Berlin museums top 10

Uggla finalBerlin is a fantastic historical city with wonderful museums and you can easily spend weeks seeing them all. Here is my personal top 10.

1. Neues Museum
The great thing about Neues museum is that it tells so much history just in itself. It was built as a proud Prussian monument in 1855, had a glorious time in the era of imperial Germany but was then miserably destroyed in WWII and a cold war ruin. When reconstructed in 2009, the architect made sure to preserve all of its historical phases which can now be marvelled at by the visitor. It’s an historical museum with great treasures on display not to be missed such as the Nefertiti bust and the Bronze Age golden “wizard hats”.

2. Jewish Museum
This is the largest Jewish museum in Europe, full of interesting exhibitions. What’s special about this museum is the extraordinarily well performed coherence between architectural form and story content. As a visitor you follow the history of the Jews in Germany chronologically and the house itself gets gradually more sad, desperate and twisted when presenting early 20th century times, ending in the void of the chilling Holocaust tower.

3. Pergamon Museum
The Pergamon museum is fantastic and completely crazy. Archaeologists of imperial Germany, just as their counterparts in Britain and France, decided it was a good idea to bring home not just small artefacts but entire monuments from the classical Mediterranean world. But the Germans did it most thoroughly. Just wait until you see the Pergamon Altar, the incomparable Ishtar Gate and the Victory stele of Esarhaddon.Berlin 34. German Historical Museum
The museum opened in 1987 and stands for a fully updated and thoroughly researched history of Germany. It is big, full of very informative exhibitions, well worth a visit but somewhat boring. It does great and important projects and temporary exhibitions on contemporary subjects.

5. Topography of Terror
This is a place not to be missed when in Berlin since it tells the awful but important story of the terror during the Nazi regime in Germany and Berlin specifically. Located at the site of former main SS, SD, Einsatzgruppen and Gestapo headquarters, it has well-presented but also challenging exhibits due to the difficult subject, both indoors and outdoors.

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6. Natural history Museum
The Museum für Naturkunde in Berlin is not just any natural history museum. What’s special here is that they have some of the most famed dinosaur fossils of all including the Berlin Archaeopteryx, possible the most famous fossil in the world. It’s a big museum, the exhibitions are good and especially the impressive Dinosaur Hall with mounted skeletons of some of the largest beasts that ever lived.

7. Schwules Museum
This is a museum exhibiting LGBT life in Berlin. What’s great about it is that it does this very well and always seems to have new and exciting projects and temporary exhibitions rolling.

8. Deutsches Currywurst Museum
The Currywurst is a signature snack of Berlin. There’s actually no curry in the sausage itself, it is in a special sauce and sprinkled on, but it’s not a bad snack at all. The dish has a charming story including an old lady trying to get by in post-war Berlin and I think the museum is rather good too.

9. Altes Museum
Opened as a Prussian royal arts museum in 1830, the Altes Museum has instead housed the most important Berlin collections of classical antiquities since the early 20th century and still does. The Altes Museum has some startling exhibits of sculptures and, artefacts from antiquity which you should not miss when here.

10. DDR Museum
This place tells the story of life in East Germany in the Cold war era. It is full of trinkets and reconstructions and is well worth seeing though maybe leaning a bit too much towards nostalgia rather than the hard sides of the topic.

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Great Walls of China – and other walls

The yellow sand rises as high as white cloud;
The lonely town is lost amid the mountains proud.
Why should the Mongol flute complain no willows grow?
Beyond the Jade Gate vernal wind will never blow!

Uggla finalThese words of poet Wang Zhihuan (688-742) echoes through the centuries as he speaks of the Jade Gate in the Great Wall of China. To the Chinese of old, this gate in Xinjiang was the edge of the known world and an outpost before the legendary far Western regions of the world.

The liminal, mythological role of the Jade Gate in Chinese thinking is what the poem allures to and whether keeping some enemies out or not, great walls and their gates seem to be a lot more about the mythologies and makings of us and them.

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The ruins of the Jade Gate lie in a final, large bend of the Great Wall, to the west of the last border town of Dunhuang and on the rim of the vast Taklamakan desert. Its name refers to caravans full of jade that entered it from the desert kingdom of Khotan to be transported east along the Silk Road to central China. You can get here today by a 80 km bus ride from Dunhuang, which is well worth a visit also for other reasons.

Great Walls
The Great Wall of China is rather a whole range of walls in different places that were built, changed and rebuilt over more than 2 000 years. Construction of these walls started in the Warring States era in the 7th or 6th century BC and went on until 17th century Ming dynasty times. The main idea was to protect against raids and invasions from nomadic groups from the Steppes in the north.

Chinese walls protected against some invasions, though many raiders and invaders managed to cross them without too much trouble, most obviously the Mongols conquering all of China in the 13th century.

The Great Wall is a main tourist attraction today, of course, and especially some reconstructed parts of it to the north of Beijing. It should best be seen as dark heritage since the cost in human lives building these walls must have been truly terrible.

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Entering China proper at Jiayuguan
The western end of the major stretch of the Ming era Great Wall was in the Jiayu Pass at Jiayuguan city in Gansu province. Like the reconstructed sections outside Beijing this is also a major tourist site, where you get to visit a system of rebuilt and touristified fortresses and gates. It’s impressive for sure.

Ming walls at Mutianyu
Most majestic of the preserved walls are the Ming era ones in the mountains to the north of Beijing, which you visit on day tours from the city. I had a look myself at a place called Mutianyu where you can have ice cream, buy souvenirs and walk some kilometres of ancient wall.

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The pointlessness of walls such as these seems to me a monument over human ambition and stupidity. In the long run they do not keep people out or prevent invasions but inflict vast collective, mental damage to entire peoples by separating us and strengthen the making of mutually excluding us and others.

In Berlin, the wall may have fallen, but similar walls between people are on the rise worldwide though we should have known much better by now.

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Deserted desert citadel – the ruins of Bam

Uggla finalThe spectacular ancient fortress-town of Bam, just south of Kerman in Iran, is a majestic sight. An impressive citadel, large living quarters and a range of buildings such as a bazaar, a caravanserai and several Mosques were encircled by a gigantic defence wall with a moat. The site is UNESCO world heritage and was miserably destroyed by a terrible 2003 earthquake.

Previously unaware of it, I was driven to Bam in a car by two men I randomly met in Yazd and who wanted to show me hospitality and the local sights. The only tourist in the whole amazing complex, it totally blew my mind. Spending a day walking its deserted medieval streets and climbing around in the citadel is a top memory from Iran.

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The history of the oasis town of Bam, surrounded by date palm groves and then miles and miles of desert, goes back more than 2 000 years. The essential parts of the fortified city were in place already during Parthian times, though most of the structures visible now have been constantly developed until the 16th and 17th centuries. Medieval Bam may have housed about 10 000 people. The oasis city lay on a branch of the Silk Road and prospered from trade and textile manufacture.

In the 18th and 19th centuries it was gradually abandoned, finally serving just as a military barracks but totally deserted by the 1930s. In the late 20th century restorations began and it was developed into a tourist site and a common image on Iran travel agency posters. When a major earthquake struck the region in 2003, killing tens of thousands of residents of modern Bam next by, the ancient city and citadel were also laid to waste.

Post-earthquake images show terrible devastation, but Bam is rising from the desert sands once again and in 2018 the highest platforms of the citadel were opened for visitors just as before.

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Medieval ghost town – the story of Ani

Uggla finalAni, the grand medieval capital of an Armenian royal dynasty, had almost impregnable double city walls, a magnificent citadel, a cathedral, several Mosques and “a thousand and one Churches”, all built from stunning, reddish lava stone. It was sacked by the Mongols in 1236, never to recover. Located on the cold-war border between Turkey and the Soviet union it has remained a ghost town and an eerie but remarkable contested historical site.

You approach Ani on a narrow dirt road from Kars in Turkey over vast, flat grasslands when suddenly the black silhouette of its ruined city walls break the horizon. Arriving and entering through the Lion gate, you are about to discover a vast medieval ghost town about a square kilometre large where you can walk street after street with buildings collapsed on their foundations and see its wonderful remaining key features such as the 11th century cathedral by famous master architect Trdat.

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I was there just some years after the end of the Cold War. You could still see the rusty Soviet watchtowers on the other side of the border river right by the city and the guides told stories of tourists having been shot by tower guards for taking photos in the wrong direction.

Ani was built as the capital of the Bagratid royal dynasty and of medieval Armenia of the 11th and 12th centuries. This was a larger realm than the present state which included large parts of present eastern Turkey. It quickly grew to a prosperous city with between 50 and 100 thousand inhabitants, hundreds of churches, strong defence works and a row of architectural masterpieces such as the cathedral.

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In the late 11th century the city was conquered by the Seljuk Turks, its population slaughtered, and then followed a period of turmoil before it was thoroughly sacked by the Mongols in 1236 and victim to a devastating earthquake some decades later. It lingered on, a shadow of its former glory, before being completely abandoned in the 18th century.

Rediscovered and investigated by travellers and archaeologists in the 1800s, Ani changed hands between Ottoman and Russian empires, later being fought over by the Ottomans and the new Republic of Armenia. After being Armenian for a brief period, it now belongs to Turkey since 1921.

A truly magnificent but much neglected site right on a heavily militarized border zone for decades and a continued source of quarrels between Turkey and Armenia, the latter considering it their national heritage, Ani became UNESCO world heritage in 2016, restoration works are underway and it’s an amazing historical place to visit on a day-trip from the gloomy town of Kars.

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Herat – battered pearl of Khorasan

Uggla finalThe ancient Silk Road town of Herat, “the pearl of Khorasan”, was historically known for its beauty and amazing historical landmarks from the Timurid Renaissance. In later years this war torn third largest city of Afghanistan has been trying to recover from decades of conflict.

Khorasan is Persian and literarily means “sunrise”. That is because the sun rises in the east and Khorasan was the major eastern region of the Persian empires of classical times. Herat, a major centre of art and learning famed for its prosperity and beauty in the Middle Ages, was rightly named a pearl of Khorasan by one of its most famous sons, the legendary poet Rumi whose grave is still preserved in the city.

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What I remember best from visiting Herat 25 years ago, spending a few days with the Mujahedin fraction controlling the city and having some time seeing its sights, is the clear, high air, the strange pine tree-lined avenues of its centre and the marks of war in the faces and behaviour of people. They had just defeated the Soviet invaders but at a terrible cost.

Herat lies on a key historical gateway between Central Asia and the Persian mainland to the west. The army of Alexander the great passed here and later it became a major node on the Silk Road. Most Persian and central Asian empires of old conquered it, a few of them razing it to the ground. It was battered and torn down several times but always rose again. Its golden age was the Middle Ages before being sacked by the Mongols and then a later period as imperial capital of the Timurids who were great patrons of art and science.

Herat is a very likable city. Despite having endured military conflict, looting, and earthquakes, it has a lot to offer the historical traveller.

Just as the city, the citadel of Herat has been built up and torn down many times. Said to have been first established by Alexander, it has been the quarter of countless armies over more than 2 000 years. After decades of neglect it was thoroughly restored in 2006-2011 and is an impressive sight today though perhaps a bit over-restored.

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Friday Mosque
I couldn’t get into the citadel in 1993 since it was in military use, but was left thoroughly in awe by the Friday Mosque of Herat: a famous accomplishment of Timurid architects, a great place for reflection and a feast of stunning glazed tile-decorated iwans and arcades. If you get there don’t miss the craftsmen’s workshop where they make wonderful tiles for the never-ending restoration.

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Tomb of Jami
The poet and scholar Jami (Nur ad-Dīn Abd ar-Rahmān Jāmī) was born in present Afghanistan in 1414 and moved to Herat with his parents when very young. He lived and learned here, becoming a celebrated star of the Timurid Renaissance. Jami studied at the local university and held a position at the Timurid imperial court. Jami travelled around but returned to Herat where he died, probably in 1492, and received a stately funeral being buried in the northern part of the present city. The tomb is modest with a finely carved headstone and lies under a tree inside an enclosure.

Musalla complex and tomb of Goharshad
The sad remains of the musalla complex of Herat is by now a small number of minarets and two domed mausoleums. The whole complex once included a grand mosque, a medressa (religious school), more than 20 minarets and more. The musalla complex of Herat was a masterpiece of the Timurid Renaissance comparable to the most awesome Islamic architecture and the Taj Mahal is probably a faint echo of the splendour once seen here.

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The musalla complex was commissioned by Goharshad Begum. She ruled the Timurid empire from Herat in the 15th century first together with Shah Rukh, the son of Tamerlane, and after his death by herself. Goharshad is entombed in the largest domed mausoleum still preserved at the site.

The musalla complex should have been world heritage by now and one of the most important historical, architectural and religious sites of all. But the complex was severely damaged by earthquakes and the grand ruins then miserably destroyed by the British army with dynamite in 1885. They blew it up to create a clear line of fire for cannons directed at the assault route of a Russian army that never came. Prints from the late 19th century before the dynamite show the remains of amazing buildings now lost forever.

Herat, the magnificent pearl of Khorasan, will no doubt return again to economic and cultural prosperity when the sun rises again over Afghanistan.

Teutoburg – the forest at the end of Rome

Uggla finalSouthern Germany in early autumn, 9 CE. Three Roman legions with auxiliary troops and the governor of Germania, Publius Quinctilius Varus, are on their way from summer campaigns to safe winter camps on the Rhine and Lippe rivers.

Suddenly, a well-planned surprise attack by a large force of Germanic warriors from a coalition of tribes attack the Roman army, inflicting substantial casualties and causing it to embark on forced marches through the woodlands under continued attacks from the Germans. The difficult terrain made the Roman line of march stretch out perilously long and easy to attack on its weak spots.

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The precise circumstances of the battle are unclear but many things suggest that the Romans were led into a very well prepared trap in the form of a narrowing funnel. At its end was a gap just about 100 meters wide between the densely forested Kalkriese hill and a vast marshland. The gap was prepared as a kill zone by the Germans, having built a defence wall along the hillside from which they could attack the desperate, fleeing remains of the Roman army, which was annihilated here.

An enormous disaster to the Romans, the defeat had vast consequences and ended a long period of expansion. It is said to have shook emperor Augustus profoundly. Though maybe not such a pivotal turning point as much earlier history-writing claimed, the event seems to have put an end to ideas about turning the lands between the Rhine and the Elbe into a formal Roman province, now establishing the Rhine as the northern limes of the empire.

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The probable scene of the final battle at Kalkriese is known because of archaeological excavations in the area since the late 1980s. The discovery and investigation of the battlefield was certainly a major discovery of the late 20th century, following a more than 100 years long debate on where and how the battle was fought.

Thousands of finds of debris of Roman equipment have been collected, elucidating a lot about what happened. They give fascinating insight into many aspects of the human drama of the events. A donkey bell stuffed with straw to silence it tells about futile attempts to avoid discovery while marching. Small stashes of buried coins in one part of the area seem to indicate the place for a last stand of a Roman unit, burying their valuables when knowing there was no chance of escape.

As an example of the political and more specifically nationalistic uses of history, there are few things more important in German historiography than the Teutoburg battle. The events, in which a “Germanic hero” united (a few of) the Germanic tribes to drive out the Roman occupants was heavily exploited during the 19th and early 20th century.

There is a well conceived visitor’s centre in Kalkriese, where some of the finds are displayed, but the main experience of visiting is a prepared walk where you get to follow in the footsteps of the legionaries on their last kilometres, ending in the narrow gap in which they were finally caught and met their doom. This is very dark history of course, and the place was a site of panic, desperation and terrible suffering rather than heroism. A site design where you follow a track of large, rusty, iron plates guides the experience firmly and sets the tone while remaining respectful.

We came here on a late summer day on which disaster seemed far away. We walked the iron plates over sunny, open grassland beneath the forest rim and though a gripping experience, panic seemed far away. Going back on a narrow track through the edge of the forest, a sudden shift of weather delivered thunder and massive, chilly downpour, sending us running back to the visitor’s centre through the dark woods in appropriate desperation.

Dragons of the Rhine valley

Uggla finalThe German middle Rhine valley, from Bonn to Rüdesheim, is full of dark, romantic, Teutonic folklore, crude 19th century nationalism and lots of serious history. The setting is the mighty river, surrounded by craggy river banks with castle ruins and cold northern woods.

This is classic territory for the historian and the traveller alike. Caesar was here, fighting the German tribes and this is, more or less, where the Roman empire came to a halt. Then it was the heartland of Frankish and Holy Roman empires and later, to many, a sort of quintessential Germany and German culture, an image boosted by artist such as Richard Wagner and tainted first by chauvinist nationalism, later by Nazism.

And then there are dragons. The fearsome Fafner of the medieval Siegfried legend is said to have lived on the strange Drachenfels cliff by the river just outside Königswinter.

It is here, on this very rock, that the ultimate Germanic hero Siegfried slayed the beast, bathing in its blood. You get here on foot from Königswinter and a stiff walk uphill takes you to the ruins of Burg Drachenfels on the top and a remarkable view of the river valley.

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So, the middle Rhine valley is heavy stuff as historical travel goes. This is a landscape of thick historical legends, of imperial scale history and of the darkest days of the 20th century. The nationalistic lure of this landscape and it sights were thoroughly exploited by the Nazi state. Halfway up Drachenfels hill lies a neogothic castle that served as an “Adolf Hitler School” during the war, intended for bringing up new leadership in the Third Reich.

Even stranger than the Hitler school is the odd “Niebelungenhalle” just nearby. This is a temple to the greatness of Wagner, opened on the 100th anniversary of his birth, in 1913. It contains eerie artworks celebrating the master and, no less strange, a dragon’s cave with a crude plaster beast and an actual reptile zoo with miniatures of mighty Fafner.

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You can stay in Bonn to get to the Drachenfels area, or in Königswinter as I did. This is also a perfect base for trips up river.

In the woods to the north are the Siebengebirge area with wonderful forest treks. Wine cultivation, wine castles and wine drinking are major attractions all over the river area.

Myself I went up river to the peculiar Deutches Eck – the German Corner – a most dramatic spot where the Mosel river joins the Rhine at Koblenz. The rivers float together monumentally against a backdrop of high cliffs and at the precise spot of their unification is a triangular area, the eck itself, with restaurants and a pompous monument to another Germanic dragon, emperor Wilhelm I, father of the WWI Kaiser.

Tired of Teutonic lore, dragons and dramatic river settings I then retreated westwards, to Cologne and Aachen, to see some more history.

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