(This post is edited and greatly expanded from my 2014 A to Z post. It’s not a crime to plagiarise yourself!)
Reconstructed Roman gates, Copyright Andy1982
Xanten, Germany’s only town whose name starts with an X, is in North Rhine-Westphalia, and borders the Rhine on the north. It was settled by isolated tribes around 2000 BCE.
The Romans arrived around 15 BCE, creating a home base camp (Castra Vetera) for military campaigns against Germania. Eight to ten thousand legionnaires lived there until the Revolt of the Batavi in 69–70 CE.
Harbour Temple of the Xanten Archaeological Park, partly reconstructed, Copyright Magnus Manske
A new base camp, Castra Vetera II, sprang up, and a settlement created nearby, home to 10,000–15,000 legionnaires and civilians, gained colonia rights in 110 CE. The old settlement was completely destroyed to create the new one.
This colonia was the next-most important commercial post in the province of Germania Inferior (with Köln [Cologne] being #1). Sadly, it was almost destroyed by Germanic tribes in 275. In 310, a new town with better fortifications was created.
The Romans gave the area up in the early 5th century, after endless attacks by Germanic tribes.
Stadium ruins, Copyright Magnus Manske
In the 5th century, the Franks settled in Xanten, but since they didn’t build with stone like the Romans, only their graves remain as evidence.
In the second half of the 8th century, a church was built on the grounds of a Roman cemetery from the colonia days, and named Sanctos (super Rhenum). It was alternately called ad Sanctum. The etymology came from the believed grave of 4th century martyr Viktor of Xanten, and thus the town’s modern name was born.
After a convent was established, the city began to take on its German character.
St. Viktor Cathedral courtyard, Copyright Xantener
Northwest façade detail, Copyright Matthias Nonnenmacher
Xanten was besieged by Norsemen in the 9th century, but in 939, King Otto I defeated Saxons, Franconians, and Lotharingians at the nearby Battle of Birten. That year’s Battle of Andernach decisively brought the area into Otto’s kingdom.
Xanten received town rights on 15 July 1228, and in 1263, the foundation stone for its landmark St. Viktor Cathedral was laid. It was finally finished in 1544.
By the end of the 14th century, Xanten was protected by a town wall.
Siegfried Windmill, Copyright Magnus Manske
Due to crop failure and war, the population shrunk from 5,000 to 2,500 from the beginning of the 16th century to the end of the 18th. When the Rhine’s riverbed shifted away from Xanten, their robust economy as a trade town also suffered.
Things got worse when the river flooded several times. Then St. Viktor Convent was forcibly secularized by Napoléon in 1802, and the convent library and the libraries of several closed monasteries were merged.
The town walls and one of the gates were torn down in the 1820s, but further destruction of the town’s past was halted in 1843 by a town councilor. Further rescue came from archaeologists fascinated by the Roman ruins.
Copyright Ben Bender
Xanten had a Jewish community since the Middle Ages, when some of the residents were murdered by Crusaders. In 1891-2, the community was endangered again due to a blood libel against shochet (kosher butcher) Adolf Bischoff. The population was down to 30 by 1905. Following Kristallnacht (9 November 1938), what remained of the community fled.
85% of Xanten was destroyed during WWII.
Mörmter Cloister, Copyright Frank Vincentz
Xanten’s Archaeological Park is one of the largest open-air archaeological museums in the world, and Xanten Cathedral is said to be the largest cathedral between Köln and the sea. Other attractions include Xantener Sommerfestspiele (an esteemed classical music festival held for two weeks each summer); Xantener Montmartre (an art showcase drawing artists from worldwide); and an annual sandcastle contest.
Legend has it that Siegfried of Die Niebelungenleid was born in Xanten.
Klever Tor (Gate), Copyright Rainer Lippert
My character Yuriy Yeltsin-Tsvetkov is in Xanten with the Canadian Army at the end of WWII, and sees the heavily bomb-damaged cathedral as he walks through the newly-liberated town. In a nearby requisitioned house, he treats wounded soldiers.
In Xanten, Yuriy finds souvenirs to bring home to his family and penpal Inga, whom he’s secretly in love with. The gifts for Inga are a black fur jacket and malachite bracelet.