Destination Travel

Roman history in Cologne, Germany

In Cologne, Germany, tread carefully, for history may lie, just below your feet. On my first day in the city, my local guide Monica Brieskorn walks me down a staircase, below the majestic Dom Cathedral with its towering spires, into an underground car park. As I wonder why I am there, she points to a decrepit wall bordering on one side. “These are the old Roman foundations and walls of the gate, made of limestone and mortar, that were discovered during excavations,” she explains. I am bewitched by this slice of history, alongside a modern car park! “This was much before a protection law was framed about digging in the city,” she adds. Now, archaeologists would have to be called in, to excavate before construction continues in the city.

Cologne, one of Germany’s oldest cities, was a Roman colony founded in 38 BC, and the city is still intimately connected to its Roman past. Cologne began as a tiny town next to a Roman fort, until Emperor Claudius’ wife, Agrippina, persuaded her husband to raise its status to a city. The original name of the city is a mouthful — Colonia Claudia Ara Agrippinensium, which eventually became Colonia and then Cologne. Agrippina is the infamous ‘Mother of Cologne’ with companies and shops named after her — she was also the mother of Nero.

Looking back

Most people know of Cologne’s raucous carnival and its special ale — Kolsch. But delve deeper and you find that history whispers from every corner in Cologne. Vestiges of the past are strewn all over the city: from stocky Roman towers hewn from tufa and limestone, to fragments of city walls and underground sewers. The Romans built an aqueduct over 95 kilometres in 80 AD, to bring in fresh spring water to Cologne from the nearby hills, and today you can still see sections of the Eifel aqueduct, in the countryside outside Cologne.

Roman history in Cologne, Germany

The Romano-Germanic Museum at the heart of Old Town is a good place to get an insight into the city’s glorious past. I see a large collection of pretty Roman glass unearthed in excavations, amphorae (jars) used to store goods like oil and spices, jewellery and flasks with motifs of gladiators. The tomb of Poblicius, a Roman soldier, dates back to 40 AD; found by a family in 1967, while building an extension to their home, it stands tall.

The showstopper of the museum is a magnificent Roman mosaic that was found in 1941, when workers were excavating to build an air-raid shelter. The whole museum was conceived around this mosaic, crafted out of a million pieces of glass, stone and ceramics, so that it did not have to be moved. This floor of an old Roman mansion has images of parakeets, colourful flowers, gods and goddesses — the mosaic is named after an image of Dionysus, the Roman god of winemaking and grape harvests. Brieskorn tells me that when the G8 summit was held in Cologne in 1999, the world leaders had a special dinner arranged in this mosaic room.

Another way to get under the skin of this city is to visit the Praetorium, which was discovered under the City Hall. This gargantuan building sprawling over three-and-a-half hectares, started off as the headquarters of the army, and later was a magnificent palace that housed the Roman governors.

Roman history in Cologne, Germany

It was filled with intricate mosaics and was meant to be a place to showcase the power of the Romans, to the Germanic tribes across the Rhine. It was where important guests were received, and today the museum showcases stones with inscriptions, pottery, floorings and mosaics that were found on the site.

A wooden walkway allows you to walk into the foundations, and old Roman walls illuminated with coloured lights, looking at the glory of past years. I also explore a tunnel 10 metres underground, that leads into a narrow Roman sewer canal built out of huge blocks of tufa stone, snaking its way below the ground. This used to carry sewage from the city to the river Rhine, and in later times, was used as an air raid shelter and even a cellar for storing beer. Brieskorn tells me about the Chandelier Hall, a part of the underground sewers that has been cleaned up and restored so well, that it’s now a special venue for concerts because of its remarkable acoustics.

Roman history in Cologne, Germany

Cologne has as many as 12 Romanesque churches, and many of them have a Roman past. The Great St Martin Church, is a distinctive part of the city’s skyline. It was built on an island in Roman times, and was built on warehouses; today, one can see the base of these ancient warehouses clearly. At the Kolumba Museum designed by Swiss architect Peter Zumthor, which fuses the old and the new brilliantly with Christian art, I walk through stumps and walls of Roman residential settlements showcased in a gargantuan room, with dim lighting and a zig-zagging wooden walkway.

Long ago, there was a long Roman wall that encircled the city and 19 ancient Roman towers. Today, there are fragments of the city walls, scattered throughout the city. My hotel Stadthotel am Romerturm is situated next to the most beautiful tower, embedded with different kinds of stones — the Römerturm. The brilliant masonry is a testament to the engineering skills of the ancient Romans. In front of the Town Hall, I see a lot of construction work. Brieskorn tells me that the archaeologists are excavating the centre of Roman Cologne and planning a spectacular museum complex, linking the Roman period and the Middle Ages, including a Jewish synagogue and Ritual Bath.

“You can see that the next time you are here,” she says with a smile. In Cologne, uncovering the past is obviously a work-in-progress.


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