Hellenistic Structures > Pergamon Altar

Pergamon Altar


The Pergamon Altar, also known as the Altar of Zeus, is one of the most magnificent and well-preserved examples of Hellenistic art and architecture. It was constructed in the ancient city of Pergamon (modern-day Bergama in Turkey) during the reign of King Eumenes II in the first half of the 2nd century BCE. Here’s a detailed overview of the Pergamon Altar:

Historical Context

  1. Pergamon:

    • Pergamon was a major ancient Greek city in Aeolis, located in Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey).
    • The city became an important cultural, political, and economic center during the Hellenistic period, particularly under the Attalid dynasty.
  2. Eumenes II:

    • Eumenes II (reigned 197–159 BCE) was a ruler of Pergamon who expanded the kingdom and turned the city into a flourishing cultural hub.
    • He commissioned the construction of the Pergamon Altar to celebrate his victories and the prosperity of his reign.

Architectural Features

  1. Design and Structure:

    • The Pergamon Altar was designed in the Ionic order and stood on a high podium, accessed by a grand staircase.
    • The structure is notable for its U-shaped colonnaded platform.
  2. Frieze:

    • The most famous feature of the altar is the extensive high-relief frieze that runs along its base, depicting the Gigantomachy, the mythical battle between the gods (Olympians) and the giants (Titans).
    • The frieze measures around 113 meters (371 feet) in length and 2.3 meters (7.5 feet) in height, showcasing a dramatic and dynamic portrayal of the mythological struggle.
  3. Interior Frieze:

    • There is also an interior frieze, located in the inner courtyard, which depicts scenes from the life of Telephus, the legendary founder of Pergamon and son of Heracles.

Artistic Significance

  1. Hellenistic Art:

    • The Pergamon Altar is considered one of the masterpieces of Hellenistic art, known for its intricate and expressive style.
    • The sculptures exhibit a high level of emotional intensity, movement, and detailed anatomical accuracy.
  2. Symbolism:

    • The Gigantomachy frieze symbolizes the triumph of order over chaos and civilization over barbarism, reflecting the Attalid dynasty’s self-image as protectors and promoters of Hellenic culture.
  3. Innovations:

    • The sculptors employed advanced techniques to create depth and perspective, making the figures appear almost three-dimensional.

Historical Significance

  1. Cultural Legacy:

    • The altar represents the cultural and artistic achievements of the Hellenistic period and the influence of Greek art and mythology.
    • It underscores the political and religious significance of Pergamon as a major center of Hellenistic culture.
  2. Discovery and Excavation:

    • The ruins of the Pergamon Altar were discovered in the 19th century by German engineer Carl Humann.
    • Excavations were conducted, and the fragments of the altar were transported to Berlin, where they were reassembled and displayed in the Pergamon Museum.
  3. Current Status:

    • The Pergamon Altar remains in the Pergamon Museum in Berlin, one of the museum’s most iconic exhibits.
    • It continues to attract scholars, historians, and tourists, contributing to the study and appreciation of Hellenistic art and architecture.

Controversies and Cultural Heritage

  1. Repatriation Debates:

    • The relocation of the altar to Berlin has sparked debates about cultural heritage and the repatriation of artifacts.
    • Turkey has expressed interest in the return of the Pergamon Altar to its original location, highlighting broader issues of cultural property and historical justice.
  2. Preservation:

    • Efforts are ongoing to preserve and study the altar, ensuring that its artistic and historical value is maintained for future generations.


The Pergamon Altar stands as a monumental achievement of Hellenistic art and architecture, reflecting the cultural, political, and religious landscape of ancient Pergamon. Its dramatic friezes and innovative design continue to captivate and inspire, making it an enduring symbol of the artistic legacy of the ancient world.


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