Sunday, 13 July 2014

Fishing for Wolves in Halberstadt

Halberstadt is a small town in Sachsen-Anhalt in the Harz district, about 200km SW of Berlin. It is relatively easy to get there by train: take an RE to Magdeburg then a local HEX train to Halberstadt - an approximately three hours journey.

We visited it on a busy Saturday in mid-July. I am being ironic; above is how we found the town centre (the Fischmarkt) at noon. In fact, I don't think we have ever been to such a quiet town. Maybe it gets really busy during the week, or perhaps everyone was getting ready for the Weltmeisterschaft final tomorrow (Germany vs. Argentina)? I would say though that if you wanted to spend a day looking around impressive mediaeval churches and timber-framed buildings without the bustle of tourists that is Quedlinburg z.B., then Halberstadt, though smaller, is a good place to visit.

First of all, to get the explanation of the weird title out of the way, what on Earth is fishing for wolves? The answer lies in the Halberstadt coat of arms, which you will particularly see on many of the drain covers in the town:

Drain cover in Halberstadt showing the coat of arms

The strange shape in the centre of the shield is called a Wolfangel. It is a flat, forged iron device about ten centimetres long with sharp, opposing barbs at each end. You can perhaps see it better if I show you the Halberstadt coat of arms in colour (taken from Wikipedia commons):

This lethal instrument has been used for centuries in the forests and mountains of Germany to ... wait for it ... angel (fish) for wolves! A long chain was attached to the middle of the bar, with a crescent shaped anchor at the other. The barbs would be baited with hunks of meat and thrown over a tree limb, with the anchor firmly embedded in the ground or tree trunk. The Wolfangel was suspended at such a height that a wolf would have to jump up to snap at the meat, whereupon the unfortunate wolf would find a sharp blade through its mouth holding it there above ground until it died. Gruesome!

The symbol was also unfortunately appropriated by the Nazis, and used by various SS divisions, the Hitlerjugend, and the Werwolf plan of resistance against allied occupation. As such, it has since been adopted by some far-right neo-Nazi organisations, and so the Wolfangel is prohibited by law to be used if a connection with such a group is apparent. I think I am safe using it here though.

If you are arriving at Halberstadt by train, then I would advise catching the tram that stops just outside the train-station, to the right of the quite impressive pyramid fountains (direction Friedhof, get off at Fischmarkt or Holzmarkt). Otherwise, follow Richard-Wagner-Straße up the slight hill and get your fill of East German -era Plattenbau high-rise blocks of flats. Halberstadt is not very large, so there is little danger of you getting lost.

The modern town centre dates back to just 1995 and follows the sense of the historic centre. Here is a photo of the Holzmarkt next to the Rathaus, which contains elements of the old town hall, including a Roland statue.

Here is detail from the fountain:

And here is a closer look at the Roland statue:

The new Rathaus building has a good balance of modern architecture and a façade from the war-destroyed Rathaus:

Here is a closer look at the façade, and you can tell in the different colours of stone which parts have been remade, and which were original:

Much of Halberstadt was demolished during World War II. In particular on April 8 1945 around 82 percent of the town was destroyed, and 2,500 people killed, during an RAF bombing raid. The reason for the heavy bombing was the presence in Halberstadt of a factory that made wings for the Junker JU 88 long-range bomber plane. Halberstadt also has a long history as a garrison town, from 1623 until the Red Army left in 1995. In fact, from 1815 to 1919 Halberstadt was the garrison of the Halberstadt Cuirassiers (mounted cavalry soldiers). One of the more prominent members of the regiment was the later Chancellor Otto von Bismarck, and if you can recall any paintings of him they would probably depict him in this unit's uniform.

After the Second World War the Soviet-controlled East German government moved in, cleared out the 1.5 million cubic metres of rubble, and built cheap and quick to assemble Russian style apartment blocks to house the population. The churches and the timber-framed buildings of the Altstadt were unoccupied and left to decay, and it was not until reunification in 1991 that anyone gave a thought to restoring them.

There are a number of churches, ecclesiastical buildings, and a cathedral in Halberstadt, dating back to the turn of the first millenium (for example, construction began on the former Bishop's palace, the Peterhof, in 1059). The first church you can't miss, because its twin towers loom over the modern town centre, is the Martinikirche (church of St Martin):

You can tell it is a church dedicated to St. Martin of Tours because of the depiction of him over one of the entrances:

There he is with his cloak cut in two. The legend is that he was a Roman soldier who cut his cloak in half to share with a beggar in a snowstorm to save the beggar from dying of the cold. That night he dreamed that Jesus was wearing the half-cloak Martin had given away. Martin heard Jesus say to the angels: "Here is Martin, the Roman soldier who is not baptised; he has clothed me." St Martin's feast day of November 11th is known as Martinstag in Germany, and on the evening before, processions of children go from door to door with lanterns they made in school, asking for sweets. What lanterns have to do with St.Martin is unclear, but bonfires are also lit, and it would seem to be yet another remnant of an autumnal pagan festival of light marking the end of the harvest and the burning of the field stubble (same as bonfire night in the UK. 11th of November is of course the Festival of Remembrance there).

The outside of the gothic building of Martinikirche, which dates back to 1250-1350, looks a bit knocked about:

The inside doesn't look much better, but the scaffolding shows that restoration work is being carried out.

Behind the lovely pulpit there at the back of the gothic hall is the façade of a famous organ built by David Beck in 1592 for the chapel of Gröningen Castle (which was about 10km from Halberstadt). It was removed to the Martinikirche in 1770 when the castle was dismantled, and hopefully it may be restored. However, this is only the façade because all of the internal workings and pipes have not survived. At the moment you can't get close to it because of the building work.

Other things you can see in the church are an elaborate mediaeval font, a very baroque altar, and fragments of carvings:

The Martinikirche is interesting from the outside in that it has one tall steeple, and one smaller steeple, joined by a bridge. The reason that one tower is shorter is because the taller tower was the main look-out tower for the town, and it needed 360 degrees line of sight.

If you thought the Martinikirche was quite large, then a short walk across towards the Altstadt brings you to a much bigger one, the Dom St Stephanus und St Sixtus (cathedral of Saints Stephen and Sixtus),  one of the largest Romanesque churches in Germany.

In front of it stands an intriguing stone called the Teufelstisch (Devil's table) or Teufelstein (Devil's stone) or Lügenstein (lying stone). Legend has it that once upon a time there was a guy called Hildegrim who was the first bishop of Halberstadt, and he laid the foundation stone for a great cathedral. Then he summoned a load of skilful craftsmen who quickly progressed the construction of the cathedral. Now the Devil saw the walls going up and assumed that they were building an enormous pub. This pleased him immensely, and so he decided to help the artisans by each night secretly dragging masses of stone to the building site.

The head builder and his companions were greatly surprised about how fast the work was going, but none of them could have guessed the true reason. Anyway, when the building work was already quite advanced, the Devil crept in to have a look at the interior of this wonderful new inn. When he realised that they weren't building a pub but in fact a church, he had a face-palm moment and was both scared at the prospect of a church going up, and angry at himself as being so stupid and helping with it being built.

The next day the craftsmen turned up for work and were horrified to find a furious Devil high up on the wall holding a huge boulder in his hands. The Devil cried down at them "Look, I believed you were building a pub and so I secretly helped you, but now I realize that my hard work was for nothing I am going to smash it into rubble and bring the walls down on you and kill you!" A brave craftsman came forward and cried back "Hang on a moment. If you wanted a pub, then how about we build one next to it, and you can have your pub and we can have our cathedral and our lives? Would that make you happy?" The Devil thought for a moment, then agreed and threw the boulder not at the cathedral but onto the ground next to it, as a reminder to the builders of their promise. And that is why to this day there is a large inn with well-stocked cellars (the Domkeller) next to the cathedral on Domplatz.

Teufelstein (Devils' Stone) at Halberstadt. Or more probably a paleolithic chambered tomb.

In fact, the Teufelstisch probably pre-dates the church as it is more than likely the cap-stone of a megalithic chambered tomb or dolmen. Other myths attached to it are that it was the meeting stone for an ancient Saxon Thing (parliament), or that it was a sacrificial stone for pagan Saxon shamans. I think I'll go for the megalith explanation, which by the way shows that this area has been inhabited for many millennia.

Nearby is a modern building, the Domschatz, that houses the cathedral's treasury.

Here you can see (for 8€) 650 items that make up what is considered to be one of the largest mediaeval religious treasure collections in the world. Personally, I think if you've seen one jewel-encrusted golden saint's hand relic then you've seen them all. One for a rainy day in Halberstadt, but today was sunny (though it did keep clouding over) and the rest of Halberstadt's (free) treasures beckoned.

The cathedral is pretty impressive from the outside with many interesting Romanesque and neo-gothic elements, though it's a bit gloomy and sparse on the inside. Apparently you can climb up the towers, but we weren't enticed by that idea. Here are a few photos of the Dom:

The cathedral is situated at one end of the long open space of Domplatz, around which are many interesting buildings from various eras. At the other end is the Liebfrauenkirche, which was founded in 1005:

Beside the cathedral there is a poignant monument by the sculptor Daniel Priese to the murdered Jews of Halberstadt, the Steine der Erinnerung or 'stones of remembrance'. Halberstadt once had one of the largest Jewish communities in central Europe. This is a roll-call of the last Jews of Halberstadt to be deported to concentration camps and their deaths in 1942.

And there, dear reader, I will have to leave it. The batteries on my camera ran out, so I am unable to bring you photos of the 450 restored timber-framed buildings of the Altstadt, the other church buildings such as the Peterhof, or even of the organ in the Sankt-Burchardi-Kirche which is engaged in playing John Cage's musical piece 'As Slow As Possible' which it began in 2001 and will complete in 2640. Let your imagine do the rest, or better still, go and visit Halberstadt yourself!

p.s. you can see a few more photos of Halberstadt at

1 comment:

  1. Dear Andie,

    guess what! My wife and I have just moved to Halberstadt, i.e. the village of Mahndorf, merely 3 months ago, directly from the United States. I read your postings with immense interest and agree with your comments as to the attraction of this place often overlooked by its inhabitants.


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