Thursday, October 16, 2008

The Amber Room

the original amber room

One of my reading groups chose The Amber Room by Steve Berry as this month's book. A thriller set in Germany, the Czech Republic, Russia, Belarus and Atlanta, it involves the typical "ordinary man/woman" who gets caught up in a complicated situation including threats to their lives by professional killers.

I feel that I should review it, but all I can say is that I've read better thrillers. I'm usually able to suspend disbelief while reading these types of novels, but not this time. Maybe because the main characters were a judge and a probate lawyer. I've never liked novels with lawyers as main characters because I always notice the things that would never happen in real life. And if you are already noticing those things it's hard to suspend disbelief in the rest of the story.

But I did like learning about the Amber Room - the object that the characters in the novel are searching for. The Amber Room really existed. It was a room in the Catherine Palace near St. Petersburg with walls paneled in carved amber, backed with gold leaf and mirrors. The photo above is one of the few extant photos of the original Amber Room.

The Catherine Palace was looted by the Nazis during World War II and the Amber Room was dismantled and shipped to Germany. Many of the panels had originated in Germany and had decorated the walls of a room in Charlottenburg Palace in Prussia until the early 1700's. Friederich Wilhem I presented the panels to Tsar Peter the Great of Russia, who had admired them. Peter himself did nothing with the panels, but his daughter Elizabeth installed them first at the Winter Palace and then later at the Catherine Palace, where she brought in craftsmen to add to and enlarge them due to the scale of the palace. By the time she finished, the room contained six tons of amber.

The Amber Room survived the Russian revolution and, like other tsarist palaces, the Catherine Palace became a museum. During the German invasion of World War II, the museum curators covered the panels with wallpaper in the hope the Nazis would overlook them. That didn't work.

German soldiers disassembled the entire room and transported it to Konigsberg. At the end of the war Konigsberg was heavily bombed by the allies. Some people believe the Amber Room was destroyed in the bombing. Others believe that the panels were moved, along with many other art treasures, before the bombing began. But whether it was destroyed or hidden, the Amber Room has never been seen again.

Treasure hunters continue to search for the Amber Room. In my googling I found a news story from February 2008 involving a search for the Amber Room.

In the meantime, helped by a large grant from a German company and utilizing the few black and white photos in existence, beginning in 1979 the Russians began to recreate the Amber Room at the Catherine Palace. In 2003 the recreated Amber Room was dedicated by Vladimir Putin and German Chancellor Gerhardt Schroeder as part of the 300 year anniversary of St. Petersburg .

Here is a portion of the recreated Amber Room:
The recreated amber room

To get more information you can either read the novel or check out the wikipedia.

(Original photo from alexanderpalace.org. New photo from amberjewelry.com)