A slice of Schleswig and a hint of Haithabu

As I mentioned in a previous post, T and I were moving pretty fast this trip, and I must confess that part of my eagerness to tell these stories is to give me a chance to reflect a bit more on the places we went through at such a blistering pace. Today I’ll share a bit about the modern city of Schleswig and the ancient city of Haithabu (Haddeby) nearby. But first, do you know this guy?

No, me neither. I saw this bust in the little village of Garding on the west side of the country, where we stopped briefly for T to meet with a colleague. The Greek Key motif below the bust suggested something of a classical or academic bent, so I looked him up.

Yowza! Wiki tells us “Christian Matthias Theodor Mommsen (30 November 1817 – 1 November 1903) was a German classical scholar, historian, jurist, journalist, politician, and archeologist. He was one of the greatest classicists of the 19th century. His work regarding Roman history is still of fundamental importance for contemporary research. He received the Noble Prize for Literature in 1902 for being “the greatest living master of the art of historical writing, with special reference to his monumental work, “A History of Rome,” after having been nominated by 18 members of the Prussian Academy of Scientists.He was also a prominent German politician, as a member of the Prussian and German parliaments. His works on Roman law and on the law of obligations had a significant impact on the German civil code.”

Okay, then. Wow. Even a tiny town of 2700 souls can turn out a world-class scholar and Nobel Prize winner. His younger brother, no surprise, was a writer and the director of the local high school. Such accomplishment, and yet to have never heard his name. There is a actually Mommsenstrasse in Berlin; I will be more thoughtful next time I stroll down it.

I normally don’t take pictures of food and am ungenerously quite dismissive of those who do. Buuuut, we had dinner in Schleswig at an unprepossessing little cafe…that simply blew my socks off. Food, I must say, is one of the very few disappointments in Berlin; at my price point, it’s decent but not very interesting. But for an extremely reasonably priced meal, this was a show-stopper – grilled shrimp and potatoes, a glorious veggie salad, and what you can just barely see at the top of the place, a delicious chickpea/grainy/curry thing that was amazing. Oh, and an excellent local beer that we’d never heard of. *This is the reason you go off the beaten path.* Cheers, Patio!

Well, we’re multiple paragraphs in and you haven’t gotten the history lesson yet. Schleswig is the follow-on community to Haithabu; after the latter was destroyed around 1066, Schleswig grew as a local trading center in the Danish kingdom. The dukes of Gottorf made their home there, and their lovely castle, initially built in 1161, is still here for the viewing (we missed it). Schleswig, now a town just over 25,000, was Danish until the Second Schleswig War in 1861, when it became Prussian, now German, of course.

The city skyline is dominated by St. Peter’s Cathedral. Its backstory is amazing: “In 1134, the Danish King Niels’ headless body was laid out in St. Peter’s Cathedral after it was pulled from the Schlei in the nets of local fishermen. The monks who attended the corpse heard strange noises and thought that the spirit of King Niels was wandering about in the church. As a result, the king’s body was taken to Gottorp and stuffed into a boggy grave. Someone hammered a stake through Niels’ chest to keep him there. Legend has it that King Niels’ still haunts the cathedral, and that he still hunts across the moors and forest of Schleswig with his hounds.”

Clearly the cathedral was, of course, under reconstruction when we strolled by, no ghost, no hounds, thankfully. But that history might explain the odd sense of sadness that permeated the town, even on this most glorious day of summer weather and into a long gloaming evening. We enjoyed exploring the city, but wondered to ourselves…where the heck the local inhabitants were. A local plaza asked more questions than it answered:

Of course, the EU has just opened some of its borders for tourists, but one might think more locals might be inspired to enjoy a balmy evening in the square.

The next day, we headed across the bay to Haithabu (Danish: Haddeby), a destination that I have longed to visit for quite some time. If any of you have read or watched “The Last Kingdom” series (BH, I know you have), Haithabu is frequently mentioned there, the big Danish trading site where all the toothsome women and young children captured in battle are sold into slavery for transport to points south. Just for your point of reference, here’s a map showing its location:

Now a UNESCO World Heritage site, Haithabu “is the most important archaeological site in Schleswig-Holstein. Around 965, chronicler Ibrahim ibn Ahmed At-Tartûschi, an Arab from Cordoba in Spain, visited Hedeby and described it as, “a very large city at the very end of the world’s ocean….Hedeby was the second largest Nordic town during the Viking Age.” Active between the 8th and 11th centuries, the city was an early Christian center and a wicked important trading town. It was ultimately destroyed by two forces – the Norwegians in 1050 and then the Western Slavs in 1066. The site was rediscovered about 1900 and early excavations began then; the adjoining museum opened in 1985.

We didn’t have time for the museum this trip (the time theme again), but we did take a beautiful stroll to see the reconstructed houses. On our path there, I noticed this tree with the most amazing root system I have ever seen:

…and soon we found ourselves on top of the massive dike works that had originally surrounded the city. First here’s a view of what is visible today – you can just see the tops of the houses in the center midground:

…aaaanddd here’s what was there, during the height of its three centuries of influence:

Hard to imagine, but of course the world is filled with incredible Places That Were.

Al-Tartushi continued,

…The inhabitants worship Sirius, except for a minority of Christians who have a church of their own there…. He who slaughters a sacrificial animal puts up poles at the door to his courtyard and impales the animal on them, be it a piece of cattle, a ram, billy goat or a pig so that his neighbours will be aware that he is making a sacrifice in honour of his god. The town is poor in goods and riches. People eat mainly fish which exist in abundance. Babies are thrown into the sea for reasons of economy. The right to divorce belongs to the women…. Artificial eye make-up is another peculiarity; when they wear it their beauty never disappears, indeed it is enhanced in both men and women. Further: Never did I hear singing fouler than that of these people, it is a rumbling emanating from their throats, similar to that of a dog but even more bestial.”

Foul singing aside, the houses themselves were as basic and utilitarian you might imagine, and my photos of them are a bit dull, hence the omission. Basically they are long houses with cooking and heating elements at each end and a large room in the middle with raised beds covered in fur. But here’s a shot of a contemporary tool workshop, and as always it gives one pause to realize and remember that real people just like you and me lived their whole lives for hundreds of year on this material level.

Nearby there was a truly amazing “gift shop,” run by a family who *actually made* the items strictly according to the materials available and based on models from the museum. The family itself, a charming group of husband, wife, and grown son, dressed in appropriate 10th century garb and even offered refreshments that were available in the era. I bought a charming little silver Viking ax pendant – pagan pride at its best.

As we hastened to the car, we passed a delightful final scene, the preparation for outside church services on that Sunday in the time of Corona. This site is a memorial to one of the bishops of the region, a man who must have labored mightily against the rather bloody Sirius worshipers. Chairs were being placed with proper social distancing and there was a disinfectant and other tools of the trade along with the order of service and a humble wooden cross.

To say I’m itching to return is of course an understatement. But don’t dispair – the next stops are Wismar and Stralsund. So happy to have you along for the journey!



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1 Response to A slice of Schleswig and a hint of Haithabu

  1. Love the “wicked important trading town.” Keep ’em coming!

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