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Hidden Treasures

DPA news agency (nda)July 15, 2008

Berlin hosts two special exhibitions exploring the art and culture of the Lucani tribe from ancient Italy and the Babylonians. Both detail the intricacies and complexities of two very advanced civilizations.

A visitor walks past the Street of Procession which is part of the exhibit "Babylon. Myth and Truth" at the Pergamon museum in Berlin, June 25, 2008. The exhibit will be open to the public from June 26, 2008 to Oct. 5, 2008.
Ancient Babylonian artworks are currently on display in the Pergamon in BerlinImage: AP

Richly painted 2,500-year-old tombs unearthed in Paestum, south of Pompeii, since the late 19th century are a major attraction in Berlin.

For three months, visitors to the Martin Gropius Building will be able to view the ancient art of the Lucani, an Italian tribe who seized the earlier Greek colony of Paestum in about 500 BC. The temple ruins remain a tourist attraction today.

The Berlin exhibition, earlier shown in Hamburg, is entitled "Paintings for Eternity: The Tombs of Paestum."

The Lucani painted the insides of stone tombs to illustrate the lives and deaths of the deceased and their journey into the after- life. When the funeral rites were over, the graves were sealed.

So they remained until the late 19th century when the Paestum treasures were discovered by farm workers plowing the land, and archaeologists arrived to carry out excavations.

The five slabs making up most such tombs went into the Paestum museum, the Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Paestum, but were never able to be grouped because the floors in the building were not strong enough to carry so much stone at one spot.

Under an art-loan arrangement, the painted slabs arrived in Germany last year on tour. At the Gropius Building, they have been juxtaposed in their original groups. No easy task, given that a complete tomb can weigh 43 tons.

Italy's President Giorgio Napolitano and Germany's parliamentary speaker, Norbert Lammert, are the patrons of the Germany tour.

Ornate tombs

A prize exhibit at the show is the Tomb of the Black Knight. One fresco depicts a knight on a black horse whose eyes are riveted on a large pot containing a blossom, representing his dead wife. She is also portrayed by the artist on her death bed, covered with a shroud.

The tomb is further illustrated by paintings of mourning women beating their breasts and tearing at their hair, while a sphinx waits, claw raised, ready to take the dead person into the after-life.

Also to be seen are a rich assortment of ceramics linked to the Lucani graves. The 1-metre-high Aphrodite Vase depicts a goddess dancing in a vaporous white dress, surrounded by decorative swirls, flowers and leaves.

The exhibition also shows depictions of the ancient temples of Paestum in the visual arts between 1750 and 1850, including oil paintings, water colors and work by the Italian engraver, Giovanni Battista Piranese (1720-78).

Babylon exposed

Visitors walk past the 'Lions guarding the Temple' statues as part of the Babylon exhibition
The statues of Babylon hint at the city's ancient powerImage: AP

Running concurrently with the Lucani treasures show is "Babylon: Myth and Truth," an exhibition at the Pergamon Museum on the city's Island of Museums.

For centuries biblical images have portrayed Babylon, or Babel, as a metaphor for the eternal apocalypse, reflecting violence, repression, licentiousness and decadence, with images evoking the dark side of civilization.

Such images have dominated public thinking for centuries. Historically, however, there is little truth in the myth, according to the show's promotional brochure entitled, "No Whores. No Tower. No King. No God."

For 150 years archaeologists have been researching the remains of Babylon, once one of the most powerful cities of the ancient world and partly a source of Western culture.

The museum, the British Museum and the Louvre have cooperated to assemble the Babylon treasures into a traveling show, so that tourists do not need to visit Berlin, London and Paris to see the full range.

History not legend

Using a unique selection of statues, reliefs, votive offerings, architectural elements and ancient writings, the historical findings have been carefully distinguished from the legendary version, as Berlin critic Klaus Grimberg explained in a recent review.

Visitors walk through the Ischtar-Gate which is part of the exhibit "Babylon. Myth and Truth" at the Pergamon museum in Berlin
Visitors walk through the impressive Ishtar GateImage: AP

At the heart of the chapter on "truth" are two structures brought entire to Berlin a century ago, the Ishtar Gate and the Processional Way of Babylon.

Babylon, located about 90 kilometers south of today's Baghdad, was ruled by kings such as Hammurabi (1792-1750 BC) and Nebuchadnezzar and was a state for almost two millennia.

Far from being a cauldron of sin, linguistic confusion and godlessness, the city was a centre of learning and science, as clay tablets, minutely inscribed in cuneiform, testify.

Babylonians, according to historians, were the first to divide an hour into 60 minutes, a year into 12 months and a circle into 360 degrees.

City of learning, not sin

A visitor walks through the exhibit "Babylon. Myth and Truth" at the Pergamon museum in Berlin
The exhibit tries to dispel the myth of an evil BabylonImage: AP

Scale models in the "reality" part of the exhibition confirm that Babylon did indeed have a tower, but that it was a modest one compared to artists' later depictions of a "colossal edifice" designed to touch the heavens and challenge God's authority.

In biblical terms, Babylon -- in contrast to heavenly Jerusalem -- became a metaphor for an evil empire.

The New Testament Book of Revelations spoke of "the whore of Babylon" and in the early 16th century, German protestant reformer Martin Luther used the term to revile Catholic Rome.

What the Berlin exhibition seeks to do is shed some light on this ancient conundrum by separating myths from historical reality.

The Babylon: Myth and Reality exhibition continues until October 5 at the Pergamon, while the Painting for Eternity: Tombs of Paestum show at the Martin Gropius Building is to be seen until September 28.