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The Pergamon Museum : Controversial World Heritage (Zeus Altar)

The Pergamon Museum : Controversial World Heritage (Zeus Altar)

 

The Pergamon Museum : Controversial World Heritage

THE MOST BEAUTIFUL OBJECTS OF THE ANTIQUE AGE ARE ON DISPLAY AT THE PERGAMON MUSEUM. THEY WERE GATHERED FROM DIDYMA, FROM BOĞAZKÖY (HATTUSHA), FROM MANISA (MAGNESIA), FROM PRIENE… SOME ARE WAR TROPHIES, OTHERS WERE BROUGHT TO BERLIN SUPPOSEDLY FOR MAINTENANCE AND REPAIR… BUT THEY ALL FEEL HOMESICK! WHO KNOWS, MAYBE THEY WILL ALSO HAVE A CHANCE TO RETURN HOME ONE DAY LIKE THE BOĞAZKÖY SPHINX…




The Pergamon Museum in Berlin is number one museum in the world which Turks love to visit; however with mixed feelings, rather with bittersweet emotions. As soon as you cross the threshold of the entrance to the museum, you find yourself in the familiar atmosphere of a typical Aegean historical site.

The magnificent Zeus Altar, of which only the foundations are left behind at its original site at present-day Bergama (ancient Pergamum or Pergamon), bedazzles your eyes in all its splendour at the Pergamon Museum as you enter the main hall. In your soul, the feeling of joy and satisfaction at the completion, in front of your eyes, of an image which remained incomplete until that moment, conflicts with the sorrow of 130 years of longing. Subsequently, you see the entranceway to the Athena Temple, the Athena statue, the Market Gate of Miletus, and further most valuable objects and structures re-assembled and erected in original size, but standing there looking sad away from home…

Without the persistent interest of German archaeologists for the Anatolian civilizations, their excavations at historical sites in Turkey and the “generosity” of Ottoman Sultan Abdülhamit II, this museum would never have come to exist. You understand that everyone visiting the museum realizes that fact, especially when a well-intentioned museum’s official welcomes you by saying, “You are here on home ground, feel yourself at home”. Indeed, the Pergamon Museum’s inventory is composed of artefacts stemming from Manisa (Magnesia), Didim (Didyma), Priene, Boğazköy (Hattusha) and other historical sites of our geography.

 

From Bergama to Pergamon

The initial story of the museum’s establishment starts actually in Bergama.

While supervising the building of roads in the Aydın area in the years 1864-1865, the German civil engineer Carl Humann who was also interested in archaeology comes across a few fragments of friezes around the hills of Bergama and decides to undertake some exploratory digging. The unearthed articles draw the attention of Alexander Conze, the director of antique sculpture at the Berlin Museum. Carl Humann is pursuing his excavations between the years 1878-1886 thanks to the backing and financial support he is receiving from Berlin and uncovers eventually components of the frieze, relief panels and sculptures of the famous Zeus Altar.

He is allowed, by special permit of Sultan Abdülhamit II to bring to Berlin the fragments of the Altar. He proceeds by carefully disassembling and drawing up an itemized and numbered list of the discovered pieces which he sends to Berlin at successive intervals in separate shipments until the year 1886.

Mules and camels are used to carry the various pieces downhill from the acropolis, ox carriages to bring them from there to the port of Çandarlı (ancient Pitane) from where they are transported on small ships to the port İzmir (ancient Smyrna) to be loaded there onto larger vessels, German Navy ships, taking them to the North Sea. And finally, they are transported via railroad from North Sea ports to Berlin. The journey which lasts nearly ten years ends up in Berlin’s Altes (Old) Museum.

How-ever the magnificent Zeus Altar cannot be adequately displayed at the overfilled Altes Museum. It is decided to erect a new purpose-built museum for the Altar. However, the installation of the Zeus Altar at the current Pergamon Museum building takes until 1930, due to different plans, phases and delays in the construction.




From Pergamon to Russia…

When the Pergamon Museum is severely damaged during the bombings of Berlin which take place towards the end of World War II, it becomes necessary to find solutions to protect the art treasures. Pieces of the altar are stored in an air-raid shelter, walls are erected around some big monumental objects difficult to transport elsewhere. But none of these measures are adequate to preserve these antique treasures uprooted from their lands of origin. When the Russian Red Army occupies East Berlin in 1945, the exodus resumes. The ancient works of art are taken to the Soviet Union as war trophies or supposedly to be protected from looting. They are stored in the depot of the Hermitage Museum in Leningrad (currently St. Petersburg) until 1958.

In 1959 a large part of the collection is returned to East Germany (GDR), friend and ally of the Soviet Union, including the altar fragments. Many other antiquities remain in Russia, at the Pushkin Museum in Moscow as well as at the Hermitage in St. Petersburg.

Following the re-unification of Germany in 1990, the Pergamon Museum which remained within the borders of East-Berlin for many decades, becomes an important centre of attraction for the visitors from the West.

To summarize, priceless antique treasures were taken away from Ottomans by Germans and by Russians from Germans. Germany is demanding their restitu-tion from Russia, and Turkey demands their return to their homeland Anatolia, from both, Germany and Russia. The treasures at the Pergamon Museum hope that their days of exile will eventually come to an end. Who knows, maybe they will also have a chance to return home one day like the Boğazköy Sphinx…

Controversial World Heritage

The Pergamon Museum is the last museum constructed (in 1930) at Berlin’s Museum Island (Museumsinsel), which in 1999 was inscribed on the list of the UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Last but not least, Pergamon Museum, visited by 850,000 people every year, is the most popular within that complex of museums which is hosting yearly around three million visitors. The museum is subdivided into the Antiquity Collection, the Middle East Museum, and the Museum of Islamic art.

The Pergamon houses original-sized, reconstructed monu-mental buildings such as the Pergamon Zeus Altar, the Market Gate of Miletus, the Ishtar Gate, The Mshatta façade, along with invaluable pieces from the Sumerian, Assyrian and Persian civilizations. The museum is drawing the world’s attention certainly due to its rich collection. However, there is controversy over the legitimacy of the acquisition of the collection consisting mainly of pieces stemming from excavations in Turkey; in particular the treasures from Bergama and Millet.

Turkey, the original country of the excavations, demands from the German government the repatriation of the collection to its homeland.




THE ZEUS ALTAR IS A MONUMENT OF VICTORY

The Zeus Altar, the most magnificent monumental construction of the Hellenistic period, was built during the reign of King Eumenes II in the first half of the 2nd century BC on one of the terraces of the acropolis of the ancient city of Pergamon, to immortalize Pergamon’s triumphs over the Celtic Galatians and the Seleucid King Antiochos III. The Altar was dedicated to Zeus, the King of gods and his war and wisdom goddess, his daughter Athena.

The marble structure is erected on a five-stepped base-plate and consists of two levels. The frieze in high relief surrounding the “U” shaped podium depicts the battle between the Giants and the Olympian gods known as the Gigantomachy.

The reliefs are like a parade of the gods of mythology: Zeus with his thunderbolts, Artemis with her hunter arrows, Poseidon, god of the seas, goddess of beauty and love Aphrodite challenging the giants, and Leto, Apollo, Dione, Orthos, Alkyoneus, Porphyrion.

The 1.20 meters high reliefs reflect the opposite characteristics of gods and giants. The bearded, snake legged or winged, wild and aggressive giants fighting with rocks and primitive rods in their hands, as opposed to gods combating the giants with their bows and arrows, their axes, lions, tigers and dogs. The victorious gods symbolize the people of Pergamon, the losing giants represent the Galatians.

The giants are crushed by the powerful gods, their bodies torn apart, agonizing in terrible pain. Though created by a number of different famous sculptors from Pergamon, the coherence of the whole frieze, the harmonious artistic unity of the reliefs and their consistency down to the level of details are remarkable.

The frieze is considered the masterpiece of the Pergamene school of sculpture marked by emotional and dramatic intensity and character-izing a particular period of the Hellenistic art of sculpture. There is a second, smaller and less well preserved high relief frieze of a more traditional style on the inner court walls which surround the actual fire altar on the upper level of the structure at the top of the stairs. It depicts, in a series of consecutive scenes, events from the life of Telephos, legendary founder of the city of Pergamon and son of the hero Heracles and Auge, a daughter of the Tegean king Aleus.

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