Whenever visiting a new city, it’s important to start your first day with an old friend. It’s not always possible (like in Naples) but it definitely is in Berlin.
Having booked an opera and checked out where my first museum was, I headed down Friedrichstrasse to the closest Starbucks.
Of course it tasted like every other Starbucks latte I’ve ever had (apart from the silky milk ones from Farnham) which is, of course, exactly as it should be.
Having had my latte and a bit of a pre-morning assault rest, I headed to a bookshop I’d noticed on the way.
Dussmann is massive. Spread over four floors with books, music and movies, it’s like heaven. Naturally I headed for the ‘kinder’ section in order to buy the essential German language Alice. And I found a lovely volume with drawings by Floor Rieder. But that’s the incidental trappings of my holiday shopping. More important things lay ahead.
I had an 11am timed slot for the Pergamon but, given it was 10:30, there were no benches (I could see) and absolutely no queue at all, I went straight in using my invaluable museum card.
The first thing that strikes you about the Pergamon (I’m ignoring the building works which tend to dominate the outside of the place) is as you emerge at the first floor and look to your right. The Gate of Ishtar is simply extraordinary.
This is a reconstruction using a lot of the original tiles but then filled in where bits were missing. It is amazing – a photo does not do it justice.
Ishtar, by the way, was a great goddess. She was originally Inanna, a Mesopotamian goddess who, it is believed, was first venerated at Uruk sometime in 4000 – 3100 BC. She became Ishtar and, eventually, Venus and Aphrodite.
A famous story tells of how Inanna went into the Underworld, ruled by her sister Ereshkigal, and was only released when her husband took her place. He was only allowed to return to the world every six months, at the turn of the seasons. How familiar is that?
Anyway, looking at the tile reliefs on the gate I wondered why on earth we settled for such a boring god to worship. The ancients had such an incredibly interesting lot. First women and men, then men and women and then…one omnipotent hatred filled bastard and his soft-boiled son of a virgin mother. Seriously? If I was going to waste my time in prayer and related bollocks it’s going to be to the interesting ones.
Still…and moving right along…from the Gate of Ishtar, the museum heads upstairs to the world of Islamic art which normally means just bits of Arabic writing and repetitive mosaics. There’s nothing wrong with that but it does tend towards the dull after the first few hundred tiles. But, surprise, surprise, there was some figurative pieces in the collection.
But, the biggest surprise of all was the ceiling from the Alhambra.
This ceiling was originally in the Alhambra but a German banker, Arthur von Gwinner by name, decided it would look better in his Berlin living room. He didn’t steal it because he owned the bit of the Alhambra where it was. So, he had it removed and installed in his house at Rauchstrasse, Berlin.
As I stood reading this, an elderly English chap tut tutted his way through it then told his wife it was shameful. I felt like telling him it was no more or less shameful than the archaeologist who crated up the tiles for the Gate of Ishtar to reassemble it in Berlin…but I didn’t.
Actually, there was lot of cultural appropriation going on in the two museums I explored today. One striking example was the complaint by the Germans that the Russians had ‘stolen’ a whole load of things following the end of WWII. Okay, they may have taken them away and still display them in museums in Moscow and St Petersburg but how is that different to the Islamic and Persian displays in the Berlin museums?
One striking example of this is how the Russians took away a massive treasure which had been recovered by German archaeologist at the possible site of ancient Troy. I’m surprised the Greeks don’t complain as well…or maybe they have? This sort of thing always reminds me of Mirinda’s Masters into cultural repatriation. My problem with sending everything back to where it originated is that every museum in the world would suddenly become a bit dull and lacking in variation.
However, from the Pergamon, I moved across the way to the Neues Museum and a much needed cup of coffee (and slice of apfelstrudel with custard). Then I started all over again.
The Neues moves a little south as we delve into Egyptian antiquity a lot. Papyrus, mummies, hieroglyphs, all manner of stuff ‘borrowed’ from royal tombs and suchlike.
Above is one side of a box. It tells the story of the deceased’s trip through the underworld. It reminded me a lot of the Dead Egyptians exhibition I went to at the British Museum with Dawn so many years ago. The box would only have been about two feet square but it told an amazing story of death and rebirth and the glories awaiting the souls of the good.
There’s a lot of Egyptian stuff to marvel at at the Neues but equally amazing is the building itself. Inscribed across the entrance, in Latin, is ‘Only the ignorant hate art’. The building was ordered by the Prussian King Frederick William IV in order to educated these ignorant people in the beauty of art. (‘Neues’ means new as opposed to the Altes Museum – Altes meaning old.) I have no idea how successful he was but it’s a lovely museum.
There are an awful lot of objects in the New Museum, far too many to discuss here! However, I would like to highlight two.
Firstly the famous Golden Hat.
This hat was a Bronze age astronomical instrument as well as being a rather odd hat for someone to wear at special ceremonial occasions. It dates from the 8th to 9th century BC and is decorated with various measurements regarding solar and lunar movements and seasonal changes.
The hat is made of gold. The precious metal was pounded into a paper thin sheet then rolled and heated to join without a seam. The designs were then stamped into it before final construction. This particular example (there’s only three other known hats) was purchased from a second hand dealer in 1996 in order to preserve it for the world. It is unknown where it came from or how it was found.
The hat is incredibly evocative as is the dark room where it is displayed.
The second object was the Xanten Youth. He was found by fishermen in the Rhine River in 1858. Apart from the right lower arm, it is intact. He would have held a tray upon which were drinks and food for guests to help themselves to during Roman parties. He probably dates to the 1st century AD.
It is thought that it may have been plundered from an early Roman legionary camp in Germany but was lost in the river as the plunderers fled. Whatever the history, it is beautiful and stands as a testament to the Roman bronze working skills.
By 3pm, I’d had enough and was ready to head back to the hotel for a bit of a break before dinner. Having started at 10:30, four and a half hours was clearly my limit (for today). I retrieved my stuff from my locker and walked back to my room to be greeted by my ticket to the opera tomorrow night.
I then rested up for the evening. It was a good job I did.
Seeing as Lorna had gone to all the trouble to tell me where the Hofbrau Munchen was, I could hardly not go. So, just after 6:30 I headed out into the freezing (literally) cold and started walking up the road. The Hofbrau Munchen is on the same road as my hotel so it was just a matter of walking in an almost straight line to get there.
Passing a handy souvenir shop, I popped in and bought a much needed beanie before continuing on into the freezing, biting wind, avoiding frozen puddles of, I think, water. And finally, there it was: a warm oasis amid the frenzy of frozen pavement and screeching trams.
I walked in and requested a table for one. I was shown to a bench and given beer and pigs knuckle. I was happy and set as the Oompah band played various hits of the 1850’s.
The pig must have been massive because his knuckle took some eating. The beer helped wash it down to the extent that I needed another one before long. Then, suddenly, a group of about 20 English business people turned up and crammed into two benches next to me, ready for a night of fun.
They took a while to settle – coats finding hooks, people choosing seating companions they liked, etc – but then the beer arrived and they started chatting animatedly. Then the band started playing Ein Prosit and, naturally, I stood and raised my glass high in salutation with the people sitting the other side of me. (I may also have sung a bit.)
Of course, the English business people near me wanted to know all about it so I explained. The next time the band played, they were all up on their feet, cheering away, beer glasses clunking away with their own and mine. It was very jolly and not at all Brexit-y.
I felt my job was done and stole away into the night. I was ready for bed and whatever new arty stuff awaited me on the morrow.
But before bed, here’s a short video of my wandering around the Pergamon.