them extremely fragile. They stand in contrast to the strong, independent peacocks, ducks, and pigeons depicted in the Aleppo Room illustrations.

"The standard refugees find themselves in the midst of a chaotic city - they sit on stairs and sidewalks, not knowing what's coming next, where to go... They have landed, but are unable to fly or move." - Feleksan Onar

I found this secondary installation a humbling reminder that I am privileged enough to consume the beautiful Art and Culture from these war-torn areas of the world, while other human-beings are fleeing and fighting for their lives, living under oppressive regimes, and/or trying to find their footing in a new country where the language, culture, and society are foreign - forced to start their lives over again. In this way, I found Onar's work incredibly relevant and successful in its execution. 

Museum as a meeting point, a living history, and an educational resource,

While I was visiting, I learned more about how the museum is actively fostering the education and preservation of Syrian cultural heritage.

Since 2013 the Museum of Islamic Art along with several other institutions and projects have worked together to archive Syrian architecture and archaeological heritage. For example, the buildings in Aleppo - both standing and those destroyed - are being documented and catalogued, and films, blog posts, and recorded stories are being uploaded to an online archive.

One of the on-going projects, the Multaka, Museum as a Meeting Point, also acts as an active community archive where Syrians can write their history and connect it to various memories and items accessioned into the digital archive. Even when so much has been lost in the war, these ongoing projects serve as an innovative approach to the preservation of the Syrian culture.

The museum also trains Syrian and Iraqi refugees as museum guides so that they can then provide guided museum tours for Arabic-speaking refugees in their native language. "Multaqa" (Arabic for “meeting point”) also aims to facilitate the interchange of diverse cultural and historical experiences.

Other miscellaneous highlights

There are two rooms of ornate rugs from the Early Modern Period - the 16th to 18th Centuries. My house growing up was and is filled with similar rugs, so I felt quite at home reveling in their beauty. This photo does not do the rich colors justice - there is a warmth and depth that radiates from these rugs that transforms them from a utilitarian object to a work of art.

Knotted niche carpet, around 1500, Egypt

This Mihrab, or prayer niche, from the Beyhekim Mosque in present-day Konya Turkey was memorizing. The tiles glistened bright turquoise and smoldering, burnt orange. 

The niche would have been located inside a Mosque and would have shown the appropriate direction in which to pray towards Mecca. Its tiles contain a mixture of abstract, floral, and star motifs in combination with religious text.

The written text within the mosaics' composition contain a prayer, quotes from the Koran, and words from the Prophet Muhammad. The text exemplifies the multilingualism that was usual in Anatolia during that time around the 13th Century. Poetry was written in Persian, Scholars spoke Arabic, the lay person spoke Greek, and the Rulers, the Seljuks of Rum, spoke Turkish.

Six-sided ceramic tile, 1242, Turkey. Artist signature and inscription written in the Persian language.

Carved, wooden double-window, First half of the 15. Century, Spain.

I'll be back...

One highlight that I was not able to see at the museum was the famous Pergamon alter which is currently under renovation. This means I will definitely be paying another visit to this inspiring museum. I highly recommend you add this to your museum list if you are in the city!