Berlin’s Museum Island: Don’t Miss the Pergamon and Altes Museums

Five days in Berlin. So much to see, but where to begin? Unlike any metropolis I’ve ever visited,and easily rivaling Paris or Rome in terms of visual spectacle and a seamless integration of both old and new, just visiting the museums in Berlin could encompass a fulltime job. For me the clock was already ticking and the thrill of archeology beckoned. My first stop – the Pergamon Museum in Downtown Berlin: a stunning example of Germany’s efforts to establish itself as a center of art, culture and history.

A marble torso or a cracked vase might have been enough for the average thrill-seeker to walk away with in 1880’s Europe. But not here. Some of Germany’s most studied archeologists went to great lengths to uncover and retrieve an entire temple, as well as large portions of other legendary and mythological works and bring them back to Berlin.

But first a few facts for the tourist and traveler:

The Pergamon Museum sits in the middle of what is called “Museum Island”. It sits behind the Berlin Museum of Contemporary Art – location of Berlin’s world-famous Egyptian exhibit and to the side of the Berlin Cathedral where the tombs of the Hohenzollern family, the former rulers of Prussia and Germany rest. In and around the general area of the museum sit several buildings that make up Humboldt University of Berlin.

But no matter you’re at, if you take the number 100 Metropolitan bus and get off at the Friedrichstrasse stop; you can easily walk to the museum. An all-day metro pass is about 5 euro and is a good investment when sightseeing.

Entry fees at the Pergamon Museum are 6 euro for adults, 3 euro for children. Included in the price is a pair of headphones and an mp3 type audio presentation that is available in English, Italian, German, Japanese and French. Even if you take your time, you’d be hard pressed to see the entire museum and the thousands of items in it in less than two and half to three hours. But why rush? You will lose yourself on a journey through time. You’ll be so completely engrossed by it all that the minutes will seem like seconds.

And now – on with the show.

Pergamon was a thriving city in Western Turkey that was known for its Altar dedicated to the Greek Gods. Often we hear the term “altar’ and it brings to mind something small: a few columns, maybe a sacrificial table, that sore of thing. Not this time. Dating back to the 2nd century BC, the Pergamon Altar wraps around 100 square meters; presenting a story recounting a war of the gods stretches across its 3 walls, with a imposing flight of stairs leading up to the altar place itself. A mammoth frieze depicting Zeus, Athena, Hercules and other gods doing battle against a horde of giants reads like some chiseled comic book. You will seem dwarfed as you gaze upon the muscular figure of Zeus himself; arm pulled back, readying himself to throw a lightening bolt at his equally giant foe, while two other enemies lie dying at his feet. But that is only the beginning. There is a story being told here – full of heroics and romance, sacrafice and mourning. All on an epic scale. It took 20 years for German archeologists to dismantle, transport and re-assemble this archeological jewel and it shows in every nook and cranny. In fact, the museum was originally built to hold this temple alone, and then expanded to hold other finds. Your audio guide will take you through the temple’s fabled story from start to finish. With plenty of sidebars that explain other details regarding Greek art and its significance.

But the altar is only the beginning. Proceed to the left and you’ll find an exhibit on Byzantine art. To the right you’ll step first through the market Gate of Miletus, then through the fabled Ishtar Gate before finally walking along the retored Babylonian Processional Way. Mythic in its splendor and dating back to the 6th century BC, this exhibit is a work-in-progress: visitors can’t help but notice artists and technicians who continue the exacting process of restoration before their very eyes. All the more impressive when you consider the amount of patience and skill it took to dismantle the find at its original location and bring it
back – piece by piece – to Berlin.

An entire wing dedicated to Islamic Art is a masterpiece unto itself, with examples that date from the 8th to the 19th century. Again, following a self-guided tour via your audio presentation makes everything easy to understand.

Throughout the museum there are benches to sit and relax. Take all the photographs you desire, but not with a flash thank you very much.

When you’re finished, leave the Pergamon Museum and go around the corner and there’s another exhibit waiting to be seen: Queen Nefertiti of Egypt.

You can’t miss the Altes Museum. When the sun sets, a huge neon sign (“huge” as in spanning the entire length of the building) flashes on that reads “All Art is Contemporary”. It is here you will find Queen Nefertiti and friends. This museum is justifiably proud of its one-of-a-kind Nefertiti exhibit. The world-famous “Nefertiti bust” – a sculptor’s real life color study of the Queen merits almost an entire room to itself. A wide array of other sculpture, hieroglyphics and parchment rank this exhibit second only to the Cairo Museum.

It’s not for me to say whether all these artifacts should have remained in Egypt or Turkey or Greece. In the late 1600 and 1700’s, The world was being discovered and re-discovered at an incredible rate that only intensified as the years passed. Imagine beingf the explorer who tops a crest and sees before him the Valley of the Kings, or the head and shoulders of the Sphinx sitting silent in the desert sands. Who wouldn’t want to bring a taste of that back to their homes?

Yet for all its opulence, what’s on display here is only a fraction of what lies in waiting. An ambitious museum restoration project that will refurbish all of Museum Island won’t be completed until early 2009 and at that time the thousands of other examples of Egyptian Art will finally be put on display. Until then, this exhibit will rotate its works to ensure much of Berlin’s Egyptian art finds the light of day.

A visit to the Pergamon Museum and Egyptian Art exhibit should rank high on everyone’s Berlin agenda. I give these exhibits and all of Museum Island high marks due to their audio presenations alone. I was able to listen in English, while my wife and daughter listened in Italian. And we all walked away satisfied.

My next stop: a trip downtown to the Berlin Zoo. Hope to see you there!

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