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Ancient Syrian statues rise from rubble in Berlin's Pergamon Museum


The ancient gods and fantastical creatures on show now in Berlin have made an unlikely comeback from near destruction.

Unearthed in Syria a century ago, the 3,000-year-old basalt statues and stone reliefs in the exhibition "The Tell Halaf Adventure" shattered into thousands of pieces when their Berlin home was destroyed by bombing in 1943.

Once rescued, the rubble slumbered in the vaults of the capital's Pergamon Museum, then in East Berlin. A painstaking restoration project started in 2001.

Over the past decade, restorers have sifted through about 27,000 fragments of rubble and gradually reassembled most of them.

About 40 resurrected figures — including a pair of lions that once bared their teeth at the entrance of a palace at Tell Halaf in northeastern Syria, a sphinx and a long-tressed female figure from a monumental grave — went on show at the Pergamon Museum in January.

"No one could have imagined several years ago that this exhibition would be possible," said Michael Eissenhauer, the director of Berlin's state museums. "Tell Halaf had been forgotten. It was thought to be certain that the pieces which disappeared in 1943 were irretrievably lost."

German archaeologist Max von Oppenheim led excavations at the Tell Halaf site between 1911 and 1913. He first put the figures on display in Berlin in 1930 at a private museum in a former iron foundry that was destroyed during the war.

Oppenheim arranged for the rubble to be salvaged and stored in hopes of one day re-creating the statues — but it would be decades after his death in 1946 before that dream was realized.

During Germany's postwar division, the rubble lay across the Cold War divide from the collection's owner, the Max von Oppenheim Foundation. Only in the 1990s, after German reunification, did officials start examining whether the statues might be restored.

The foundation helped fund the several-million-euro cost of the restoration.

"It was an excavation in our own house," Beate Salje, the director of Berlin's Museum of the Ancient Near East, said.

About 25,000 of the 27,000 fragments of rubble were reassembled with the help of Oppenheim's photo documentation of the excavation site, but she said there is little hope of putting together the rest.

Pallets of the remaining rubble are part of the show. The extent of the destruction that had to be unraveled is evident in the battered appearance of some of the statues, including monumental figures of a griffin and a mythical cross between a scorpion, a bird and a man.

The exhibition runs through Aug. 14 at the Pergamon Museum, where it ultimately will be integrated into a permanent collection that includes treasures such as Babylon's Ishtar Gate.

Salje said the Louvre in Paris, New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art and London's British Museum are interested in showing parts of the Tell Halaf exhibition over the coming years.

It wasn't immediately clear whether it might travel to Syria.

Damascus has authorized new Syrian-German research at Tell Halaf and provided the new exhibition with an imposing guest: the figure of a goddess on loan from the National Museum in Aleppo.


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Ancient Syrian statues rise from rubble in Berlin's Pergamon Museum 03/05/11 [Last modified: Saturday, March 5, 2011 3:30am]
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