I have always been a bit of a nerd. I know, it may come as a shock to all of you. But beneath the surface of this ultra-cool rock star writer, lurks a dude who likes to get his geek on. After spending most of the first few days in Berlin just trying to get a lay of the land, and waiting for a change of underpants, I hadn’t yet got into diving into the rich cultural offerings the city had to offer. I knew that Labour Day Sunday meant that everything would be closed, so took the opportunity to enjoy the sun, sit by the Spree, and veg out. Sunday night, I decided I was going to get a jump on Monday, the new week, and start some sightseeing.
Monday morning, I woke up early, and went for my now bi-daily (every second day) routine run to the Reichstag and back. It was chilly. I was certainly glad that I wore a long sleeved shirt over my t-shirt. I was cursing my decision not to bring track pants to Europe, though. Looking at the clouds, I could just tell that it was not going to be a great day, weather-wise. I suppose that’s acceptable, after spending a Sunday afternoon sunbathing. I had planned on being in museums all day anyways.
Unfortunately, due to the weather, so did everyone else in the city. Berlin is a city of about 3.8 million people, and about a billion tourists. I had already decided Sunday night I wanted to head to Museuminsel (Museum Island), as it was the home to a collection of world-class national museums.
It also looks like this (on a sunny day):
It didn’t look as attractive in the rain, but I didn’t go for the outside. I went for the wondrous antiquities inside. I hadn’t really picked which particular museums I absolutely had to go to. There are five main museums clustered together, and I figure I’ll probably make it to each during the course of my three weeks here. I heard that they aren’t cheap, either, but you can save a bit of money with a day pass. For 16 euros you can have one day entrance to the group of them. You need a lot of stamina to make it through just one museum, such is the magnitude of their collections, but I planned accordingly and decided that to make a day pass worthwhile, I need to visit two. I won’t tell you about the other museums, as I haven’t seen them yet, but I will give you a bit of a taste of the Pergamonmuseum and the Bodemuseum.
Before I begin. Let me reiterate that everyone in Berlin was on Museuminsel on Monday. I mean everyone. I stood in line thirty minutes to get into the Pergamonmuseum. Who did I happen to see in the lobby? The Pan-European Elderly Tourist Locusts from the Frankfurt airport, that’s who! I am not making that up. These weren’t just people who looked and acted like those people, these were the very same people, right down to their red sweaters. Like I said, everyone was there.
Now the Pergamonmuseum is named after its star exhibit, the Pergamon Altar, a giant Greek shrine, which is the first thing one sees after entering the museum proper.
It is very impressive. I just can’t say enough how impressive it is. It is a fantastic example of not only Greek architecture, but also carved art. Opposing the altar is a series of reliefs (in “frieze”) that run around the main hall of the museum, depicting a great battle of the gods. As soon as you walk in and look up you are immediately thrown back.
Beyond the Pergamon artefacts, the museum also contains, Roman, Babylonian, Assyrian, and other relics of the “Ancient Near East”. There is also a section devoted to Islamic art, including some beautiful calligraphic sheets depicting Iranian history and mythology. But, it is the big stuff that impresses me the most, and the Pergamonmuseum includes some pretty big stuff!
This is the Market Gate of Miletus, a Roman era merchant town that served as a link between Europe and Asia. It is also very big. And I say that as a man who had just seen the Pergamon Altar.
The only disappointing thing was to learn that the gate was the only thing grand, as the rest of the walls of the market were quite average. It was meant to be a large impressive faÁade to demonstrate the wealth and status of the city. I’m sure even visiting merchants could figure it out once they walked through and leaned up against a waist-high, see-through fence on the other side (note: may not actually be historically accurate).
No, for me, the thing about large gates, is that they need to back it up with some large walls. Luckily, also at the Pergamonmuseum, in fact, just on the other side of the Miletus gate was Babylon’s Ishtar Gate. Nobody builds a good gate like the Babylonians, I always say. Forget everything I’ve mentioned before about being impressed by Pergamon or Miletus. They are rinky-dink and old news. Ishtar Gate is where it is at. It is huge. Here’s a photo:
Now, not only is it huge, it’s pretty, too. I liked the blue and gold. Babylon knows what’s up. I liked the fierce animals just hanging around. Here’s where your mind is about to be blasted. That reconstruction of the Ishtar Gate is actually just the LOWER portion of the gate. In reality, it was as much as two times as tall, and had some more towers on top of and slightly behind the ones we can see. And a whole lot of walls. Nebuchadnezzar II (heard of him?) liked big things. He had a Processional Way, which was basically a big long road with really tall walls (decorated like the gate) leading up to the Ishtar Gate. The reproduce the Way in the museum and it is really something else. And then they tell you that in actuality it was much, much bigger. Oh, and King Neb liked to have a message for his visitors. I can’t remember this exact wording, but it was something along the lines of “Don’t F With Babylon!”
There really was so much more there, I obviously can’t describe it all. After over two hours, I was exhausted and took a short break for a coffee and cake combo. Because of my poor understanding of the types of cake on offer, I ended up with apple strudel. I’m not a fan of baked apple goods, but my stomach was growling and there were more antiquities to admire today.
My other stop for the afternoon was the Bodemuseum, named after the curator, Wilhelm von Bode, who made a lot of savvy purchases for the Berlin Museums and gathered much of what is featured in his namesake. The building itself is fantastic, built like a Baroque opera house (maybe?). It has a lot of classy charm, is all.
Like any self-respecting Berlin museum, the Bode has way too much stuff to take in one viewing. But I did. It really covered everything from Byzantine artefacts, coins from ancient days to modern times (there was, I kid you not, a Canadian “loonie” that was 100kg of gold, kept very, very tightly under security), ornate prayer altars from the Middle Ages, religious oil paintings, to sculptures of every medium imaginable. The sculpture collection, in particular the Renaissance-era sculptures from Italy were outstanding. There really is nothing like a Renaissance marble bust, is there?
Finally, I have a question for all of you. I just had spent the day admiring all these amazing pieces of art and antiquity that had lasted through the ages and was just so overwhelmed by their ingenuity and craftsmanship. I started to wonder if I, or anyone I know, will ever be able to create something that hundreds of years from now others might go to museums or galleries to see. I can’t imagine creating anything fantastic enough that others might deem worth saving, nor anything durable enough that survives whatever the world throws at it (many of the collections at the museums I visited had been damaged in WWII).
I don’t know where to begin trying, but I started to think about what might be the art or artefact that defines our 21 st century? The way that the novel defined the 19 th or the motion picture the 20 th (by my accounts, anyways). Any thoughts?