Thursday, January 27, 2011

The Eighth Wonder of the World

The Amber Room (Янтарная Комната, reads Yantarnaya Кomnata) in the Catherine Palace of Tsarskoye Selo (Czar's Village) near St. Petersburg was a gift from the Prussian king Friedrich Wilhelm I to his then ally, Peter the Great, in a gesture of celebrating peace between Russia and Prussia. The room was often referred to as the Eighth Wonder of the World due to its rare beauty, but its fate proved to be anything but peaceful.

The room was designed by German baroque sculptor Andreas Schlüter and constructed by the Danish amber craftsman Gottfried Wolfram at Charlottenburg Palace in Prussia. Transported to Russia in 18 large boxes, it was originally assembled in the Winter House in St. Petersburg, but later Czarina Elizabeth ordered it to be moved to the Catherine Palace in Pushkino a.k.a. Tsarskoye Selo. The new space was bigger and so more amber was shipped from Berlin. After Bartolomeo Francesco Rastrelli, an Italian architect, who also built many palaces in and around St. Petersburg, redesigned the room, it occupied over 55 square meters (approx. 180 square feet) of wall space, glowed with six tons of gold, amber and other precious stones, and was worth 142 million dollars in today’s money. Czarina Elizabeth used it as her private meditation hall. After the revolution, the room became a part of the museum, well preserved and diligently cared for by the Russian historians and curators.

When Hitler invaded Russia, returning the Amber Room where it belonged was very much a part of his "Operation Barbarossa.” The Russian officials tried to dismantle and evacuate the treasure. Unfortunately due to the amorphous nature of amber, which is a soft stone that grows hard and brittle with age, they couldn’t strip down the ornaments: the amber started crumbling. To preserve the artifact somehow, the keepers covered the room with dull wallpaper, but their efforts proved to be futile. When the Nazi the forces entered Pushkino, the room was discovered and taken apart with typical German efficiency - in 36 hours. The treasure was sent to Königsberg (nowadays Kaliningrad) and re-assembled in a local museum.

The true mystery of the Amber Room begins in 1945 when it was supposedly dismantled again and packed for evacuation because Königsberg was being severely bombed by the coalition forces. Several witnesses claimed that crates made it to the railway station, but no one knows what happened to the illustrious chamber afterwards. Many different hypotheses have been entertained and many individuals tried and even claimed they had found it, but no one ever did. The Soviet Union had sponsored several search missions, none of which managed to solve the mystery. In 1998, a German team announced it found the Amber Room buried in a lagoon. Later, a Lithuanian group declared it found the chamber in a silver mine. Neither turned out to be true. Interestingly enough, bits and pieces of the treasure keep washing out into the world like amber from the sea. An Italian stone mosaic, which proved to be part of the room, turned up in western Germany in 1997 - in the possession of the family of a soldier who belonged to the deconstructing team in 1941. Some gold remnants were also found in a small town near the German-Czech border.

Experts say it is unlikely that the room was entirely destroyed by bombing because no burnt amber was found around the Königsberg's museum. Another theory was that the treasure was put aboard Wilhelm Gustloff, the German flagship that sank shortly after it sailed from Gotenhafen, struck by three Russian torpedoes. A radical idea that the Soviets destroyed the artifact themselves was met with great indignation from Russian historians, who had embarked on the room restoration mission in 1979. Originally, the restoration team counted only three amber carvers with the appropriate skill level, but eventually it grew. The project took over 20 years and was finally completed in 2003, largely due to the fact that Germany donated $3.5 million dollars to the effort. The new room was opened on the 300-year anniversary of the city of Saint Petersburg by the joint endorsement of the Russian President Vladimir Putin and the German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder. And thus, the room’s turbulent fate was finally at peace.

Except some people are still searching for the world’s largest lost treasure: a recent claim by the Amber Room Organization states that the room was transported to the county of Saalfeld and hidden in an old underground cave. The group is seeking a production company to make a movie about their discovery.

1 comment:

  1. Lina, this is really a fascinating mystery. How can something so large and precious go missing for so long? There is definitely a story here that begs to be told!