This article is part of the feature „Great guys. Wilhelm and Alexander von Humboldt

By Humboldt’s Feet

6 min read

I had read so much already about Humboldt-Universität and heard so much, before I ever set foot in the building. But I was surprised all the same when I first got there. This is a museum, I thought to myself, gazing at the statues standing guard in front of the main building, protecting the dreams of its students.

Hewn in stone, Wilhelm and Alexander von Humboldt sit outside the low wall in front of the building. Day in, day out, they watch young people walk into the university they founded. Because they are so close to the avenue of Unter den Linden, they can eavesdrop on the tourists walking along to the Brandenburg Gate. Many of them stop to take a selfie with one of the brothers. And some actually dare to walk in and take a look at the building that has gone through so much — dark times as well. During the rule of the National Socialists, while World War II was raging, and under the occupation of the Soviets, the humanist values and the ideals of teaching and research that were the university’s trademark receded deep into the shadows.

I go to the university often, sit down in the courtyard, take a look around at the statues and at the faces of the people, leaf through the second-hand books being sold on the sidewalk in front of the fence. And then I’ll think about Wilhelm, the great philosopher, and his brother Alexander, the explorer. Sometimes I have the feeling they’re talking to me. It’s a pity that I cannot understand what they are saying. They speak German and I haven’t learned to speak the language yet.

Once, I took up all my courage and sat down in an auditorium. One student after the other came in. Then the professor walked in, a nice man, not one of these super-serious professors we have in Damascus, the guys who think they’re God’s gift to the world. And he was friendly all during his entire lecture. I was afraid he might ask me who I was and what I was doing here — just as happened to me twenty years ago in Syria, when I had sneaked into the Art School and got caught by a professor. He threatened to call security and have me arrested. I swore that I was just a recent graduate from school, and that I had only wanted to see a university from inside. I pleaded with him and begged him to let me go my way, which eventually he did.

The first lecture I attended at Humboldt-Universität was wonderful. I have no idea what it was about. But I could tell from the eyes of the students and the smiling face of the professor who treated them like friends. One of the students asked me, “Do you have the book?” and I replied in English, “Sorry, I don’t understand.” And he told me, “Don’t worry, enjoy!”

Walking through Humboldt-Universität, you have the feeling of history filling every hallway of the building, and that the eyes of the luminaries of German literature, philosophy, and natural science are following you wherever you’re going — Goethe, Schiller, Heine, Turner, Jacobi, Fichte, Schleiermacher, Savigny — they are all there. And at the same time, the future is growing in the lecture halls, running through the fingers of the students holding their pens and busily taking notes.

Wilhelm and Alexander von Humboldt created a university from which thousands of people have graduated, among them 29 Nobel laureates. The philosopher-politician and his brother, the natural scientist, have created a landmark that gives orientation to future generations. Often, when I am sitting in front of the university, pursuing my quiet talks with Wilhelm and Alexander, I try to imagine what these two professors would do, were they our contemporaries, with all the means of communication and scientific tools we have today. They would certainly make a difference today as well. But on the other hand, you could also say that they are still alive and with us. By founding this university, they have opened the doors to science and research — which is a gateway to the entire world.

Photo by Abdol Rahman Omaren
Abdol Rahman Omaren

Abdol Rahman Omaren is a native of Syria and has worked for several Arab-language newspapers and magazines. He was an editor at the news website “ALAAN” domiciled in the United Arab Emirates. He is responsible for coordinating the Arab-language news platform at “Amal, Berlin!”