Built between 1910 and 1930 to a design by Alfred Messels and Ludwig Hoffmann, this museum houses one of Europe’s most famous collections of antiquities. It is named for the famous Pergamon Altar displayed in the main hall. The three independent collections – the Collection of Classical Antiquities (Greek and Roman), the Museum of the Ancient Near East and the Museum of Islamic Art – are the result of intensive archaeological excavations by late 19th- and early 20th-century German expeditions to the Near and Middle East. Due to renovations, the hall containing the Pergamon Altar will remain closed until 2019.
Exploring the Pergamon Museum
Opened in 1930, the Pergamonmuseum is the newest museum in the Museum Island complex and is one of Berlin’s major attractions. The building was one of the first in Europe designed specifically to house big architectural exhibits. The richness of its collections is the result of large-scale excavations by German archaeologists at the beginning of the 20th century. Currently, the museum is at the heart of a significant redevelopment programme, due for completion in 2025, that will considerably increase the range of large-scale exhibits on display.
Collection of Classical Antiquities
Berlin’s collection of Greek and Roman antiquities (Antiken-sammlung) came into existence during the 17th century. Growing steadily in size, the collection was opened for public viewing in 1830, initially in the Altes Museum, and from 1930 in the new, purpose-built Pergamon-museum. The highlight of the collection is the huge Pergamon Altar from the acropolis of the ancient city of Pergamon in Asia Minor (now Bergama, Turkey). It formed part of a larger architectural complex, a model of which is also on display in the museum. The magnificently restored altar is thought to have been built to celebrate victory in war and to have been commissioned by King Eumenes in 170 BC. Probably dedicated to the god Zeus and the goddess Athena, this artistic masterpiece was discovered in a decrepit state by German archaeologist Carl Humann, who, after long negotiations, was allowed to transport the surviving portions of the altar to Berlin. The front section of the building was restored at the museum, together with the so-called small frieze, which once adorned the inside of the building, and fragments of the large frieze, which originally encircled the base of the colonnade.
The large frieze has now been reconstructed around the interior walls of the museum and its theme is the Gigantomachy (the battle of the gods against the giants). The small frieze tells the story of Telephos, supposed founder of the city and son of the hero Heracles. The frieze is an attempt to claim an illustrious ancestry for Pergamon’s rulers.
The collection also contains fragments of other Pergamon structures from the same period, including part of the Athena temple. Also featured here are some excellent examples of Greek sculpture, both originals and Roman copies, as well as many statues of the Greek gods unearthed at Miletus, Samos and Nakosos, and various examples of Greek ceramic art.
Roman architecture is represented by the striking market gate from the Roman city of Miletus, on the west coast of Asia Minor. The gate dates from the 2nd century AD, and shows strong Hellenistic influences. Discovered by a German archaeological expedition, it was transported to Berlin, where it was restored in 1903. Also on display are a number of magnificent Roman mosaics. A huge and impressive marble sarcophagus dates from the 2nd century AD and is decorated with delicate bas-relief carvings depicting the story of the Greek heroine Medea.
Museum of the Ancient Near East
The collection now on display in the Museum of Near Eastern Antiquities (Vorderasiatisches Museum) was made up initially of donations from individual collectors. However, hugely successful excavations, begun during the 1880s, formed the basis of a royal collection that is one of the richest in the world. It features architecture, sculpture and jewellery from Babylon, Iran and Assyria.
One striking exhibit is the magnificent Ishtar Gate and the Processional Way that leads to it. They were built during the reign of Nebuchadnezzar II (604–562 BC) in the ancient city of Babylon. The original avenue was about 180 m (590 ft) long. Many of the bricks used in its reconstruction are new, but the lions – sacred animals of the goddess Ishtar (mistress of the sky, goddess of love and patron of the army) – are all originals. Although impressive in size, the Ishtar Gate has in fact not been reconstructed in full and a model of the whole structure shows the scale of the original complex. Only the inner gate is on display, framed by two towers. Dragons and bulls decorate the gate, emblems of the Babylonian gods Marduk, patron of the city, and Adad, god of storms.
The collection also includes pieces from the neighbouring regions of Persia, Syria and Palestine, including a gigantic basalt sculpture of a bird from Tell Halaf and a glazed wall relief of a spear-bearer from Darius I’s palace in Susa. Other Mesopotamian peoples, including the Assyrians and the Cassians, are represented here too, as are the inhabitants of Sumer in the southern part of the Babylonian Empire with pieces dating from the 4th century BC.
Museum of Islamic Art
The history of the Museum of Islamic Art (Museum für Islamische Kunst) begins in 1904, when Wilhelm von Bode launched the collection by donating his own extensive selection of carpets. He also brought to Berlin a 45-m- (150-ft) long section of the façade of a Jordanian desert palace. The façade, covered with exquisitely carved limestone cladding, was presented to Kaiser Wilhelm II in 1903 by Sultan Abdul Hamid of Ottoman. The palace was part of a group of defence fortresses and residential buildings dating from the Omayyad period (AD 661–750), and probably built for the Caliph al-Walid II. Another fascinating exhibit is a beautiful 13th-century mihrab, the niche in a mosque that shows the direction of Mecca. Made in the Iranian town of Kashan, renowned for its ceramics, the mihrab is covered in lustrous metallic glazes that make it sparkle as if studded with sapphires and gold.
The collection’s many vivid carpets come from as far afield as Iran, Asia Minor, Egypt and the Caucasus. Highlights include an early 15th-century carpet from Anatolia decorated with an unusual dragon and phoenix motif and, dating from the 14th century, one of the earliest Turkish carpets in existence. Other rooms hold collections of miniature paintings and various objects for daily use. An interesting example of provincial Ottoman archi- tecture is an exquisitely panelled early 17th-century reception room, known as the Aleppo Zimmer, which was once part of a Christian merchant’s house in the Syrian city of Aleppo.