Historical background

The city of Pergamon

In the 3rd and 2nd century BCE, Pergamon, situated on the Eastern Mediterranean coast, was the capital of a powerful kingdom which encompassed large swathes of what is now modern Turkey. The famous kings of Pergamon, the Attalids, took their name from their great forefather, Attalus. They transformed the site of their royal residence into a glittering city, with Athens as its inspiration, and went to great lengths to cultivate it as a centre of art and scholarship.

‘Dancer’, marble statue from palace V in Pergamon, ca. 160 BCE
© National Museums in Berlin, Collection of Classical Antiquities; Photo: Johannes Laurentius

Nyx, the goddess of the night, fighting against the Titans. Northern frieze of the Pergamon Altar, 180–160 BCE
© National Museums in Berlin, Collection of Classical Antiquities; Photo: Johannes Laurentius

The look of this Hellenistic royal city was shaped by magnificent palaces, temples and shrines – buildings which were adorned with painted stucco, imposing sculptures and mosaics rendered in sumptuous colours. Pergamon achieved fame with its large library which attracted many of the most important Greek scholars and philosophers. Under Roman rule, the Asclepieion, the sanctuary to the god Asclepius, became one of the largest healing sites in the ancient world and was converged upon by the sick from all over the Mediterranean in their search to be healed. Being a thriving place of healing meant the city flourished economically, while its favourable geographical position and the fertile agricultural production of its outlying areas also made it prosper.

The goddess Athena fighting against the Titan Alcyoneus. Eastern frieze of the Pergamon Altar, 180–160 BCE
© National Museums in Berlin, Collection of Classical Antiquities; Photo: Johannes Laurentius

In late antiquity, however, the city increasingly declined in stature. The medieval Pergamon was little more than a small provincial town, characterized by simple houses and many Byzantine churches. In the 14th century, the region was settled by Turks. Today’s Bergama lies at the foot of the slopes that once led up to the acropolis and is a town of around 60,000 inhabitants.

Map: Pergamon. Map of the digs on the hill to the acropolis. Watercoloured drawing in pencil and Indian ink by Carl Humann, 1881
Copyright: National Museums in Berlin, Collection of Classical Antiquities; Photo: Ingrid Geske

View to the Trajaneum in Pergamon, © Asisi

History of the excavations

The German excavations in Pergamon were one of the most successful endeavours ever undertaken in the history of German classical scholarship. They were initiated by the Royal Museums of Berlin in the period between 1878 and 1886 and later overseen by the German Archaeological Institute. Excavations in Pergamon are still being conducted to this day.

The German engineer Carl Humann originally came to Turkish Bergama on a road-building mission. He was to witness how on the slopes of the hill to the acropolis, the remains of large frieze panels were smashed to pieces by kiln workers and turned into lime. It is entirely down to his tireless efforts in attaining an excavation licence for the Berlin museums that the Great Altar of Pergamon with its fantastic friezes was saved from further destruction.

Panorama view of the ancient ruins in Bergama from Asisi’s temporary photograph tower, 2010 © Asisi

Over the course of several campaigns, held from 1878 to 1886, the base of the Great Altar was unearthed and almost the entire upper part of the city explored, including its many palaces, the temple of Athena, the temple of the Roman emperor Trajan, the theatre and the Upper Market. For each of the total of three excavation campaigns the necessary permits (fermane) were attained, as required under the laws governing the protection of antiquities in place at the time. The finds from the first two campaigns (1878/79 and 1880/1881) were handed over in their entirety to the Berlin museums, in accordance with the sultan’s decrees (irades); while those from the third campaign (1883–1885) only went to the Berlin museums in part, in accordance with the official division of finds agreement. The sultan’s irades were delivered at the ambassadorial level and were therefore constitutionally valid documents. All the frieze panels as well as many of the sculptures, architectural elements and small finds managed to find their way from Pergamon to Berlin. Later finds remained in Turkey. Carl Humann, who headed the excavations, was supported at the site itself by the architect Richard Bohn and the director of the Berlin Sculpture Collection, Alexander Conze.