Look on my works, ye Mighty. . .

Yesterday, braving the cold rain, my friend GB and I took something of a history tour by walking the length of one monumental street and drinking coffee in one famous café. This kind of historical detritus is rather easy to find in Berlin: the reminders of the Nazi era, the destruction rained on the city at the end of World War II, the slavish architecture of the emergent Soviet satellite, the wall and the decay of the eastern zone, the collapse of the wall, the resurgence of East Berlin as a place of illuminating new architecture, the re-emergence of Berlin and Germany itself as unified entities. It’s everywhere to be seen, sometimes all in the same street.

After the Soviet occupation, the street became Stalin Allee, a name that would not have been uttered politely a few years earlier. Then, when it came to pass that honoring him was no longer appropriate, the street became, interestingly, Karl Marx Allee. This broad thoroughfare, a Champs Elysees with Soviet Socialist Realist overtones, runs the length of three subway stops. Traffic zips past in three or four lanes in either direction; a grassy boulevard separates the roadways. Broad sidewalks lined by trees absorb some of the sound and aroma of the street, shielding the massive apartments built according to the Eighteen Principles of Soviet Urban Planning. The buildings were meant to laud (and house) the workers of the new Germany, but as it turned out the flats were so large, so commodious, so filled with the best new devices for modern living (like elevators) that the general run of workers were fast replaced by those of a somewhat higher political relevance. As monolithic, domineering, and irresistible as these apartment blocks appear, other architectural schools proposed competing plans for the street. Indeed, near the end at Frankfurter Tor stands a much lower, stucco-faced, pink-painted, undecorated, decidedly unmassive block of flats. This design reflected the architects’ desire to better unify urban and rural life, to suit the real lives of real workers. They are, by comparison, an affront to the glorious hyper-architecture available just across the street. Why they weren’t summarily torn down I can’t say. Perhaps they were permitted to demonstrate the superiority of the nearby Soviet style. This building, its façade penetrated by recessed balconies, was derided as the American Egg Box. The Cold War: It’s Everywhere! It’s Everywhere! (And it’s true: this apartment would look entirely at home next door to a strip mall in that crummy zone between an American city and its backyarded suburbs.)

GB and I drank coffee at the Sybille Café. It has barely changed, GB says, from its heyday in the 1960s DDR—a bare floor, simple tables, simple chairs, a simple counter, and simple desserts in an unrefrigerated glass cabinet that rattles when trucks drive by. But the circumference of the room displays the avenue’s history: photos of the rubble left by the Allied bombs; photos of the happy-faced women who removed 2 million pounds (or was it tons?) of rubble, saving bricks to rebuild the city; furniture from the new flats; a stove; poems praising Stalin and Osip Mandelstam’s poem of bitter scorn. Every worker smiles, on the verge of hysterical laughter. The women, toting hods of bricks, helping each other over piles of war’s chaos, are all East Germany’s answer to Rosie the Riveter. Rosie had to show her determined visage and her powerful right arm to describe the new America. In the DDR, the smiles tell all.

Here at the Sybille GB and her friends gathered after daring to enter East Berlin where they could buy books cheaply at the Karl Marx Bookstore, the enormous emporium that now houses a film production company.

Buying books for college, braving the check points, learning not to leave a scrap of paper in your wallet that might be open to question (What is this telephone number? Who are you calling? Why are you bringing this number into the Eastern zone?) all return to GB’s voice with something of a shudder. The Sybille has survived to document the past she lived in though that world itself did not survive. Still, the monumental street is no Potemkin village. It’s all been repurposed for the survivors even it GB can’t afford to live here.

Maybe this is the moment to look at the gallery of photographs below. Imagine standing with your tour guide at the top of monumental theatre, surveying a wide, fertile valley that extends, unimpeded, to the mountain range some sixteen miles distant. “There,” your guide says, pointing at this grassland, “is the pier. All the ships arriving in Miletus docked there. And there,” he shifts his gaze a bit to the right, “is the customs house where taxes were collected and bribes were accepted.” A half-turn to the right: “Next is the agora where the imported goods went directly to market. You’ll note that the agora is sizable, proving the importance of Miletus as a port. After all, here is where the great River Meander flowed into the sea.” Another turn: “The Roman baths. Monumental in size, room for hundreds if not thousands of bathers. And finally, after completing the day’s work in the city, after a voyage from Crete or Cyprus or Antioch or Alexandria, we go to the theatre to see the latest from Athens or Rome—depending on your century, of course.”

Much here must be supplied by imagination. The pier, if that heap of rubble is in fact the remains of a dock, stands in the middle of a vast field. The Meander is nowhere to be seen, having silted up its delta almost 600 or 700 years ago. The Mediterranean itself has accepted the Meander’s demise and moved its shoreline six miles away. Similarly, the customs house receives no goods, bears nothing of the salt smell of its former self, delivers nothing to the emptiness of the vast agora. It hardly matters, then, that the baths are empty or that the theatre is so well preserved that a play could go on tonight with seats for all comers.

It’s telling, somehow, that Thales came from Miletus. Almost two thousand years before the water abandoned Miletus, Thales was the first philosopher/scientist to explain natural phenomena without the intercession of the gods and their stories. The origin of Nature, he argued, was one material substance: water. Its absence here seems to confirm his point.

In the 11th century BCE, the Greeks settled the Ionian coast once the Hittites were dispatched. Five hundred years later, Thales and his student Anaximander held court here. Another thousand years later, the architect of the Hagia Sofia was born here.

Twice, Miletus was crushed by the Persians. So precious was Miletus to the Greek mind that when an Athenian poet produced a play called ‘The Capture of Miletus,’ he was fined for reminding Athens of that disaster.

By the early 5th century BCE, the Persians had been sent packing and Miletus, like so much of the Turkish coast saw the flourishing of Greek, then Roman, then Byzantine empires. By the 15th century CE, the Meander’s curse had fallen on the city.

Which brings us to the last few photographs. The great entrance gate that ushered goods from the customs house to the agora stands now in the room next to the Zeus Altar in the Pergamon Museum here in Berlin. Its height and width make it the single largest artifact ever placed in a museum. But the gate seems a kind of afterthought considering that the famous Zeus altar has been reconstructed next door and that the monumental Ishtar Gate of Babylon is in the very next room.

The Miletus gate introduces a new category to my private list of cultural artifacts that could be or should be repatriated. It is a giant, a feeble, very frail giant. In the Pergamon Museum, it is supported by a wall against which it lists helplessly. In the open air of Miletus, it would topple instantly. [Some might add here that the gate’s frailty was not helped at all by the Allied bombings of 1945.] The gate is not like the Elgin marbles that could be handsomely displayed in the new Acropolis Museum. It is unlike the domestic artifacts in the Ephesus Museum in Vienna, all of which would wonderfully adorn the terrace houses in their native city. It must remain where it is until, one day, it collapses of its own weight.

Looking at the gate, having stood atop the theatre and scanned the empty horizon for signs of a great city, looking again at the gate, I hear Ozymandias, sneering with the pride of power over his monumental accomplishments. His empire deferred to the sand; the Meander put paid to monumental Miletus after 2500 years; the Stalin Allee swept away the Reich that lasted little more than a decade; and the Karl Marx Allee now subsists somewhere between ironic gesture and self-parody.

I wouldn’t be a monument for all the world.

2 thoughts on “Look on my works, ye Mighty. . .

  1. Quite a meander from the East German coffee shop to the shores of Miletus! Monumentally-speaking, the Germans had an eye for the grandiose in their archaeological piracies and borrowings from ancient cultures. Many a Romantic-age baron’s back yard sported a real or carefully reconstructed “ruin,” hauled back, Fritz Corraldo-style, from an ancient dig site. The “lost” parts and frailty of the remains gave them something over which to weep and offered a dramatic setting for suicides.

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