New World Heritage Sites

The Künstlerkolonie or Artists’ Colony Mathildenhöhe in Darmstadt and the  ShUM sites Speyer, Worms and Mainz have been named UNESCO World Heritage sites. They are all worth visiting.

From a distance it looks like an outstretched hand due to the five-part crown that tops the almost 50-meter-high Wedding Tower. With its five “fingers” the brick tower designed by Joseph Maria Olbrich and completed in 1908 not only shapes the face of the Mathildenhöhe in Darmstadt famous for its Artists’ Colony. It is also the landmark of the entire city. And since the end of July it is officially part of the UNESCO World Heritage list. The Tower shares this distinction with the entire Artists’ Colony that Grand Duke Ernst Ludwig of Hessen established back in 1899. “May my state of Hessen flourish and in it art” was the motto of Ernst Ludwig, who expected the colony would invigorate both art and business in the region.

The City of Darmstadt can hope that its UNESCO title – which is has worked towards for ten years now – will have a similar effect. What is certain is that to this day the Mathildenhöhe has continued to symbolize renewal. In artistic terms it was Art Nouveau at the time that promised renewal; aside from Joseph Maria Olbrich six other artists including Peter Behrens and Paul Bürck brought rejuvenation to Darmstadt. Grand Duke Ernst Ludwig had appointed them, wooing them away from such famous cities as Paris or Munich. The artists built houses, tried out new ways of living, produced pioneering exhibitions, and brought other artists to the city. Given that Peter Behrens later became the teacher of Bauhaus founder Walter Gropius, the Mathildenhöhe is also considered the cradle of the Bauhaus. However, World War I largely put an end to art here. The Art Nouveau building was largely forgotten and it was only decades later that it attracted attention again.

As an outstretched hand that points towards the future is likewise one possible interpretation for the recognition of the importance of the ShUM sites of Mainz, Speyer and Worms. After all, they have also been UNESCO World Heritage sites since July, the first Jewish sites in Germany. The term “ShUM “derives from the initial letters of the Rhineland-Palatinate cities in Hebrew that are today considered the cradle of European Judaism. Jewish history goes back some 1,000 years here with the Old Jewish Cemetery (the Judensand) in Mainz one of the most eloquent “witnesses” to it. The oldest grave dates back to 1049; most of the tombs are covered in moss and over­grown with lichen. Many of them bear the names of important academics. The stones and notes that Jewish visitors have left on them testify to an unbroken tradition The connection to the present is something Mainz’ Lord Mayor Michael Ebling sees as key. And in an interview, he expressed the hope that in future Mainz would also have a “rich Jewish life”. The fact that this existed previously in Speyer is evidenced by the Judenhof, the Jewish court­yard. Today, several structures from the former Jewish quarter remain: a ritual bath or mikveh from the time around 1120, the remains of a synagogue, and those of a shul or “School for Women”. In Worms, Jewish life centered around the synagogue that is still used today, al­though it has been rebuilt several times. There has been a Jewish museum in the “raschi-haus” since 1982. There is also a ritual bath that is modeled on the one in Speyer and an old Jewish cemetery whose gravestone inscriptions represent an important historical source, as do those in Mainz.

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