The City of Marburg

A recent visit from an old friend and former college roommate – the same who organized the trip to Normandy about which I still need to write – inspired another walking tour through the historic city of Marburg. I’ll briefly cover some of the highlights here and encourage anyone traveling to Germany to schedule a stop in this wonderful town and see these treasures for yourselves!

Easily one of the most famous sites in Marburg is the church of St. Elisabeth, built by the Teutonic Knights. Construction began in 1235 and was completed in honor of St. Elisabeth of Thuringia, whose grave inspired the location of the building. Elisabeth is an important political and regional figure for Hessen and is honored for her dedicated assistance to the sick and needy. She died as a result of illness at the age of 24.

The remnants of the Teutonic Knights' hospital in Marburg located next to the Church.
The remnants of the Teutonic Knights’ hospital in Marburg located next to the Church.

Her remains became holy relics and were a popular occasion for pilgrimage to Marburg in the 14th-16th centuries. Landgrave Philipp the Magnanimous, an important figure for the Protestant Reformation and the head of the House of Hessen who converted his state to the new religion, had them removed from the ornate sarcophagus in order to put an end to this practice. The ultimate fate of her remains is still unknown.

The church also contains many period coat of arms belonging to prominent Teutonic Knights. For reasons that are not entirely clear, the church is also the final resting place of Paul von Hindenburg and his wife. They had originally been buried in the massive nationalist monument commemorating the Battle of Tannenberg, but were removed during the retreat of the German army in 1944. After discovering the caskets in a salt mine, US occupation authorities decided to move the remains to Marburg.

Overlooking Marburg is the Marburg Castle, an old fortification that was gradually expanded and transformed over the centuries. For the longest time, it was also the seat of the Landgraves of Hessen, and even held the Hessian state archives until 1938. Today, it is a space for events as well as a large museum dedicated to the history of the city and the surrounding area. There are many rare portraits, artifacts, and an impressive collection of cast iron stoves from the sixteenth century. For those who are interested in Hessen’s history during the age of the American Revolution (as I am), the museum contains portraits of several Hessian officers who served in America, a large portrait of their commanding Landgrave (Friedrich II), a powder horn decorated by a Hessian soldier with scenes from America in 1777, an officer’s sword from the period, and a wooden “recruiting soldier,” a tool used to attract new recruits in the eighteenth century (further examples of such wooden soldiers can be seen in the French army museum in the Invalides).

The Landgraves’ reception hall, decked out for an evening event.

The “Oberstadt” of Marburg, built on the slopes between the Lahn river and the large castle on top of the hill, is home to many of the oldest buildings in town. The old town hall sits at the head of a large market square, and the many Fachwerk-style buildings in the Oberstadt house university students as they have done for hundreds of years. During their time at the University of Marburg, the Brothers Grimm lived here as well.

A view of the Oberstadt on the way to the castle on the hill. The Brothers Grimm lived for a while in the building in the foreground.
A view of the Oberstadt on the way to the castle on the hill. The Brothers Grimm lived for a while in the building in the foreground.

A very somber sight at the bottom of the hill is the former site of the Marburg Synagogue. It was built in the late nineteenth century to accommodate Marburg’s growing Jewish community. On the night of 9 November 1938, it was set ablaze, and only the Torah could be saved from the fire. The damaged building was completely demolished in the following years, as the members of the community fled Germany or were deported East. Today, the site is marked with a monument, and the nearby bus stop features informational placards that detail the history of this erstwhile building.

The memorial to the Marburg synagogue destroyed in 1938.
The memorial to the Marburg synagogue destroyed in 1938.

Even if you are not planning on doing any research at the Hessian State Archives or studies at the University, a trip to Marburg is a rewarding one. The town boasts two convenient train stations, a comprehensive bus system, and many antique book shops, good restaurants, and beautiful views of the area (and what more does one need?).

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