The Pergamon Altar is world-famous and is one of the best-known monuments on the Berlin Museum Island. But where does this two thousand-year-old building come from? How did it come to be built and who found it? In short – what happened in Pergamon?
The ancient acropolis of Pergamon lies in the north-western coastal region of Asia Minor. The 330 meter high castle hill dominates the plain of the river Caicus (Bakırçay). Pergamon achieved political significance under the Attalid dynasty, successors of Alexander the Great.
Larger-than-life portrait head of a Pergamon king, Attalos I or Eumenes II? (1st Third 2nd century BCE) by UnknownPergamonmuseum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin
The heyday of the Attalids began when Attalos I ascended the throne. In 241 BCE he defeated the Celtic tribes that were marauding in Anatolia, thus protecting Pergamon and making the entire region safe. In acknowledgement of this he accepted the crown. Under his sons Eumenes II. (197-159 BCE) and Attalos II. (159 – 138 BCE) the dynasty of the Attalids became one of the most powerful in the Hellenistic world, winning numerous wars and displaying its greatness in the pomp of its royal seat.
Acropolis of Pergamon (1882) by Thiersch, Friedrich vonPergamonmuseum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin
The Pergamon Altar, built by King Eumenes II in about 170 BCE, was the most important monument in this new city and could be seen for miles around. It was a cult center with a sacrificial altar on the terrace beneath the Athena shrine.
What was special about it was that the Altar was not part of a temple but a monument in its own right, in which old Classical architectural elements were combined with the new Hellenistic ones.
Unique in the Ancient World, construction of the Altar took some twenty years. Its architectural and artistic richness is unequaled, and with a floor area of 1200 m² it was of an impressive size. Its base was ornamented all round with a unique two-and-a-half meter high frieze.
The north frieze of the Altar: the so-called “Nyx” (2nd Quarter 2nd century BCE) by UnknownPergamonmuseum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin
This frieze, known as the Gigantomachy Frieze or Great Frieze, is a masterpiece of Hellenistic sculpture with its three-dimensional effect and Baroque sense of movement.
The north frieze of the Altar: Gorgon (or “lion goddess”) and Poseidon’s opponent (2nd Quarter 2nd century BCE) by UnknownPergamonmuseum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin
In large-scale high relief it depicts dramatic scenes from the mythical Gigantomachy,
The East frieze of the Altar: Athena (2nd Quarter 2nd century BCE) by UnknownPergamonmuseum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin
In the mythical battle of the giants, the gods as guarantors of a just order fight against the giants, born of the earth and representing the chaos of natural forces. Here, Zeus daughter Athena defeats the giant Alkyoneus with the help of a snake bite.
Pergamon (Reverse) (193-211 AD Roman Empire)Bode-Museum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin
A bronze coin from Pergamon exists, dating from the time of Emperor Septimius Severus (193–211 CE), the reverse of which shows the west side of the Altar.
This is also the only visual representation of the monumental altar to Zeus and Athena, which is now completely destroyed but must have been highly impressive. Phlegon of Tralleis (an official at the court of the Roman Emperor Hadrian) even called the Altar an architectural wonder of the world.
To this day, scholars are not sure how exactly once-rich Pergamon lost its magnificence and the Pergamon Altar its splendor.
In the Early Byzantine period (7th to 8th Century) the Altar, together with other buildings on the acropolis of Pergamon, was destroyed to provide building material for a mighty fortification wall beneath the fortress. The wall was probably built as defense against the invading Arabs.
"But where did the Altar of Zeus stand, that I came hither to seek?" Carl Humann, 1880
View of the Acropolis of Pergamon (1879) by Christian WilbergKupferstichkabinett, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin
In the winter of 1864-65 the German civil engineer Carl Humann made his first trip to Pergamon. His intention was to explore and survey the area around Bergama for possible road building projects.
Pergamon, Turkish wall of Acropolis (1888) by Humann, CarlPergamonmuseum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin
Deeply impressed, he wrote in his diary,
"Now to the fortress … Above the western supporting walls I ventured on to the hill of ruins, which was called the Temple of Athena Polias. Sadly I stood there and saw the magnificent Corinthian capitals almost of a man’s height, the rich bases and other building elements, all overgrown with scrub and wild figs. Beside them smoked the lime kiln into which each block of marble went , reduced in size after yielding to the heavy hammer blow. … This, then, was all that remained of the proud, invincible lordly seat of the Attalids!"
Group picture of excavators (1879) by UnknownPergamonmuseum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin
Humann (2nd from left) quickly realized what cultural wealth was irreplaceably being lost there. With stubborn tenacity he managed to interest the Berlin museums in an excavation to rescue what was left.
Work started in 1878, 13 years after Humann’s first visit to Bergama. Along with the director of the former Sculpture Museum Alexander Conze and the architect Richard Bohn.
Foundation of the Pergamon Altar from the north after exposure (1879) by Humann, CarlPergamonmuseum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin
By 1886 most of the acropolis had been uncovered, including the gymnasion, the theatre, the Athena shrine, the market and the Temple of Trajan. Most valuable for the archaeologists, however, was the great altar.
On the acropolis itself only its foundations still remained.
"Byzantine wall, site of the reliefs" (1879) by Christian WilbergKupferstichkabinett, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin
Many of the precious frieze panels were found, however, built into the Late Antique defensive wall, along with a number of other fragments, which had survived the centuries protected in this way.
Excavation site in Pergamon (1879) by Christian WilbergKupferstichkabinett, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin
Carl Humann noted, “We have found here not just a dozen reliefs but an entire epoch of art which had been buried and forgotten.”
Transport of the relief panels (1879) by Christian WilbergKupferstichkabinett, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin
By arrangement with the Ottoman government, the German archaeologists were permitted to take some of the finds out of the country. They were especially interested in the frieze panels, the shipping of which proved to be extraordinarily difficult. Humann had robust crates and sledges constructed at the excavation site which were then dragged by buffalos down through the hairpin bends from the citadel so that they could be brought back to Berlin by ship and railway.
30 years later, Alexander Conze looked back on the transportation, writing, “We were not insensible to what it meant to tear the ruins of a great monument from its native soil and bring them to our land, where we could never offer them the light and the surroundings into which they had been created and in which they once took full effect. But we did tear them away from their ever more complete destruction...“
Scholarly research continued in Pergamon even after the spectacular excavation of the Altar, to discover more about the ancient city and the world-famous building. Research is still going on in Pergamon today …