blending an assortment of thoughts and experiences for my friends, relations and kindred spirit

blending an assortment of thoughts and experiences for my friends, relations and kindred spirit
By Alison Hobbs, blending a mixture of thoughts and experiences for friends, relations and kindred spirits.

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Aachen and the Emperor

Head of Karl in the Schatzkammer

1200 years ago a man died in Aachen, a charismatic leader who'd had visions of a European Union; he was Karolus Magnus, the Christian king and emperor otherwise known as Karl der Große, Charles the First, or Charlemagne. Since Aachen (Aix-la-Chapelle to francophones) is in Germany, the German papers are full of this anniversary; while I was in Köln Die Welt and Die Welt Kompakt (the tabloid version) published a four-page spread about it.

Because it was less than an hour away on the train, I decided to go and see Aachen for myself. This is another spa town, by the way, people coming here for the sake of the mineral water as long as 5000 years ago.

Outside Aachen station in the modern part of town

The theatre / opera house at Aachen
It was a 20 minute walk from the station to the old part of the city near the cathedral, down Bahnhofstraße and then left onto Theaterstraße. After you've passed the theatre (I had some tasty fish soup and a coffee at a window table in the Opera-Restaurant), there are signposts. The Elisenbrunnen park lies between the modern part of the city and the medieval part; the Jewish community had organised a display about Israel on the day I was there, outside the tourist information centre. The park and old town was populated with tourists and students. There appear to be good schools there. I walked past Kaiser Karls Gymnasium (not where the Emperor went to school!) and saw the boys from the Singschule running around in the cathedral cloisters that are not accessible to the public. For older students, Aachen has the largest technical university in Germany, of excellent reputation––the Rheinisch-Westfaelische Technische Hochschule (RWTH). 

The cathedral, of course, is the nucleus of the town. It's here that the ancient scraps of material are kept which Charlemagne brought home from Jerusalem. Apparently, they are the cloak of the Blessed Virgin (das Marienkleid), the swaddling-clothes (die Windeln) of the Infant Jesus, the loin-cloth (das Lendentuch) worn by Christ on the cross, and the cloth that wrapped the head of St. John the Baptist (das Enthauptungstuch) after it was cut off.  Since the mid-14th century, these holy relics have been shown to pilgrims only once every seven years, a custom which continues today; it's happening this year. They are kept in a golden shrine. The massive Byzantine cathedral was built for the purpose of housing them. It was meant to rival the Hagia Sophia in Constantinople and be the heart of an empire, of a second Rome.

Reliquary of Karl's arm bone
In the cathedral's Treasury (Domschatzkammer) are further gold encased relics, among them Karl's arm bones and leg bones. Part of the casing is cut away so you can see the actual bones. I found them gruesome. The painting of the crucifixion shown there was done by an anonymous genius. Bible covers and crucifixes set with precious stones were also on display, as was the emperor's carved marble sarcophogus.

Painting by the unknown Meister des Aachener Altars (click to enlarge)

Charlemagne ruled over an empire that stretched from the Baltic to northern Spain. The lingua franca was Latin, which he spoke fluently though for most of his life; he could follow Greek too, though he could hardly read or write. Nonetheless he saw the importance of learning and founded a library of some 10,000 precious manuscripts including the writings of Cicero, Horace and Ovid, as well as schools which taught seven disciplines: grammar, rhetoric, dialectics, arithmetic, geometry, music and astronomy. He had his daughters educated as well as his sons but forbad them to marry for fear of trouble from sons-in-law.

Rathausplatz, Aachen
I wandered around the cobbled streets near the cathedral and Rathausplatz, absorbing the atmosphere. I've mentioned before in this blog how relaxing it is to be in a pedestrian zone where the only noticeable noise is people's voices. Some tourists were learning to use Segways for transportation. In doorways and on balconies I saw colourful Maibäume––cut birch trees decorated with ribbons to celebrate the spring.

Maibaum in old Aachen

No comments: