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Xanten Travel Guide

Ruins of a Roman temple, Xanten
Ruins of a Roman temple, Xanten.

Introduction

Founded over 2000 years ago, Xanten (Castra Vetera, Colonia Ulpia Traiana or Tricensimae in Latin ; pop. 21,500) is one of the oldest cities in Germany, and the only that has a name starting with the letter "X".

According to the legend, Xanten was the birthplace of the Germanic mythological hero Siegfried, the dragon slayer in the Nibelungenlied.

History

The area was settled by various Celto-Germanic tribes since at least 2000 B.C.E. In 15 B.C.E., under Emperor Augustus, the Romans built a camp on top of a hill, which they named "Castra Vetera". It was the main base of the Classis germanica (Roman Navy for Germany), which occupied by 8,000 to 10,000 legionaries.

Castra Vetera was destroyed during the uprising of the Batavians in 70 C.E., and a a second camp was built on Bislicher Insel (i.e. an isle on the Rhine). "Castra Vetera II" became the base camp of Legio VI Victrix ("Victorious").

Statue of Emperor Trajan in Xanten (photo by Saperaud - Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license)

The security and the economic opportunities brought by the Roman camp resulted in the development of a settlement nearby. In 110, it had reached a population of 10,000 to 15,000 inhabitants (including many former legionaries), and was given the rights of a Colonia by the Emperor Marcus Ulpius Traianus, who renamed the city "Colonia Ulpia Traiana". It became the second most important commercial post in the province of Germania Inferior, only beaten by Colonia Agrippinensis (modern Cologne).

In 122, Vetera II became the camp of Legio XXX Ulpia Victrix, which substituted VI Victrix, moved to Britannia.

Germanic tribes (mainly the Franks) raided the area increasingly frequently from the 3rd century. They destroyed the colonia in 275. A new city, named "Tricensimae", was rebuilt, smaller but better fortified and more easy to defend. The Franks continued their incursions, eventually taking the city in the early 5th century and settling in the area.

The Christian Victor of Xanten is supposed to have been executed together with 360 further members of the Theban Legion in 363 near the today's town of Birten, as they refused to sacrifice to the Roman gods. Victor of Xanten was quickly made a martyr and saint by the Catholic Church.

In the second half of the 8th century, a church was built on the assumed burial place of Viktor in the old Roman cemetery, and called Sanctos super Rhenum ("Saint upon Rhine"). Also known as Ad Sanctum, the Franks called the place Santen, which eventually evolved into "Xanten". This first church is where St. Viktor Cathedral now stands.

The Victor Convent was founded soon after the church, and a new town soon grew around it. It was sacked by the Normans in 863. In 1096, the Jewish community was massacred by the knights of the First Crusade, on their way to the Holy Land.

In 1228, Xanten was granted city rights by the Archbishop of Cologne, Henry of Molenark. Another Archbishop of Cologne, Frederick of Hochstaden, ordered the construction of the cathedral in 1263, which would only be completed in 1544. By the end of the 13th century, Xanten was surrounded by a city wall.

In 1392, Xanten was divided in two parts, the north belonging to the Duke of Cleves, and the south belonging to the Archbishop of Cologne. The dispute between the two parties ended in 1444 when the whole city was surrendered to the Duchy of Cleves. A series of wars, crop failures and flooding from the Rhine caused the local population to halve between the early 1500's and the late 1700's.

Protestantism reached Xanten in 1572, and was placed on an equal footing with the Catholic church in 1614 by the new ruler, the Duke of Brandenburg. However, being one of the oldest Catholic pilgrimage site in Germany, Xanten remained predominantly loyal to Rome.

The 19th century saw the start of a new era. Napoleon secularised the convent into a library and closed the monasteries. The Marstor ("Mars Gate") was torn down in 1821, and the Scharntor and parts of the city walls were removed in 1825. The ruins of the Colonia Ulpia Traiana, which had been used as a quarry since the Roman settlement was given up, aroused the interest of archaeologists, and excavations were carried out between 1819 and 1844.

In the last decade of the 19th century, the town experienced a rise in anti-Semitism, which would culminate with the Nazi rule of Germany between 1933 and 1945.

Ruins of the Roman amphitheatre, Xanten (photo by Andy1982 - Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license)
Ruins of the Roman amphitheatre, Xanten.
The reconstructed Burginatiumtor (Burginatiumgate) in the archaeological park in Xanten (photo by Andy1982 - Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license)
The reconstructed Burginatium Gate, Xanten.

Attractions

The two main reasons to visit Xanten are the ruins of the Roman city and St. Victor's Cathedral.

St. Victor's Cathedral (St. Viktor Dom in German) is the biggest cathedral between Cologne and the North Sea. It was built between 1263 and 1544 in the flamboyant Gothic style. The richly decorated interior is a witness of Xanten's medieval wealth. There are as many as 15 altars. In 1937, Pope Pius XI elevated it to the rank of "minor basilica". The Regional Museum, which is in fact an archeological and historical museum, is just outside the cathedral.

The ruins of Colonia Ulpia Traiana are among the few in northern Europe never to have been rebuilt upon (like Bavay at the Belgo-French border). Visitors can see the remains of the 12,000 people amphitheatre, the bath house, a temple, as well as some reconstructed buildings and fortifications. The ruins are located in the so-called Archeological Park (Archäologischer Park in German).

Access & Orientation

Xanten is located on the left bank of the Rhine River, 65km north of Düsseldorf, 50km north of Duisburg, and 50 south-east of Nijmegen, in the Netherlands. Xanten is on the road No 57, which follows the Rhine, parallel to the E31 (Cologne-Düsseldorf-Nijmegen) and E35 (Cologne-Düsseldorf-Arnhem) motorways.

There are hourly trains from Duisburg (45min). Coming from anywhere else, you will need to go to Duisburg first. Alternatively, Bus No 44 also makes the journey from Cleves (Kleve).

Also note that Xanten is only 30km away from the small Düsseldorf-Weeze Airport, served by RyanAir, with a dozen destinations, such as London Stansted, Glasgow, Stockholm, Venice, Rome or Barcelona. There are airport shuttles to Duisburg and Cleves, among others.

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