Mainz has a population of 180,000 and is the capital of the state of Rhineland-Palatinate. It is on the left bank of the Rhine across from the confluence of the River Main with the Rhine and thus has been of strategic importance for most of its more than 2,000 years of recorded history.
A Brief History of Mainz
Mainz was founded in 39 BC by the Romans as Mogontiacum, later the capital of the province Germania Prima. Throughout the Roman period, it remained an important city, housing at times up to 16,000 Romans. In AD 27, a bridge was built over the Rhine, which was a much narrower river at that time. This bridge was protected on the other side of the Rhine by a castle, which gave the town of Mainz-Kastel its name. Through an oddity of post-World War II political geography, Mainz-Kastel is now part of the city of Wiesbaden, which is the capital of the state of Hesse, while the wine-growing area surrounding Mainz is known as Rheinhesse, but part of the state of Rhineland-Palatinate.
At times, the Roman borders extended well beyond the Rhine, and there were attempts to conquer most of what is contemporary Germany in order to extend the border to the Elbe River. However, attacks from German tribes increased and, by the end of the third century, the Rhine was again the final frontier of the Roman Empire. On New Year’s Eve 406, the Rhine froze over and the German tribes crossed the river. Mainz was sacked and the Romans abandoned the city, which was eventually to be settled by the Franks.
By 750, Mainz was regaining importance after St Boniface, the Anglo-Saxon missionary who brought Christianity to the Germans, settled here. The reign of Bishop Willigud, from 975 to 1011, brought Mainz special glory, as he was not only one of the electors of the German king but also the chancellor of the realm. The archbishopric of Mainz remained one of the most powerful and wealthiest posts in the German- speaking world up until secularization in the early 19th century. The archbishop owned large tracts of land stretching way past Frankfurt, most of the monasteries in the area were under his control, and he earned tolls at several strategic trading points.
Around 1440, Johannes Gutenberg invented the first printer with movable type in Mainz. However, through his lack of business acumen, others benefited most from it. Mainz did become an important center for the press, a position that continued into the modern era with Germany’s second public television broadcaster (ZDF) and several publishing houses in the city. Napoleon passed by several times and made Mayence a privileged city in his empire. He also secularized the monasteries and came close to destroying the Mainz cathedral as well. In the chaos following collapse of the Napoleonic regime, Mainz briefly became a republic – the first in Germany.
Although most of the Old Town was destroyed during World War II, Mainz was rebuilt sympathetically, combining older and modern styles. The cathedral was largely restored to its former state.
The Dom St Martin and St Stephan, Markt 10, was begun under the auspices of Archbishop Willigud during the reign of Emperor Otto II in 975. Through the next millennium, it burned down seven times, the first time the day before its consecration in 1009. What remains today is mostly from the 12th and 13th centuries. Despite added Gothic features, the dominant style, especially noticeable in the dark interior, remains Romanesque. Seven German kings were crowned in the cathedral, including Heinrich II, the last Saxon Emperor, and Konrad II, the first Salian (Frankish) emperor. Most of the Mainz archbishops from the past millennium are buried here, with many memorial tombstones adoring the pillars of the church. The east choir is the oldest part of the church, with two-meter-thick (6½-foot) walls. None of the original stained glass and wall paintings survived the seven fires, but the bronze doors of the main entrance are the originals from Willigud’s time. The two lion doorknobs are about 200 years younger.
The nearby Gutenberg Museum, Liebfrauenplatz 5, 55116 Mainz, commemorates Mainz’s most famous son – Johannes Gensfleisch zu Gutenberg, who invented the moveable type press around 1440. The display includes two Gutenberg bibles as well as other books and scriptures of the past two millennia. Several presses and other equipment used in printing are on display, along with explanations of different papers and processes. Live demonstrations are frequently held in the basement. A short film with amateurish marionettes gives an introduction to Gutenberg’s work and life, of which little is known. All descriptions in the museum are in German only – English audio guides are available. The museum shop is small but has a wide variety of trinkets in addition to lots of books.
The facades of the building on Marktplatz, across from the Dom, are copies of the originals. However, on the south side of the Dom, stroll south along Leichhof and Augustinerstraße to see some parts of the Old Town that escaped war damage.
The Museum für Antike Schifffahrt (Ancient Ships), Neutorstraße 2, opened in 1994 at the southern edge of the old town. In 1981, while digging foundations for an extension of the Hilton Hotel, five well-preserved Roman ships were discovered under almost eight m (26 feet) of rubble. After treating the wood to prevent further decay, these ships were put on display in the brightly lit former Market Hall. Two full-size replicas of Roman river battleships are on display together with wrecks of the original five boats and three boats discovered elsewhere. The ship building techniques are illustrated as well as the expansion plans of the Roman Empire. The ships are assumed to date from around 407 when the Romans had to abandon Mainz, following successful attacks by Germanic tribes from across the Rhine.
On the highest hill of old Mainz is St Stephankirche (Church of St Stephan), Kleine Weißgasse 12. The first church was erected here in 990 by Bishop Willigis. He was also buried here in 1011, as the Dom was still undergoing repair at the time of his death. The current Gothic church dates from the early 14th century. The church was severely damaged after a nearby gunpowder depot blew up in 1857. It was hit in three air raids during World War II and only the outer walls remained. Attempts were made to restore the church to its Gothic origins and they largely succeeded, although a lack of money necessitated a flat ceiling rather than vaults. Few of the 200,000 annual visitors notice this, as the main attractions are the stained glass windows. In the last years of his life Marc Chagall, who never visited Mainz, created the windows for the apse and the transept and his colleague of 28 years, Charles Marq, did the rest. The predominant color is blue, to create an atmosphere for meditation, with Chagall using up to 18 tones of blue while Marq restricted himself to 10 for the north and only eight for the south windows. This is the only church in Germany with Chagall windows and it is also the largest single work by Chagall. The church is open daily from 10 am to 12 pm and 2 to 5 pm (4:30 in December and January); Sunday mornings it’s open only for services. For the best light conditions, visit in the morning. Limited parking and a labyrinth of cul-de-sacs and one-way streets make visiting on foot or by public transportation the better options.
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