Slave Girls and Pickled Heads The Spectacular Life and Finds of Max von Oppenheim

A new exhibition in Berlin's Pergamon Museum displays 3,000-year-old finds from Syria that fell victim to bombing in World War II and were painstakingly reassembled over almost a decade. But just as interesting is the checkered life story of Max von Oppenheim, the aristocratic German archaeologist who discovered them.

Max Freiherr von Oppenheim-Stiftung, Köln


The Irish writer Samuel Beckett and Iraqi King Faisal I had traveled to Berlin to marvel at the latest sensation in the German capital. In July 1930, Max von Oppenheim -- diplomat, secret agent and frequent traveler to the Orient -- had established a private museum in Berlin's Charlottenburg district.

Griffins weighing several tons, sphinxes made of basalt and strange "scorpion bird men" were on display at Oppenheim's new museum. The mythical creatures were from a buried fortress on the edge of the Syrian desert dating back almost 3,000 years. The Bible refers to the mysterious site as "Gozan," though it is better known as "Guzana."

After discovering the giant stone figures, Oppenheim had them transported to Aleppo in 13 rail cars. There, the unparalleled hoard of cultural assets was loaded onto trucks and ships bound for Germany.

In the presence of crime novelist Agatha Christie, Oppenheim referred to the most striking of the finds, a female tomb figure with twisted locks of hair hanging in front of her ears and a pointy nose, as "my Venus."

But then World War II broke out. In 1943, Allied phosphorus bombs rained down on the statues from the Middle East, setting off a 900-degree Celsius (1,650 degrees Fahrenheit) inferno. As the fire was being extinguished, the sculptures shattered, leaving behind 27,000 pieces of basalt, some no bigger than a human thumb, which spent the Cold War stored in a basement.

A Nine-Year Puzzle

The fragments were thought to be beyond restoration. But now the monuments have been resurrected. On Friday, Berlin's Pergamon Museum is opening a new exhibit ("The Tell Halaf Adventure") resulting from what it calls "one of the largest restoration projects ever."

In October 2001, a team of four conservators started reassembling the puzzle-like pieces. In the first step, they spread the fragments out across a 600-square-meter (6,500-square-foot) area in two large buildings. Over the next nine years, the conservators performed the painstaking and nerve-wracking work of constantly searching for pieces that fit together.

Roughly 30 sculptures have now been reconstructed. The idols, some of which consist of at least 1,000 fragments, are full of cracks and seams. Any gaps are now filled with plaster.

Once reassembled, the bulky monuments were attached to steel chains and lowered by crane through the ceiling windows of the Pergamon Museum. Taken together, they weigh roughly 30 metric tons (66,000 pounds).

The Louvre and the British Museum have also expressed interest in displaying the artifacts. But, as curator Lutz Martin explains, his colleagues there will first have to determine "whether their floors can support such heavy objects."

The Exotic Life of a Scholar, Diplomat and Bon Vivant

Without a doubt, this is a monumental exhibit. But the attraction lies not only in the figures themselves, but also in the man who discovered them.

Like Heinrich Schliemann, the German who discovered ancient Troy, Max von Oppenheim (1860-1946) was a self-taught archeologist. As the scion of the Jewish banking dynasty Salomon Oppenheim (his mother was from a patrician family in Cologne), Oppenheim grew up in the ostentatious world of the Belle Epoque. Indeed, his parents' estate near Bonn resembled an enchanted castle.

Max showed little interest in the law, the profession his father had chosen for him. Instead, he was drawn to the Orient.

In 1886, he traveled through Morocco, where conditions were practically medieval at the time. Wearing a disguise, he entered a mosque in Fez, despite the threat of being put to death if discovered. Later, he bought a Berber girl at a slave auction and was served the pickled heads of the local clan's enemies in a remote village.

His subsequent journeys took him as far as Iraq. In 1896, Oppenheim moved to Cairo, where he lived in a villa surrounded by palm trees, together with his gardener, Soliman, six servants and a French chef.

Oppenheim, who spoke fluent Arabic by now, stayed in tents with sheiks and, wearing turbans and robes, chatted with Druze princes.

Hired by the Kaiser

Given his colonial ambitions, Kaiser Wilhelm II needed people like Oppenheim, so he hired him to work at the German consulate in Egypt.

In addition to performing his diplomatic duties, the colorful banker's son collected 42,000 books and studied the customs of the Orient. His groundbreaking work on the history of the Bedouins was just recently rediscovered in Saudi Arabia.

Drawing on his father's deep pockets, the scholar hosted lavish "dancing festivals" in Cairo, where he received British ambassadors, Polish princesses and the American hotel tycoon John Jacob Astor (who later drowned when the Titanic sank). When Agatha Christie toured the Orient, it was still filled with legends of the fabulous wealth of "El Baron."

Another thing that contributed to Oppenheim's glamorous reputation was his many love affairs. Instead of marrying, he pursued the Islamic custom of taking "temporary wives," and he had a well-earned reputation for flirting and short-lived affairs.

In a Cairo bazaar in 1908, he had the audacity to approach a married Arab woman. As he described her in his memoirs, she was "very pretty, very young" and made her way to the steam baths with a "swinging, elastic gait," hidden behind a veil and guarded by a muscular eunuch. The affair ended in catastrophe when her husband discovered the affair and killed her.

Not surprisingly, Oppenheim had his share of enemies. A British diplomat once described him as "egoistic" and "chattering."


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BTraven 01/31/2011
It's remarkable that scientists managed to put the stones together. I can't help but think that it must have been a boring job for which you need a lot of enthusiasm. It's like the jigsaw puzzles Falcon is famous for – you do not know how they look because the picture on the case is different from the one of the jigsaw. The documentary already broadcast by ARTE is as interesting as the article. Unfortunately, it can't be watched on the net anymore.
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