(FYI, I arrived home late on Sunday, May 15, but you deserve a couple of remaining blog entries for a complete narrative of the trip. So here goes!)
Hello, again, Blogonauts!
Hhow sshould wwe iintroduce Aachen?
In case you were not yet aware, Aachen fell next on this stumble-footed steeplechase around the western edge of Germany. And here, let's begin by addressing the most obvious oddity: "Aachen" is a weird word.
It's not as if German vocabulary abounds with words beginning with "AA". Their number isn't zero, but they are decidedly few. Maybe the name developed because Aachen lies so close to the Netherlands; Dutch is replete with double A's. The English word "aardvark," for example, was inherited from a Dutch variant.
Aachen first arose as a gathering place in pre-history, presumably because of its thermal springs. Indeed, bubbling (and sometimes sulfurous) fountains decorate the city center. With our modern conveniences, we forget that humanity's relationship with water has typically been, "If you heat it, they will come." (Perhaps this explains the popularity of coffee houses & hot tubs.) Similarly the word Aachen may refer to those bubbling hot waters. If so, it may have arisen from the same Indo-European root that produced "aqua" (Latin) and its off-shoots.
So why did I include Aachen in this itinerary? It wasn't directly for the waters. My primary motivation was to visit this oddly named city's oddly shaped cathedral, and to look into how the son of King Pepin The Short changed history by pulling off a continent-changing conquest.
Who am I referring to? To Aachen's best known (and now all-too-permanent) resident: a fellow whom Germans call Karl der Grosse, in Latin named Carolus Magnus, and better known to you and me as Charlemagne. This medieval monarch was born in Aachen in the year 747. In brief, he became King of the Franks (as opposed to the King of the Hamburgers) in 768. And he then began forcefully annexing and Christianizing huge swaths of Europe.
In his era, political and social stability were in short supply. Such rock-em-sock-em circumstances are ripe for bad asses, and Charles proved to be the baddest of asses. Both because he was effective and because he consistently promoted Christianity, the Pope considered him an ally. So on Christmas Day in the year 800, Pope Leo III crowned Charles Emperor of...well...of something. It's variously referred to as the Roman Empire or the Carolingian Empire, but by the Renaissance and to this day it is known as The Holy Roman Empire.
That same year, Charlemagne began building the church that is now Aachen's cathedral. In the photos you can see that the church consists of 3 distinct sections. The center, octagonal section was the church that Charlemagne built. The foyer (with the steeple spire) and the choir were completed about 300-400 years later.
The church's interior is truly marvelous...filled with multicolored marble and mosaics. But Charlemagne saw none of that. They were not added until the 1800s. As I've seen all along this journey, the locals do not allow their great buildings to remain stagnant. Everything gets an occasional freshening face-lift.
Eventually Charlemagne died in 814 AD. Later in the 12th century he was canonized as Saint Charles...but that ceremony was performed by a rival pope, termed an anti-pope. This move made everyone's ecclesiastical credentials look a little shady, but once he was named a saint, his remains (i.e., his bones) became holy relics.
Most of what's left of Charlemagne is in an ornately decorated wood, silver, and golden shrine located in the Cathedral's choir. It sits behind another shrine said to contain part of St. Mary's robe.
Where are the rest of Charlemagne's skeletal remains? Well, because of the claim of sainthood, a few of those holy bones were transferred into ornate/gruesome reliquaries. These are located around the corner, in the Cathedral's treasury museum...and of course I went to see them. You can see them, too, in the attached photographs.
After Charlemagne's death, in part to lay claim to his mantle, Aachen's cathedral became the location of later coronations of the Emperor. The coronation throne, made of marble brought back from Jerusalem, still sits in the cathedral's octagon balcony. For a thousand years, most of the Emperors and Kings of Germany sat in that throne as they accepted the crown.
All of this is testimony to legitimize Aachen's ancient roots, but other buildings beyond the Cathedral are almost as old. Many of them were heavily damaged by allied bombing during World War 2, but they have been restored in the intervening decades.
Thanks for following along; the attached photos can help fill in some of the gaps in this story.
My last stop before heading home is Cologne...so more about that soon!
Blog to you later!