Eisleben, Eisenach, Erfurt and Wittenberg in eastern Germany all have something in common: they were stations in the spiritual journey of 15th century Protestant theologian Martin Luther.
Hundreds of thousands of visitors come to Germany each year to retrace the steps of Martin Luther, the religious visionary whose "95 Theses" marked the greatest reform in the history of the Protestant Church 500 years ago. Through his work translating the Bible, Luther is also credited with reforming the German language, helping mold the modern usage that prevails today.
The main landmarks in a Luther pilgrimage can be explored in a whistle-stop, three-day tour of Lutherland. Please note: the tour has been organized by geographical rather than the chronology of Luther's life.
Day one -- Eisleben
Martin Luther was born on November 10, 1483, in Eisleben, a town in the foothills of the Harz mountains, in the eastern part of Saxony-Anhalt.
His birthplace, a simple but smart building now numbered 15, stands in a street named after the man himself (entrance at Seminarstrasse 16). His father Hans Luther, who worked in the copper mines, and his mother Margarethe, baptized baby Martin in Eisleben's late gothic church of St. Peter and Paul -- now another must-see destination on the Luther tour.
The population of Eisleben was then nearly 4,000, and the town flourished thanks to the local silver and copper mining industry. Today, the population numbers some 20,000, but people are moving away in droves. Unemployment is rife and young people have little choice but to seek work elsewhere.
But for fans of Martin Luther, the town is well worth a visit. The house where the revolutionary reformer was born has been revered as a memorial site since 1693, making it the oldest museum in Germany. To preserve Luther's memory, the town was bestowed with the epithet "Lutherstadt" in 1946. In 1997, the Luther memorial sites were declared UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
Day Two -- Eisenach
Continuing in Luther’s footsteps, travel on to Eisenach , just under 150 kilometers away and less than a two-hour drive.
Traditionally, the picturesque town on the northern edge of the Thuringian Forest was staunchly religious and was sarcastically described by Luther as a "nest of priests." In the 15th century, one in ten of the town's 4,000 inhabitants was involved in religion, and the town had no less than three churches and seven monasteries.
The young Luther came here in 1498 to study at the prestigious Latin School, now known as the Martin-Luther-Gymnasium on the Predigerplatz, or "preacher's square." The "Lutherhaus" (Lutherplatz 8) overlooking Eisenach's market square gives visitors a chance to explore Luther's life and work. One highlight of the exhibition is the "Lutherstuben" - two small rooms where the reformer is believed to have lived as a pupil until 1501.
A few footsteps away from the house is the church of St. George, where Luther earned extra money by singing in the choir. A silent witness to this time is the font upon which Johann Sebastian Bach, who was born in Eisenach, was baptized in 1685.
The reformer had fond memories of his four years in Eisenach, which he later referred to as "my dear town." The town itself remembers and honors Luther with a large memorial on the Karlsplatz.
Wartburg Castle in Eisenach
The next port-of-call on the Luther trail literally looms over Eisenach -- Wartburg Castle, where the theologian spent his final, solitary years. But before heading up to the imposing fortress, take a short detour to the village of Steinach, nestled in a picturesque valley. Here, a large memorial has been erected recalling the detention of Luther after he refused to retract publicly his teachings even when faced with a ban by the Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire at the Diet of Worms.
The inscription reads: "Here marks the spot where Dr. Martin Luther was taken away to Wartburg Castle upon the orders of Friedrich the Wise, elector of Saxony."
In fact, the powerful elector had been acting to protect Luther. Friedrich believed that allowing the reformer to live incognito at his castle would serve to calm feverish anti-Reformation activity.
The Wartburg (Schlossberg 2), perched high on a 1230-foot cliff overlooking Eisenach, is one of Germany's most famous and well-preserved castles. It was founded by Duke Ludwig of Thuringia in 1067. Like all other places connected with Luther, it was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1997.
The entire castle underwent a comprehensive renovation carried out by the East German government between 1952-1966. This included work on the room where Luther lived for 300 days disguised as Junker Jörg. The original floor and paneled walls have been retained and a wooden desk also dates from the Lutheran era. Names and dates etched into the stone walls bear witness to the fact that the castle has been visited by Christian pilgrims since the end of the 16th century.
Most of Luther's time at Wartburg Castle was spent in quiet study, and it was here that he set about translating the New Testament from its original Greek into German. With the publication of the New Testament in September 1522, Luther laid the foundations for the German language as we know it today. The style he adopted was highly descriptive and reflected common language usage, thereby making the texts accessible to all. In the early 1530s, Luther devoted himself to translating the Old Testament, leading to the publication of the first complete German edition of the Bible in August 1534.
As though completing the circle of his life, Luther returned to Eisleben, the town of his birth, in January 1546.
On 17 February, Luther complained of serious chest pain and took to his bed. Alarmed, his friends and children gathered around him. Asked by his friend, the court preacher Justus Jonas: "Reverend father, will you stand firm in Christ and the doctrine you have preached?" Luther responded with a clearly audible: "Yes". It was to be his dying word. (You can visit the house where Luther died at Andreaskirchplatz 7.)
Two memorial services were held at St. Andrew's Church (Sanktandreasplatz) in Eisleben. In the afternoon of 20 February, the entourage accompanying Luther's body began its journey to Wittenberg, arriving two days later. Luther's body was interred in the Castle Church, in front of the pulpit. In 1894, the house where Luther died in Eisleben was declared an official memorial site.
Less than 65 kilometers away, Erfurt can be easily reached in just half an hour by car.
Today, some 200,000 people live in the attractive capital of the state of Thuringia. It boasts one of the best-preserved medieval city centers in Germany and is especially proud of its landmark Krämer Bridge - the longest house bridge in Europe, complete with 32 residences.
Deutschland heute vom 7. 2. 2003 - Marktplatz von der Lutherstadt Wittenberg in Sachsen-Anhalt
Often cited as his spiritual home, Martin Luther moved here in 1501, when Erfurt was the sixth largest town in Germany. He lived in the town's Augustinian monastery (Augustinerstrasse 10), now one of the most important destinations on the Lutheran trail, and began his studies at the university, graduating in 1505. In 1507, Luther was ordained as a priest here.
Today, Luther's quarters in the monastery have been reconstructed to create a sense of what daily life must have been like in this strict monastic order.
The monastery is also an architectural monument to medieval religious architecture, situated right in the old town of Erfurt. Badly destroyed during World War II, it was rebuilt in 1982 as part of celebrations marking the 500th birthday of Martin Luther.
Day three -- Wittenberg
Inmitten der historischen Kreuzgangs im Augustinerkloster steht diese Bueste Martin Luthers am Freitag, 4. Mai 2001, in Erfurt. Die 1994 wiedergegruendete Erfurter Universitaet feiert am Samstag, 5. Mai 2001, mit einem Strassenfest die Immatrikulation ihres beruehmtesten Studenten, Martin Luther, vor 500 Jahren. Sie ist eine der aeltesten und zugleich die juengste der deutschen Universitaeten und steht im Ruf der Reformfreudigkeit. (AP Photo/Jens Meyer) --zu unserem KORR--
Some 200 kilometers away from Erfurt lies Wittenberg, the final destination on the Luther tour. Luther spent 36 years of his life here – and the town is a treasure trove for Luther pilgrims.
As a 25-year-old priest, Luther was inducted as teacher at Wittenberg University in 1508. The small town on the banks of the River Elbe had just 2,000 inhabitants, and the pace of life was slow. Luther was said to have described it as town "on the edge of civilization".
The priest lived with Augustinian hermits, and today, visitors to Wittenberg can explore his quarters, maintained in their original form, at the Luther House, Luther Memorial Foundation of Saxony-Anhalt.
The museum also houses the world's largest collection of documents charting the history of the Reformation, with more than 10,000 prints, 6,000 manuscripts, thousands of portraits of Luther, 2,000 coins and medallions as well as 14,000 graphics. The museum authorities completed a comprehensive restoration of these historic pieces, and a permanent exhibition opened in March, 2003.
Reformation begins in Wittenberg
It was during his years in Wittenberg that Luther made a name for himself as a reformer. During a visit to Rome in 1510, the theologian was appalled by what he perceived as a corrupt Catholic Church. A system to raise badly-needed funds for the rebuilding of St. Peter's, which involved papal emissaries selling indulgences, was being grossly abused. In October 1517, Luther drew up a list of 95 theses questioning the right of the Pope to forgive sins. When he nailed the document to the door of the Palace Church (Schlossplatz) in Wittenberg, his actions caused ripples in Rome, and he was summoned for an audience with Pope Leo X. The event heralded the beginning of the Protestant Reformation in Germany - and ultimately, Protestantism in general.
Today the Palace Church is Wittenberg's main attraction for Luther pilgrims.
Luther continued to challenge the Papacy. In 1520, he published his famous address "An den christlichen Adel deutscher Nation" (Address to the Christian Nobility of the German Nation), followed by the treatise "De captivitate Babylonica ecclesiae Praeludium" (A Prelude concerning the Babylonian Captivity of the Church), which also attacked the doctrinal system of the Church of Rome.
On December 10 of the same year, Luther burned the papal bull issued against him before a gathering of doctors, students, and citizens in Wittenberg, on a spot marked today by the legendary "Lutheran Oak" (located at the intersection of Lutherstrasse and Collegienstrasse).
In 1522, Luther gave his first sermons in German at the church of St. Marien (Kirchplatz) in Wittenberg. The most remarkable work of art in this, the oldest building in Wittenberg, is the cycle of paintings on the Reformation altar by Lucas Cranach the Elder, dedicated in 1547. The group on the right-hand side of the main panel refers to Luther' communion teachings and shows Luther taking his place among the apostles at the Last Supper.
Wittenberg is also home to one of Germany's most beautiful Renaissance town halls, situated on the market square and flanked by a striking Luther memorial. Originally planned for Eisleben, the town of Luther's birth and death, it was brought to Wittenberg on the orders of the Prussian King Friedrich Wilhelm III. Perhaps one of the most significant of the many artistic tributes to Luther in Germany, the memorial is the work of the Berlin sculptor Gottfried Schadow, while the neo-Gothic dais was designed by Karl Friedrich Schinkel.
Lucas Cranach the Elder, a friend of Luther's, was an artist whose paintings and graphics gave strong impetus to the Reformation movement. He also served as mayor here from 1537 to 1544, as well as running the town's apothecary - which still stands to this day - a book shop and a flourishing studio, which helped make Wittenberg an important center for various artistic activities in Germany.
Still a controversial figure
Although there are over 70 million followers of the Lutheran Church worldwide, Dr. Martin Luther remains a controversial figure.
Initially a supporter of the Jews, he became frustrated by their unwillingness to embrace his own religion, and emerged as one of the most bitter anti-Semites in history. In his writings, he described Jews as poisoners, ritual murderers and parasites, preaching that they were worse than devils, that their synagogues should be burned to the ground and that they should be expelled from Germany.
His detractors may argue that Luther helped set the stage for the Holocaust. But for others, Luthers was a spiritual genius, a man with a remarkable ability to inspire others with his passion and dedication to the Christian faith.