Speyer, Germany, on the Rhine River, is a tiny postcard-pretty town with beautiful gardens and a lovely town square. The Romans founded the town 2,000 years ago for a garrison, but no visible ruins remain. The 3rd Century Roman market town is easy to imagine.

A Mosaic of Roman, Jewish, and Christian History

Here, it is impossible to dig below street level without uncovering remnants of previous eras. Germany’s oldest sealed wine bottle, vintage 1687,  is in the town’s museum. That’s not the oldest bottle though! The exhibit also houses wine bottles from a 4th Century Roman tomb.

The towers of Speyer’s cathedral soar above the square. The building was completed in 1111 and was the largest new structure of its time. It remains the world’s largest Romanesque-style church. Eight German emperors and kings lie beneath the high altar. The cathedral is so decorated, it is difficult to imagine the original structure.

The Second Crusade marched off from here on Christmas Day 1141.

Religious Crossroads

Nearly every European town has its historic church, but Speyer holds a special place in Jewish history as well. In the 11th Century, Speyer was home to the largest Jewish community north of the Alps. A Romanesque synagogue was in use until the 15th Century. And a wall still stands as a testimony to the tenacity of this community. A recess that once stored the Torah scrolls is still visible in the eastern wall.

In this peaceful courtyard, it is easy to imagine the sages who came to Speyer in 1084 and became distinguished scholars at the local Talmudic school in the 12th and 13th Centuries. Several scholars belonged to the movement of “the German pious,” which is important to the intellectual development of European Judaism.

The small ShPIRA museum displays windows, capitals, floor tiles, gravestones, and coins that bear silent witness to Jewish life in Speyer in the Middle Ages. Of note is the Lingenfeld Treasure, a collection of coins and gold utensils from the 1300s thought to be hidden by a money-lender during a plague pogrom.

Untouched by time, the 12th Century mikvah, or ritual bath, is the oldest and best-preserved relic of its kind in Germany. Now ten meters below street level, it was used for storage of municipal weaponry since the 16th Century.

The community lived in an often uneasy peace with its Christian neighbors until World War II. Tragically, only 15 local members of the Jewish community survived the Holocaust.

For such a tiny town, Speyer has an unexpected depth and breadth of history that has been carefully conserved.

Many luxury river cruises down the Rhine River stop at Speyer. The town is a short, pleasant walk from the boat dock.

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