Gods stitched up

Max von Oppenheim in his tent during the Tell Halaf expedition, 1929

Baron Max von Oppenheim (1860-1946) was primarily a diplomat and a secret agent, a womanizer and a bonvivant, an Oriental traveler as well as an amateur archaeologist and ethnographer, and only then a photographer. Yet he has his place here among the photographers of the East, because the 13 thousand photos made by him and by the hired photographers accompanying him are a unique documentation of the Middle East between the turn of the century and the two world wars.

Developing the photos of the Tell Halaf expedition, 1911

Oppenheim, who was partly from a Jewish banking dynasty converted to Catholicism and partly from a Prussian Protestant patrician family, in 1886 traveled through Morocco where he was completely fascinated by the East. On his father’s request he returned to lay down his legal exams, but in 1892 he moved to Cairo. He learned fluent Arabic and developed a close relationship with the Bedouin tribes among which he lived for a long time and about whom he wrote the first important historical work. Kaiser Wilhelm II, who desperately needed diplomats with local knowledge to his Eastern plans, employed him at the German consulate in Cairo where he worked for 14 years.

Max von Oppenheim (second from left) at the German consulate in Cairo, 29 November 1906

Oppenheim, who recognized the importance of holy war, made great diplomatic efforts to persuade the Bedouin tribes to a jihad against the British and French invaders on the side of the Germans. For this purpose he published since 1914 an Arabic journal entitled El Jihad, but even before that he traveled through the Middle East to personally convince the nomadic chieftains. He traveled two thousand kilometers in ten years in Mesopotamia and Syria, in many places being the first European. His biggest adversary was another archaeologist, his personal acquaintance, the equally excellent Arabist Thomas Edward Lawrence who, known as Lawrence of Arabia, finally managed to gain the Arabs to the British side.

Max von Oppenheim, “El Baron” in the tent of Ibrahim Pasha, 1899

It was during his Mesopotamian journey, more specifically in 1899 in Viranşehir, in the tent of Ibrahim Pasha, head of the nomadic Kurdish troops in Ottoman service that he heard for the first time about the mysterious stones hiding under earth near to the Circassian village of Ras el-Ain. Local treasury searchers had tried to dig them out, but then the village was hit by cholera which they considered as the vengeance of the dead disturbed. So they did not continue  the excavation, and they even concealed the location from Oppenheim who visited the place shortly afterward.

The German archaeological interest in the Middle East was intensifying just around that time, after the journey of Kaiser Wilhelm II to the East in 1898. The first excavations in Babylon by the Deutsche Orient-Gesellschaft started in 1899 while Felix von Luschan opened up important Late Hittite and Aramaic sites in south-west Turkey. The purpose of state-funded excavations was on the one hand to highlight the German presence in the Middle East and on the other hand to fill with spectacular material the recently erected representative royal museums in Berlin.

Oppenheim managed to clear up only by 1911 that the stones are hidden under Tell Halaf. * He started to explore them with a well-equipped expedition, 1000 camels, 500 Bedouin workers, expert archaeologists, a doctor, cook and photographer as well as with twenty-one tons of expedition gear, wagons and eight hundred meters of rail track.

The excavations going on for three years had important results. Under Tell Halaf they found the Aramaic city of Guzana, * also mentioned in the Bible, which around 1000 B.C., during the decline of the surrounding great powers lived its heyday. They excavated the massive citadel of the city as well as many monumental sculptures: stone sphinxes, lions, idols and ruler portraits

The excavations were ended by the First World War. Oppenheim could return to the site only in 1927 when Syria was already a French mandate. In spite of his German citizenship he was able, as a true diplomat, to convince the French officials to allow him to transport the findings to Berlin. By that time only the stone sculptures remained on the site, the golden jewels disappeared. According to the knowledge of Matthias Schulz who resumed the story in the Spiegel, they somehow found their way to Istanbul where they are supposed to exist, but when the curators of the recently opened Tell Halaf exhibition wanted to borrow them, the Turkish officials gave only evasive answers. However, the statues weighing several tons were transported by rail to Aleppo from where they traveled by ship to Berlin. There another ordeal awaited them: the director of the royal collections would not let them into the museum out of jealousy. Therefore Oppenheim purchased a disused factory in Berlin’s Charlottenburg district where he opened the Tell Halaf museum.

“This is my beautiful Venus” said Oppenheim to Agatha Christie
whom he personally guided through the exhibition

After the introduction of the Nuremberg Laws in the middle of the 30s Oppenheim was officially considered “a half-breed of the first degree”, but his several political and financial connections always provided protection for him. What is more, in 1939, at the age of 78 he traveled for a last time to Syria, officially in order to carry out some final excavations in the site. The true purpose of the trip, however, is dubious as the costs were covered personally by Göring. Nevertheless, Oppenheim in a speech before Nazi leaders attributed the statues to the Aryan culture, so the collection was not nationalized, and it was even given public support.

Perhaps it would have been better were it nationalized, because then it would have been put in safety together with the other state collections at the beginning of the bomb raids. The building was hit by bombs in 1943, and the sculptures – as it was later counted – broke into 27,000 pieces. For almost sixty years they lied in the museum’s store as a scrap.

Ten years ago, in October 2001 the restoration of the sculptures, called by the Pergamon Museum “the ever largest restoration project” began. For ten years all day long the conservators were searching the pieces fitting together among the scrap laid out in the 600 square meters large room. The missing parts were replaced with plaster.

The 30 monumental stone sculptures restored this far can be seen on the exhibition of the Pergamon Museum since the end of this January until August. Then they probably go on a European tour. Until then, we will visit them if we can, so that we can give a first-hand report on them.

At the same time also the more than sixty photo albums of Oppenheimer are exhibited in the Museum für Fotographie in Berlin until 15 May. We also want to report on this exhibition. Until then, all the photos of every album can be seen in the Arachne image bank. Unfortunately for non-subscribers only in such small size as we have compiled the selection below.

3 comentarios:

walter dijo...

I'm now persuaded to buy McMeekin's recent book "The Berlin-Baghdad Express: The Ottoman Empire and Germany's Bid for World Power".

Studiolum dijo...

Yes, it is an extremely important book, the first comprehensive overview of the efforts of the German imperial power to rally the Muslims on its side under the flag of jihad, in which Oppenheim played a key role. Although with heavy (and often very sad) political and cultural consequences which are still with us, this thread of history has been largely forgotten since then, primarily due to its failure and to the end of the German colonial power right after the war – although for example the real importance of the achievement of Lawrence of Arabia can be also appreciated only in the knowledge of this movement. (The attempt, however, was repeated in WWII with the establishment of the Muslim Palestine and Turkestan SS-Legions.) I was just about to write on some moments of this movement to which I have archive photos, also quoting from McMeekin’s book.

Megkoronáz, AJP dijo...

What a tragedy that bombing was.