About a visit to the acropolis at Pergamon/Bergama and a few thoughts about archaeology.

When I hear Pergamon, my mind instantly connects to the famous Pergamon Altar displayed in a museum specifically constructed after WWI at the famous museum island in East Berlin.  The museum was supposed to have a name like “Archaeological Museum of Berlin”, but for obvious reasons it has always been called the “Pergamon Museum”.  Aside from the magnificent Zeus Altar from Pergamon, it also displays the Ishtar Gate from Babylon — two major cultural objects the Germans managed to snatch away among many others, like the bust of Nerfertiti…  I have always felt a bit guilty about this, and being here, makes me feel even more uneasy.

But the issue is complicated.  In the 1880’s, Turkey under the Ottomans did not care one bit for its cultural heritage.  In fact, the story of the Pergamon Altar goes back to a German engineer who came to Turkey charged with building roads in the 1860’s.   He was dismayed and outraged by the destruction of partially exposed historical material he witnessed.  The acropolis was used as a convenient local quarry for stones and worse – anything made of marble was ground down as lime powder!  He used his influence within the Ottoman Empire to stop as much of this destruction as he could.  He had neither the means nor the ability to excavate, but he shared a general European interest in the discovery and the preservation of the Greco-Roman past which was part of the Zeitgeist and produced people like Heinrich Schliemann, Sir Arthur Evans, and Sir Elgin. It was over 15 years later that he finally had drummed up enough interest among German museums to get financial support to excavate at Pergamon.  The altar was not there to be dismantled.  It had to be excavated and pieced together in years of painstaking excavation work.  He got permission from the Ottomans to take home any parts belonging to a particular altar, the Altar of Zeus, now known better as the Pergamon Altar; and that’s what happened.  Excavations were a lot more extensive and many pieces are now found in Turkish museums as well.

Turkey is not calling as loudly for the return of this altar as Greece is calling for the return of the Parthenon frieze.  But in either case it is pretty clear that if these objects of antiquity had not been carted off at the time, they now would no longer exist.  What to do?  What is left of the Zeus Altar in situ is pitiful; just a heap of stones which ones formed the core or the base of the altar.  The most impressive feature of the spot are two huge pine trees…

German excavation did not stop then.  More recently a huge area below the acropolis on which the ancient town was located, was exposed and magnificent mosaics were found and preserved in situ.  Laws today of course, are strictly regulating the removal of any antiquities and hardly anything ever leaves the country of origin.

The acropolis is reached by a brand new cable car system.  It is great fun to board one of the cars, which then sways back and forth depending on how you move.  You are suspended up high with great views of the landscape dominated by a lake formed by a nearby dam.

The most impressive features of the acropolis today are the temple of Trajan with gleaming white Corinthian columns, and the 10,000 seat theater, the steepest in all of Turkey.  My favorite area was a colonnade of arches below Trajan’s temple which connected a series of vaults.  They had to be constructed for the sole purpose to extend and reinforce the terrace on which the temple stood after it had given way to the weight of the temple.  I would have loved to sit at the top of the theater looking across town and over to the Asclepion or at the back of the acropolis looking into that spectacular landscape formed by the dam.  I tried for all of three minutes.  It was too windy and cold.  Even walking was a challenge.  The wind was so strong that it created headaches and blew through all the few layers I was wearing.

I was better off calling it a day and heading back to the hotel.  On the way back I took in a gigantic Roman brick building, and a carpet shop.  No, I did not buy anything.  But if I had all the money in the world, carpets would be the first thing I would fall for.

Good night.