Happy Birthday to me!
This is where I spent my 45th birthday -- the Pergamon Museum. Fourteen years after visiting Pergamon in Turkey, I finally got to Berlin to see the giant altar -- an entire building, really -- that the Germans removed from its site and reconstructed here. The whole museum is named after it.
In fairness, one can't really say that the Germans "stole" it; they acquired it from the Ottoman Turks by an agreement (presumably a cash transaction). Still, it's pretty depressing to go all the way to Pergamon and find an big empty foundation slab where the Great Altar of Zeus is supposed to be. (Pergamon's well worth a visit even with the altar's absence, if you find yourself in Turkey.)
It was the same in Greece with the Parthenon statues (the "Elgin marbles," named after the man who "acquired" them), except that Greece is no longer part of the Ottoman Empire, and the modern Greek state wants the Elgin marbles back. (I would love to see that happen, but it's much less likely than the fall of the Berlin wall was.)
The Pergamon altar -- known as the Great Altar of Zeus -- is dedicated to all the Olympian gods; the enormous frieze surrounding the podium depicts the epic battle between the Olympian gods and the Titans (giants). Worshippers would climb this monumental staircase, and enter through the colonnades at the top to find the altar itself, surrounded by a portico and open to the sky.
The Germans -- who were heavily into classical archaeology and helped turn it into a discipline and a profession instead of just an amateur pursuit -- did much of the exploration of the Greek Hellenistic and Roman sites in Turkey and elsewhere. This museum in Berlin also has a very impressive gate structure from Miletus.
When you get to the top of the staircase, you pass through the double colonnade into a courtyard containing the actual altar. That court is surrounded by friezes representing the myth of Telephos, son of Hercules – one of many Greek myths. It’s about fate, seduction, attempted infanticide, intervention of the gods, incest barely averted – all the elements that make Greek mythology so compelling.
The Pergamon Museum does a good job of explaining the significance of both friezes for the kings of Pergamon, who used the stories to legitimize and reinforce their own right to rule.
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