Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Trier from Old to Ancient

Last weekend Susie, David, Kaye and I visited Trier, Germany (Trèves, in French). The history of this fascinating city links the Celts, the Roman Empire, the Holy Roman Empire, the French Revolution, Karl Marx, and modern Germany. Trier is now fairly small, but at the height of the Roman Empire it was the most important city in Northern Europe, and it has conserved several remarkable structures of its era of glory.

The drive from Metz to Trier largely follows the route of the Moselle River as it flows between the two cities. Barges laden with coal and scrap metal ply the river; the stern of the barge typically serves as parking place for the captain's car. The river's valley is deep and its slopes can be steep. As the river nears Germany, the slopes grow covered with vineyards as far as the eye can see. On the left bank, you're in Luxembourg, with French-language signs. On the right bank, you're in Germany, with German-language signs. Novel road signs, which we only later deciphered, indicate weight limits for NATO tanks.

Reaching Trier, the countryside gives way to cityscape. Many buildings are new, in large part becuase Trier suffered much damage in World War II. The old center of Trier is colorful, almost kitschy. Here's the High Market Square, quiet on a Sunday but showing its fanciful facades.

Likewise, Trier's half-timbered houses are more colorful, more purposefully decorated than their relatively austere cousins in Strasbourg and Metz.

Kaye and David guided our explorations. In addition to following the most picturesque streets, we saw the cathedral (parts of which were built in the Roman era), the Roman basilica, the Roman baths, a major Roman gate, the Palace of the Electors, and the Rheinisches Landesmuseum, the city's museum of archeology.

Trier's cathedral, major parts of which were constructed in the 4th Century, abuts a later Gothic church, the Liebfrauenkirche, of the 13th Century. The Gothic parish church is being renovated, so we didn't get to see its interior.

The interior of the cathedral, belying its outward appearance of a romanesque fort, turned out to be vast, spectacular, and, in places, wholly baroque.

Among the oldest parts of the cathedral is its front, whose completely baroque half-dome sits above intricately inlaid walls. Some of the pillars retained traces of early painting, which suggests that the overall appearance of the cathedral was at some time much more ornate.

Between the cathedral and the parish church lies a beautiful cloister. On the cloister's walls hang architectural diagrams showing stages of development of the cathedral.

A large basilica, from the early 4th Century, is stunningly well-preserved. Made of flat Roman bricks, this building served as the throne room for Constantine the Great, who ruled the Empire from Trier, one of the residences of the emperor of the Western Roman Empire. Trier was also the administrative capital of the western part of the Western Roman Empire, which stretched from Morocco to Britain. Looking at the basilica, which now serves as a Protestant church, it's hard to fully appreciate that it was built 1,700 years ago.

Modern visitors to Trier do not get a full view of the basilica's facade because a palace for the electors of Trier was built abutting the front of the basilica. The Elector's Palace, built in the early 17th Century, reflects the height of the baroque period in its elaborate decorations on a neoclassical background.

The history of Trier has been shaped by historical forces across millenia. The Roman city was overrun by Germanic tribes. The Frankish city was part of the Holy Roman Empire. After repeated attempted invasions by France, Trier became French in the immediate fervor following the French Revolution; indeed, Trier was the capital of a French department. By 1815, a Prussian invasion recaptured the city. In 1871 it became part of the German Empire. Conversely, Trier has also shaped history, not just in Roman times but in modern times as well. Notably, Trier was the birthplace of Karl Marx; the house in which he was born in 1818 is now a museum.

At the height of its history as a Roman capital in the 4th Century, Trier had a population of 80,000--a figure that the city would not match again until well into the 20th Century. In addition to the cathedral and the basilica, Trier has a number of other Roman buildings and ruins worthy of its imperial status. While the circus (i.e., a horse-racing stadium) was lost to subsequent development, the amphitheater, an important gate, and the imperial baths remain more or less standing.

The Porta Nigra, the oldest defense structure in Germany, is the only remaining gate of the original four. Built in 180 from stone blocks without mortar, the gate stands 18 feet long, 70.5 feet wide and 90 feet high. Today the gate marks the north end of the old city center.

The imperial baths, built in the late 3rd and early 4th Centuries, were never completed, but even so this enormous complex was one of the largest baths in the entire Roman Empire. Much of the structure, including tunnels, remains standing.

The Romans who lived in Trier, who perhaps walked through the Porta Nigra, enjoyed the imperial baths, and cheered horse races at the circus, are still here, at least in images.

The archeology museum has many beautiful mosaics--some quite extensive--and sculptures--almost all with noses broken--that show a range of depictions of Trier's Romans. Some of these images are idealized, others apparently more realistic.

And, having survived 1700 years or more, they provide a human connection to antiquity that buildings, however well preserved, cannot create.

1 comment:

  1. What an interesting blog, introduced by a thought-provoking photo. The unusual wall painting of the dwellings is also a strangely modern interpretation. Something like this hieroglyphic view of a park by Swiss painter Paul Klee,
    The image can be seen at who can supply you with a canvas print of it.