Berlin has some of the greatest museums in the world; we concentrated on Museum Island, especially the Pergamon Museum with the fabulous Pergamon Altar and Ishtar Gate from Babylon, and the extensive collection of Egyptian artefacts in the Neues Museum.
In 2013 we returned to Berlin. It had been over twenty years since our previous visit and we wanted to see how the city had changed and to visit some of the wonderful museums. Our impressions of the changes in the city can be found at Berlin 1990 & 2013.
Berlin has many treasures in its museums but there were two which we had long wanted to see: the Pergamon Altar and, even more, the Ishtar Gate.
We chose to stay at the Derag Livinghotel Grosser Kurfürst which is just south of Museum Island and even more conveniently, just across the road from Markische Museum U-bahn station.
Museum Island is a unique area of five closely-sited museums on an island in the River Spee where the city of Berlin was founded. These are the Altes Museum opened in 1830 and built close to the cathedral which ia also on the island, 1845-1855 Neues Museum, 1867-1876 Alte Nationalgalerie, 1897-1904 Bode Museum and the 1910-1930 Pergamon Museum.1
Since reunification there has been an ongoing process of renovation of the buildings to bring their facilities up to date.
This is only a tiny fraction of what is held in the museums, just some of the items we found of particular interest or beauty. Due to ongoing renovations various collections may not be accessible - the Staatliches Museums website should have helpful advice.
The oldest of the museums on the island lies at its southern end. It is a pure classical building, fronted by eighteen fluted ionic columns, a fitting home for classical antiquities, which was badly damaged in the Second World War.
This museum combines three collections: the collection of Egyptian art from the Ägyptisches Museum und Papyrussammlung, of prehistoric objects from the Museum für Vor- und Frühgeschichte, and of classical antiquities from the Antikensammlung.3 Having a particular interest in certain aspects of Ancient Egypt, there was a quite a bit here of interest, and of course it holds the famous bust of Queen Nefertiti which is zealously guarded to stop photography.
In the ancient temples that remain in Egypt there isn't a huge amount of original colour,except for restored buildings such as the Tomb of Nefertari which we were lucky enough to see in 2000. So it's illuminating to see painted reliefs and realise how immensely colourful the massive walls of the ancient structures must have been.
One of my favourite characters in ancient Egypt is Queen Hatshepsut, a remarkable woman. The daughter of Tuthmosis I she married her father's son and heir Tuthmosis II. They had no children so that when he died the son of one of his secondary wives became pharaoh: Tuthmosis III. As he was only a child at this time, Hatshepsut ruled in his place, eventually taking the step of declaring herself pharaoh. She was depicted as a man in many images as the pharaoh was, of course, traditionally male. She ruled for 20 years - even after Tuthmosis III reached manhood. It was only when she died that he took his place as ruler. He obliterated as much of Hatshepsut as he could find from the records, including temple images and instances of her name. The mortuary temple of Queen Hatshepsut is one of the most beautiful buildings at Luxor.
It was great to find some representations of Hatshepsut here.
The German archaeologist Schliemann found treasure while excavating at Troy, the legendary city on the west coast of Turkey. He proclaimed as "Priam's Treasure" and much of of it is now held in Russia though some can be seen here in he Neues Museum and Berlin and some in Istanbul.
A 74 cm tall ceremonial gold hat from the late Bronze Age is another fascinating artefact in the Neues Museum. It is made from a single beaten gold sheet. The ornamentation on the dome and brim of the hat is thought to represent a calendar with which calculate the difference between solar and lunar years and to predict lunar eclipses.5
Another celebrated artefact is the head of Queen Tiy, wife of Amenhotep III. It is a beautifully expressive facial carving. She wears the headdress of the cow goddess, Hathor, which was allowed for her role in official acts of worship where she took the part of female deities at the side of her husband.6
Tiy was the mother of Amenhotep IV who later changed his name to Akhenaten.
The Pharaoh Akhenaten and his wife, Nefertiti, are famous - she for her beauty and he for attempting to impose a monotheistic religion in Egypt, worship of the sun god or Aten. This replaced the millenia-old traditional worship of many gods, which, nevertheless, became reestablished after Akhenten's death.
The famous bust of Nefertiti is displayed in a glass case zealously guarded to stop any photography. It is a portrait of a beautiful woman, looking confident and regal, though the missing left eye is rather disconcerting!
Since the Neue Nationalgallerie was opened in 1968 the original Nationalgellerie has become the Alte Nationalgallerie and holds almost exclusively nineteenth century paintings and sculpture.
With limited time and such a great deal to see this was not high on our list and we did not visit.
The Bode Museum opened - as the Kaiser Friedrich Museum - in 1904. It was originally the idea of Crown Princess Victoria of Prussia, which was put into practice some years later by Wilhelm von Bode, after whom it was renamed in 1956. He was also its first director.7 Standing at the northern tip of Museum Island it was to house the Renaissance collection. Today it houses the sculpture collection and the Museum of Byzantine Art.
This was our primary target, to see the Pergamon altar and the celebrated Ishtar Gate.
The museum was hosting an exhibition on Uruk, the famed Mesopotamian city which dominated the region for over 2000 years from around 4000 BC. At the entrance was a fabulous relief of a lion-taming hero. Though only a plaster cast of the original, which is in the Louvre, it was still impressive. The lion-taming hero, as dictated by tradition, had six curls in his hair and is one of the oldest and most enduring of the subjects of Ancient Near Eastern art. He is often associated with the legendary King Gilgamesh of Uruk. The relief was originally part of the outer facade of the throne room inside the palace of the Neo-Assyrian ruler Sargon II.
A small temple of fired brick from Uruk has niches holding male and female deities, life-giving water pouring onto the ground from the vessels in their hands. It was built by a Kassite ruler, Kara-indash,whose people had come into Mesopotamia from the east around 2000 BC. The temple originally stood on a platform 22.5m x 17.5m. and the reconstructed walls in the museum use a great many original brick fragments.
However, it was some monumental architecture we were particularly interested in, and the Pergamon Altar was the first thing to be seen on entering the museum. We had visited the remains of the ancient Greek city of Pergamon in western Turkey in 2006 and had wanted to see the altar ever since. Built during the reign of Eumenes II around 200-150 BC it is a massive structure, 36.80m wide and 34.20m deep at the base with five levels, dwarfing the human figure.9
The walls surrounding the steps leading to the fire court above are decorated with a high relief frieze depicting the battle between the Giants and the Olympian gods. The giants were believed to be partly formed of snakes, hence the preponderance of these in the frieze.
The sense of violent movement achieved in the sculptures is startling.
The fragments were excavated from the acropolis towards the end of the nineteenth century by the German archaeologist Carl Humann. All fragments of the frieze were brought back to Berlin.
A replica of the front part of the altar, including the fire court, was eventually created, incorporating the original fragments.
The court of the fire altar was also decorated with a carved frieze, this one telling the story of Telephus, the legendary founder of Pergamon and son of Hercules and Auge, a priestess of Athena. Fragments of the frieze are also displayed in the reconstructed fire court of the altar in the museum. On the floor is an incomplete mosaic showing garlands of fruit, leaves and berries with small birds, and a beautiful panel with a parrot.
We had also visited Miletus on the Aegean coast, a Greek trading port which declined after the sea receded. In the museum they have the reconstruction of the massive Market Gate, the north entrance to the South Agora.
It dates from the second century AD but collapsed in an earthquake around 800 years later. It includes significant amounts of modern material, but gives an excellent impression of the monumental architecture of the city.
The loveliest and most evocative part are a couple of inscriptions from traders marking their patch.
Another treasure form Miletus is the Orpheus Mosaic - a beautiful mosaic floor from the dining room of a Roman private house.
The monumental Ishtar Gate is so magnificent and impressive that we spent a good half hour looking at it. Dating from 600 BC it was designed to intimidate and inspire awe in those approaching the city of Babylon along the Processional Way. The original was a double gate, this smaller outer gate led to a much larger inner gate.
The 20m wide walled street approaching the northern gate of the city, the Ishtar Gate, was covered, in a stretch of around 180m before the gate, with glazed bricks depicting the goddess Ishtar in the form of a lion - 60 lions on each side.10
The massive Ishtar Gate is also covered in beautiful blue glazed bricks and panels with animals: dragons which represent the kingdom's god, Marduk, and bulls which represent the weather god Adad .11 Huge cedar doors covered in bronze closed the entrance at night.
During excavations a number of brick fragments with white cuneiform writing were discovered. Though their exact original location is unknown, they are Nebuchadnezzar's Inscription referring to the building of the gate. The information panel at the museum provides a partial translation:
"I [Nebuchadnezzar] laid the foundation of the gates down to the ground water level and had them built out of pure blue stone. Upon the walls in the inner room of the gate are bulls and dragons and thus I magnificently adorned them with luxurious splendour for all mankind to behold in awe."