The most beautiful and iconic buildings in Europe are usually churches. Different branches of Christianity have lost relevance in the old continent and many have become tourist attractions. Hamburg has about 100 churches in its central and surrounding area. St. Michael’s Church and St. Nicholas Church, which is now a monument, are the main religious landmarks. Most visitors include both places on their list of things to see in Hamburg.
I was walking from my hotel in Hamburgo to Minatur Wunderland when I saw a building that stood out. I changed my route to visit St. Catherine’s Church, as I was walking along the Elbe River. Followed by the monumental Gothic ruin of St. Nicholas Church.
St. Nicholas Church
At the end of the 12th century, Count Adolf III von Schauenburg founded a new town in Alster, a right tributary of the Elbe River in northern Germany. This action separated the old part of the town from the new one. Its citizens asked for a church to pray, so he built a chapel that was dedicated to St. Nicholas. It was said that this saint had rescued many people in distress at sea as a merchant seaman and also helped the poor with generous alms. Many churches on the coast of northern Germany chose him as their patron saint.
This was the second church in Hamburg, after St. Mary’s Cathedral that was merged in personal union with the diocese of Bremen. St. Nicholas Church had many changes over the years. It went from having an initial capacity of 300 to 1,500 people in 1400. By that time, the church already had 22 altars. In 1517 the first tower was built, but it suffered structural problems and other damages caused by fires and thunder. They built two more towers, but in May 1842 there was a great fire that ended a third of the city in four days. The technology of the era did not allow to extinguish the fire in the tower, which ended up collapsing, falling on the main building and burning it completely.
They made a competition to establish the design of the new church. Its winner was Gottfried Semper, an architect from Hamburg who was living in Dresden. He wanted to maintain the structure, preserving and modernizing it without losing the essence. But the citizens wanted a new St. Nicholas Church. They started a collection where each person had to donate a shilling once a week. Semper’s proposal was similar to Dresden Frauenkirche, elegant and modern, without being ostentatious.
At that time, a Gothic cathedral in Cologne had just been completed. And the public was very excited about the Middle Ages. They thought that the Gothic style was the authentic Germanic style and the pointed arch was “more German” than Semper’s round arch. The public pressure was so great that they gave the contract to a young Briton named George Gilbert Scott.
Construction began in 1844, but it took 36 years to complete. It became the most important sacred building in the neo-Gothic style. It had a basilica of three naves 86 meters long, with three apses of the choir and a small baptistery. The altar, the floors and the columns were made of marble.
Visiting St. Nicholas Church is free, unless you want to go up to the bell tower and go to the museum. I had very few Euros and they did not accept credit card. But I decided to pay € 5 and go up to what was once the tallest building in the world. Its bell tower, which still exists, measures 147.3 meters and was built in 1874. The record did not last long since in 1876 it was surpassed by the Rouen Cathedral. Today, it is still the fifth highest in the world. Also, it is the second tallest building in Hamburg, after the Heinrich Hertz Tower with 279.2 meters.
In 2005 a glass elevator was installed that takes you up to the observation platform that is at a height of 76 meters. On the way up, which lasts 40 seconds, you can appreciate the views. The upper part offers the best view of the city, including the center of Hamburg, the City Hall, Alster, the port, the cruise terminal, Speicherstadt (a warehouse complex built at the end of the 19th century) and the city of Hafen .
Historical photographs show how Hamburg looked when it was destroyed in 1943, allowing a comparison of the reconstruction. You can visit the observation tower and the museum any day except December 24, 25 and 31, as well as January 1. The schedule is from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. except from May to September when it closes at 6 p.m.
Being the tallest building in the city, the spire of the St. Nicholas Church served as a target for the British bomber fleet. They chose it as a point of reference for their night air attacks. It was the biggest bombing to date. Therefore, it was described as having “biblical dimensions” and was called Operation Gomorrah. If you are curious to know more, then you must go down to the museum located in the crypt.
The Allied bombers dropped a total of approximately 18,000 tons of bombs on the port, the city center and the large residential areas. The arson match caused a firestorm that reached an altitude of 6,000 meters. The entire city became a volcano, with hurricane winds that raised hot air causing low ground pressure, which in turn absorbed oxygen, acting as an accelerator. Approximately 34,000 people died in this fire storm; many burned or suffocated within a few seconds. 40,000 buildings with 263,000 homes were destroyed and the city of Hamburg was in ruins. One of the rooms of the museum shows a video of what happened between July 24 and 29, 1943. You can also see things like the Nazi propaganda trying to pretend that the air bombings were normal.
The Church of St. Nicholas suffered some damage but not enough not to be rebuilt. However, times had changed and people felt that there were other priorities. In 1951 the nave of the Church was demolished. Over the years, the place became a monument. For many decades it was left abandoned and in 1987 a foundation was established to restore and manage the site.
Every Thursday at noon they have a free half-hour concert. St. Nikolai Memorial began the installation of a carillon in the church ruin tower in 1993. You can see the 51 bells weighing 13 tons. This instrument can be played manually and automatically.
What remains of St. Nicholas Church in Hamburg serves as a reminder of all the horrors experienced in World War II. We hope that we do not forget this lesson, since the world does not need another world war.