The cathedral, UNESCO World Heritage Site for 40 years

The barefoot pilgrim trudges on, wrapped in a loose cloak, with his eyes facing west and the magnificent Speyer cathedral behind him. A moment captured in bronze. The three-metre figure has stood on Maximilianstrasse since 1990 as a reminder that Speyer was an important stage on the European pilgrimage routes of the Middle Ages. Most significantly, the one leading to Santiago de Compostela in Spain, but also those heading to Rome and Jerusalem.

The sculpture has now become one of the key landmarks of the cathedral city and is always surrounded by modern-day ‘pilgrims’, including tourists, architecture and history lovers, believers and hedonists. There is a new city tour dedicated to it, which focuses on the Christian and Jewish heritage in Speyer, taking in the cathedral and the former Jewish quarter nearby.

The bronze figure of a pilgrim, a monument in front of the cathedral, Speyer

The bronze figure of a pilgrim, a monument in front of the cathedral, Speyer

The event is a big birthday. In 1981, UNESCO placed Speyer Cathedral on the then new World Heritage List. It was only the second site in Germany. Forty years later, the people of the city celebrate another accolade. Speyer, Worms and Mainz were together included in the World Heritage List as the ‘ShUM* cities on the Rhine – Jewish heritage for the world’ in July 2021. This was the cradle of European Judaism in the High Middle Ages, ‘Jerusalem on the Rhine”.

The pedestrian area in Speyer, Palatinate

People wandering through the pedestrian area in Speyer, Palatinate

The tourist information office offers a ‘World Heritage tour’, which allows you to get to know the building from a completely different perspective. Visitors can find out why this structure forms part of our cultural heritage.

The guided tour begins at the cathedral, the massive dimensions of which make you wonder how our forefathers could have built something on this scale. The ambitious Salian Emperor Conrad III planned the biggest church in Christendom, no less, when he laid the cornerstone for the Cathedral Basilica of the Assumption and St Stephen some 1,000 years ago. Essentially, the site was no more than a meadow, as Speyer had just 500 inhabitants at the time. The village then rapidly developed into one of the most important cities in the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation.

The cathedral’s story has many chapters, including conversion, fires, destruction, imperial burials, pilgrimages and tourist attraction. But the Christian–Jewish story is particularly interesting. It was Bishop Rudiger who, in the 11th century, offered the persecuted Jews sanctuary in Speyer and provided protection. The result was the Jewish quarter, with a synagogue, women’s college and ritual baths, known as a mikveh, which is one of the oldest in Central Europe and the next stop on the guided tour.

The mikveh in the Jewish quarter in Speyer, Palatinate

The mikveh in the Jewish quarter in Speyer, Palatinate

If you look carefully, you can spot similarities in the decoration on the cathedral building and the mikveh. The Christian cathedral workshop helped with the construction of the Jewish community. This is evidence of the once prosperous cohabitation of the Jews and Christians in the ShUM city of Speyer.

The tour ends at the Altpörtel, the medieval city gate. The 55-metre tower affords wonderful views over Speyer, with the cathedral in the background and the pilgrim on his way. The Altpörtel will be closed throughout 2021 due to the coronavirus pandemic.

* ShUM is derived from the first letters of the Hebrew city names: shin (sh) for Shpira (Speyer), vav (u) for Vermayza (Worms) and mem (m) for Magentza (Mainz).

More recommended excursions for culture vultures in Speyer:

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