The Erzgebirge′s long journey to UNESCO World Heritage | DW Travel | DW | 08.07.2019
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The Erzgebirge's long journey to UNESCO World Heritage

Silver, tin and uranium were mined here for over 800 years. Now the German-Czech region of Erzgebirge/Krušnohoří was added to UNESCO's World Heritage List. We look at Freiberg's long journey to World Heritage.

Freiberg is a down-to-earth town that is very much worth a visit. The first impression when you walk over the cobblestones of the old town on a sunny workday is that the center is packed with listed buildings from the Renaissance and Baroque periods. And yet, apart from a few cyclists, there are hardly any tourists to be seen. Also, unlike in comparable old cities in Germany, there are only a few souvenir shops. Instead, there are hairdressers, bakers, butchers and an information cafe for students of the Technical University Bergakademie Freiberg.

The Golden Arch at Freiberg Cathedral (DW/A. Kirchhoff)

The Golden Gate of Freiberg Cathedral originates from its Romanesque predecessor, which was destroyed in a fire in 1484

Freiberg is located in the north of the Erzgebirge, or Ore Mountains as they are sometimes referred to in English, pretty much in the heart of the federal state of Saxony. Freiberg became an important city in the Middle Ages because silver was found here by chance in the 12th century. Mining rights and mineral resources ensured growth and prosperity. The main market place shows visitors at a glance, both the wealth and the basis for the early development. On one side is St. Mary's Cathedral, a late Gothic hall church with the opulent Golden Gate dating from the 13th century. Right next door is the former Domherrenhof, which has housed the mining museum since 1903. Town citizens have been recording their mining exploits since 1860, so the appreciation of Freiberg's own special history has a long tradition.

Shaped by mining traditions 

Sven Krüger, the mayor of Freiberg, resides in the town hall, an elongated Renaissance building on the Market Square. He welcomes his guests with "Glück auf", the miner's traditional greeting, which describes both the hope of opening a rich vein of ore as well as wishing miners a safe return after their shift. Mayor Krüger enthuses about the wealth of the cultural landscape and about the mining tradition in the Erzgebirge. Only recently old shafts dating from the 12th and 13th centuries were discovered during construction work in Freiberg.

Freiberg Cathedral with statue of Otto the Rich (DW/A. Kirchhoff)

Town hall and fountain statue of Otto the Rich, founder of the town, his nickname is due to the silver deposits in Freiberg

 A young Alexander von Humboldt studied at the Freiberg School of Mines, founded in 1765, and on graduation in 1792 provided them with an expert opinion on the drainage of mining tunnels. Sven Krüger also emphasizes that the concept of sustainability was discovered in Freiberg as early as 1713. At that time it involved planting new forests to compensate for the timber used to secure mining tunnels.
The mayor says visitors who want to get an idea of living traditions in the Erzgebirge should see the mountain parades in the run-up to Christmas. Although the mining industry became a thing of the past in 1990, there are still many clubs and societies that take to the streets in historic miners' costumes in towns such as Annaberg-Buchholz, Freiberg or Schneeberg.

The long journey to world heritage

Helmuth Albrecht, professor at the Freiberg Mining University, works in Silbermannstraße, not far from the town hall. He heads the Institute for the History of Technology and Industrial Archaeology and is one of the driving forces behind the application for World Heritage Site status. He has been involved right from the start, since the first deliberations in the Saxon Ministry of Science in March 2000. His initial application disappeared in a ministry drawer. And when the Saxon state capital Dresden lost its World Heritage title in 2009 due to a new bridge over the Elbe, it seemed there was virtually no political support left.

Portrait photo of Helmuth Albrecht, professor at the Freiberg Mining University (DW/A. Kirchhoff)

"Our UNESCO application had to be developed jointly across borders." Historian Helmuth Albrecht in his Freiberg office

Helmuth Albrecht, however, was not discouraged. "I knew we would only get through this if we had the whole region behind us." So a laborious tour to mayors, clubs and sponsors on the German and Czech side of the Erzgebirge followed. It also involved evaluating 20,000 registered monuments in order to select the ones most typical and important ones for the region. For him, this also had to incorporate the darker sides of the mining history in of the Erzgebirge like uranium mining and the destruction of life and landscapes. "This was an important epoch in the history of the world. Uranium for the first Soviet-Russian atomic bomb was mined here".
The initial application to UNESCO in 2016 was found to be too detailed. But this did not deter Helmuth Albrecht and his comrades-in-arms, even though the decision to not include objects such as Augustusburg Castle, 30 kilometers (18.6 mi) from Freiberg, was painful for him. "The hunting lodge with the beautiful fountain created and dug by miners. We had originally included it because it was built with the wealth from the Erzgebirge."

Erzgebirge application papers for UNESCO World Heritage Site status (DW/A. Kirchhoff)

30 years ago the application was submitted in 92 pages, today the application of the Erzgebirge contains four weighty volumes

This time everything went according to plan. The motion, which was put to the vote for the 43rd session of the World Heritage Commitee in Baku, amounts to four thick volumes. Helmut Albrecht was attending the UNESCO meeting in Baku ready to answer any questions. "It was a very, very long process, and I'll be glad when it's over."

Cultural treasures of Freiberg

On the outskirts of the old town of Freiberg, directly in front of the last preserved gate of the city fortification, the tower of the St. Jakobi Church leads to another treasure, which is connected to the cultural landscape of Freiberg. The church houses a Silbermann organ, one of four in the city. Gottfried Silbermann is regarded as one of the most important organ builders of the Baroque period. From about 50 instruments built in his Freiberg workshop, 31 have survived to this day, most of them in Saxony.

The Gottfried Silbermann organ dating from 1717 in the Jacobi church in Freiberg, Germany (DW/A. Kirchhoff)

The organ built around 1717 by Gottfried Silbermann in the St. Jacobi Church

Visitors to the St. Jakobi Church can hear the sound of the organ every Friday at lunchtime during the summer. That's when the organist plays music composed by Silbermann's contemporaries, from Johann Sebastian Bach to Francois Couperin. "You can't tell the age of the great organ by looking at it," Clemens Lucke of the Silbermann Society stresses adding that the instrument has been well looked after over the centuries.
According to Clemens Lucke, 300 years ago Gottfried Silbermann used only high-quality materials and was an artist of his trade. Even small villages in Saxony invested in one of his organs. "If you drive through the Erzgebirge, you can find Silbermann organs in many places, which also helped to shape the region." Each organ has its own character and yet, as an organist, he feels comfortable playing any of them.
Back in Freiberg, mayor Sven Krüger stressed that the UNESCO World Heritage title would enable the local cultural landscape to grow even closer together and strengthen its identity. "Then as a region we could be more successful. It would generate global attention which in turn could help attract one or two tourists".

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