Xanten – Small but mighty
Every town has its own special, unique character – created and shaped by its history. Xanten, too, can tell much of its own history, with parallels to much larger cities like Berlin, Cologne and Trier.
X marks the spot
Everyone wants to go to Xanten; this was already the case in Roman times . Shortly before the Christian era the Romans constructed a great military camp, “Vetera”, here, while en route to the right bank of Germania. Thus, the first permanent settlement was created. From then onward everyone wanted to settle here, especially the Roman opponents. Despite the total destruction of their systems the Romans began anew, and thus the Roman town, “Colonia Ulpia Traiana” originated around 100 AD. It was then the third largest Roman city north of the Alps after the Roman precursors of Cologne and Trier.
Sadly, however, this Roman city and the subsequent Roman fortress couldn’t defend themselves from the Franks (Germanic tribes) in the long term, so the Roman history of Xanten ends in the fifth century AD.
The Franks remained here. They didn’t settle within the Roman city remains, but distributed themselves throughout the areas covered by Roman tombs. Early in the Middle Ages, the Christians suspected that the bones of saints such as “Viktor of Xanten” were in interred here, and they created in what is today’s city centre a Christian church and religious cloister. It was only after its establishment that a permanent settlement was created around the cloister.
The settlement around the Saints
Monks of the local cloister worshipped several saints, so this small settlement “to the saints” (in the Lower Rhine dialect “de Santes”) became the present-day town’s name of ‘Xanten’.
This settlement was the target of many new military conflicts; even Vikings stumbled upon the town during their raids throughout the Rhineland. Not even the medieval fortifications of the city could deflect the wars from Xanten. Feudal politics eventually ended up in a temporary division of the city into two halves, including the construction of a wall. As with recent examples of city division, the only remaining example today is the ‘Mitteltor’.
“Mir losse de Dom in …”
The Church in Xanten could not entirely escape the secular events in the city and was often a pawn in medieval feuds. Nevertheless, from 1263 onward the largely independent cloister was able to convert its old collegiate church into the present-day, largely gothic cathedral “St. Viktor. Construction took 281 years. Xanten Cathedral is considered the largest cathedral between Cologne and the sea.
There are a few old stones lying around here – can they be removed?
During the French Revolution Xanten was occupied by France, but it was awarded to Prussia after the Vienna Congress of 1814. It was around this time that archaeological interest arose in the last remnants of the Roman colony that had been abandoned almost 1,500 years earlier. Unfortunately however, most of the remains were cleared and plowed in the following years in order to create farmland.
The town of Xanten was finally destroyed by more than 85% during WWII. After the war the city was rebuilt, and after a tight decision the cathedral was largely restored to its original former glory, enabling Xanten to retain its medieval charm.
During the early 70s archaeologists finally made an exceptional discovery: the foundations of the former Roman settlement are situated thanks to Xanten’s history not under today’s “modern” city, but just below ground on a largely undeveloped field.
In order to make this experience accessible to the general public the Archaeological Park Xanten (APX) was opened in 1977, with parts of the Roman city reconstructed on the original foundations. A few years ago the park was developed further, and it now includes almost the entire area of the former Roman city.
And what else is there …
For tourists Xanten is now a city of short distances. The city centre with its sights and monuments is just a short walk from the Archeological Park.
Thanks to the Middle Ages, Xanten is also known as the original home of the hero Siegfried of the Nibelungenlied, with the municipal museum bearing his name. The LVR Roman Museum at the APX invites the visitor to linger.
The dried riverbed of the old Rhine which had been used as a port by the Roman colony, was used in the second half of the last century for gravel extraction. The resulting two gravel pits have now been transformed into recreation areas. In addition to numerous private boats; a tour boat sails on the so-called “Xanten North Sea” or “Xanten South Sea”, which are connected by a canal. For sports enthusiasts, the “leisure centre Xanten” offers water-skiing and a high ropes course.