The ShUM cities of Speyer, Worms and Mainz refers to the cluster of three Jewish communities in the 11th century: Shpira (Sh), Warmaisa (W=U), and Magenza (M).
The three cities were centres of Jewish scholarship and of great importance for Ashkenazi Judaism. The specific customs and legal principles that developed there are still effective for Orthodox Judaism today. The cemetery in Worms and the ritual baths in Speyer and Worms have largely been preserved in their original form. The other components are the remains of the synagogue in Speyer and the cemetery in Mainz and the synagogue in Worms, which was reconstructed after World War II.
Map of ShUM SitesLoad map
I had superficially visited the Speyer components of this WHS way back in September 2010. However, after inscription, I revisited Speyer in October 2021 specifically focusing on the ShUM sites in Speyer, namely the Medieval synagogue and ritual bath (mikvah) and the ShPIRA museum with some of the most important gravestones from the cemetery and the Lingenfeld Treasure, a mere 200 metres or so from the Speyer Cathedral. These three sites together are nicknamed Judenhof or Jewish courtyard and are open to the public everyday from 1st April till 31st October (10:00 to 17:00) and Monday to Saturday from 1st November to 31st March (10:00-16:00).
Medieval Speyer was home to one of the most important Jewish communities north of the Alps. In the 11th century, Jewish merchants and bankers came to Speyer from Italy and France. 1084, the year when Bishop Rudiger Hutzmann offered refuge to Jews who fled Mainz, marks the beginning of a Jewish community in Speyer. He placed the refugees under his protection and granted them special rights.
The Jewish community of Speyer (ShPIRA in Hebrew) existed for more than 400 years. Well into the 13th century, scholars came to the Rhine from far and wide to study with the wise men or sages of Speyer. By the 14th century, however, the coexistence of Jews and Christians, which until then had been largely peaceful, was marred by anti-Jewish sentiment. Around 1500, the history of the Medieval Jewish community of Speyer came to an end; the reasons for the decline and extinction of the community are not fully known.
As early as 1529, the municipal authorities were already using the former Jewish synagogue as an arsenal. In 1689, when Speyer was ravaged in the Palatine War of Succession, the former Jewish house of worship was also destroyed, leaving only ruins and rubble. The synagogue began to be built in the Romanesque style by Christian craftsmen around 1100, and it was consecrated in 1104. Around 1250, the synagogue was redesigned in the Gothic style, and a women's prayer hall was added. Later on, the flat roof of the women's hall was replaced by a vaulted ceiling, and buttresses were added to absorb the additional pressure on the exterior walls.
A masoned recess is still visible in the eastern wall of the original synagogue, where the Torah shrine would have been, and above it is a small round window dating back to 1104 and the remains of a larger round window above it. Left and right of the large round window are the jambs of the Gothic windows added during the alterations around 1250. At the opposite end of the synagogue, the west wall is part of an adjacent building erected around 1900; the Romanesque windows here are copies - the originals can be seen inside the museum. Incredibly, the women's prayer hall was excavated as late as 2001 and after restoration it was opened to the public.
The "mikvah" or Jewish ritual bath of Speyer, which was built around 1120, is the oldest of its kind north of the Alps. The Hebrew word means "a collecting place for water". Ritual cleansing after periods of impurity required "living" water, for instance river or spring water, groundwater or rainwater. The immersion pool of the Speyer mikvah is located some 10 metres below today's street level in the city centre, near the synagogue. There are some old pillars and capitals adorning the staircase and antechamber downstairs worth noting, and the water would do with some cleaning as it can get smelly and attracts quite a number of mosquitoes in summer. To me, the ritual bath was the only true highlight of this rather weak WHS, at least in Speyer. However, I still hope to visit the remaining components in Worms and Mainz one day. I would recommend downloading the ShUM-Sites on the Rhine App to get more out of your visit.
Near misses are always terrible. I vividly remember the sunny day I visited Speyer Cathedral for the first time, I guess ten years ago. And I also know that on the occasion I saved myself the hassle of visiting some Jewish ruins 200m down the road... In addition, I have been multiple times to Mainz, again not ticking of the cemetery. And having lived for years in Mannheim, a visit to Worms would have been in due order, too...
With the 2021 inscription of the ShUM sites I had to go again; my ambition is to have all German sites covered. Of the three locations, I picked Speyer. I had wanted to revisit the cathedral anyhow, the first visit being interrupted by mass. This time - by coincidence - I visited on the German Day of the Monument. As a result the site had guides and was free of charge.
Speyer is a rather small site, the highlight being the Mikva, the Jewish bath. There are ruins of a Synagogue and an onsite museum, providing some context. The signs were mostly in German. The whole town was still decorated with flags for the new inscription.
It seems there are now two grumpy old man on the site. However, if Paul and I both come out on the same rating, I feel that I am in good company. ;) My explanation for the low rating is that this should never have been a separate site to begin with.
The site in Speyer is 200m from the Cathedral. Speyer has a nice old town to accompany the Mikva and the Cathedral, so extending the existing WHS to include old town and the Jewish ruins would have been a sensible thing to do. The template "Fancy Cathedral, Nice Old Town, some Jewish Remains" also applies to Worms and Mainz.
While all descriptions refer to Mainz, Worms, and Speyer as Jewish centers of study, they all fail to mention one other topic that groups them: Mainz, Worms and Speyer are Imperial Cities of the Holy Roman Empire, specifically the Salian dynasty. The Salians had their powerbase in the area during - what a coincidence - the period where the ShUM sites came into existence. As such it's a bit weird to carve out only the Jewish heritage.
I am not a fan of serial sites to begin with. For me, they should have settled on extending Speyer.
All locations are connected by frequent regional trains to the major transport hubs of Frankfurt and Mannheim. All sites can be reached on foot from the train station.
While You Are There
All cities being imperial cities with history dating back to the Romans, there is plenty to discover. All cities feature prominent cathedrals, with Speyer Cathedral a WHS on its own, and Worms a former tentative site. Mainz is a nice town renown for it's Carnival.
Other WHS in the area are the original Limes, Lorsch, Darmstadt and Grube Messel. Two former tents are also in the area, Schwetzingen and Heidelberg.
This site is used everywhere around Rheinland Pfalz to promote tourism. While the Jewish communities in those towns may have been of great importance for the European Jews the main story that sticks in your mind after your visit is the horrible and repeated persecutions those communities had to suffer. Even the buildings you see now are all reconstructions after destructions in different periods what makes you feel embarrassed as a European of christian background and you cannot help but be reminded of the Third Reich. The fact is that there was horrible Antisemitism in the 19th C. (just remember Dreyfuss as one example) and that today synagogues in most European countries need protection from military or paramilitary staff.
Therefore the age of the buildings varies greatly and some parts are reconstructions from the 20th century since the Nazis didn't spare any jewish sites. My first and best visit was in Speyer. After visiting the magnificent cathedral and the wonderful Trinity church I went to the Jewish museum: I remember a small exhibition, the ruined but still impressive remains of the synagogue and mainly the wonderful mikweh, the best preserved I have visited. It leads you quite deep to the small pool and is embellished with romanesque arches. This is for me the best element of the this WHS.
The visit to Worms was last year and more difficult. I was amazed how badly organized and signed the site was considering the big hopes and efforts they made to get the WH title. The cemetery Heiliger Sand was on Google maps open every day but sunday. When I went there there was a sign that it was only open with a tour. This tour was only once a day and the interest in it so great that it was fully booked for days. If it is such a success why don't say make more then one tour a day?
When I went to the Jewish Museum I was to stupid to find it: The synagogue was closed and the sign said: "Use the entrance on Synagogenplatz". I assumed I was standing on synagogue square since I stood in front of the building. I couldn't find the square on GM either and there was no map how to find it. So I went around the building but no sign but finally I found behind the block a sign for the museum. Heureka! The museum is well done and well worth a visit. Afterwards I returned to the front of the synagogue and there was still the same sign to use the entrance on Synagogenplatz but I had still no idea where that was. I searched on and found the Mikweh which was closed: danger of collapse! I wondered why it wasn't renovated before the application. I also found a side entrance to the synagogue without any signs. I had passed them before and assumed they were locked. Finally I tried the main entrance despite the sign to use another entrance and surprisingly it was open. There was no information at all about the building. The lady who watched over the place told me that I could also enter the side entrance which gave access to a small room with a long table and a seat at the end, elevated like a throne. Also no information here.
On my last visit to Mainz I was unlucky that the rules for Corona changed suddenly and I had to had home immediately. I went back to Mainz this summer to catch up but it was hard to find information about opening times for the cemetery. I went there during the day and hoped it would be open. It was full with big signs about world heritage and tourism and there was even a sign: access at one's risk. But it was locked and there was no information about opening times or tours. I met an elderly gentlemen sneaking around the fence like me and taking pictures. He was as clueless as I and asked me if I had any idea how you might enter the cemetery but unfortunately I couldn't help him. We talked a bit and he asked me if I knew the Jewish cemetery in Frankfurt which he found impressive. I decided to put that on my list of thing to do when I pass through Frankfort the next time.
The discrepancy between the big promotion of the place and the bad tourist management is rather sad for a country like Germany and I wonder why UNESCO wasn't bothered by this. In the end I saw the two museums in Worms and Speyer and the Worms synagogue but at both cemeteries I could only peer though the fence. But I will count this site nonetheless as visited and make a new effort only when I have another reason to go back to Worms and Mainz. For a history nerd this could be a worthwhile site but you have to be tough to enjoy it the way it is handled at the moment.
If you are interested in the topic beyond the included sites there is an excellent museum in nearby Frankfurt, the "Museum Judengasse", that would even make a good addition to this WHS: Frankfurt had a Jewish population from an early time and good times of a certain tolerance alternated with several progroms. There is a good detailed account of this on Wikipedia. In the 15th century the council decided to force the Jews to settle in a certain stretch of land outside the old ramparts, creating thus the first European ghetto. This was surprising news for me. This small quarter had a wall and gates and was locked at night and on Sundays. The ghetto was one of the last in Europe and it was only after Napoleon the city council was forced to open it up, but only for an extra fee payable by the Jewish community. It is really hard to believe how the christian majority treated their Jewish neighbours here as in many places!
As they were now free to choose there place to live most Jews moved away but a new synagogue was build at the place of the old Judengasse synagogue. Most buildings were torn down and the small houses and streets were replaced by a new quarter. When the city built a new building in the nineteen eighties the uncovered the foundations of several houses of the old quartet, one even including a mikweh and a museum was build in the basement of a big administrative building. It is not a big museum but I found this museum very well done and spent easily more then an hour there. They do a good job and give you an idea of how people lived there and what they had to live with. One family there was called Rothschild and created even under those oppressed circumstances a quite successful business!
The ShUM cities of Speyer, Worms and Mainz will probably be up for nomination in 2021 – I write “probably” as we have no idea how the schedule of new nominations will be after the postponement of this year’s WHC session. When I visited Worms last Friday the city seemed to be more preoccupied with the 500th anniversary of Luther’s appearance at the Diet of Worms than with the upcoming World Heritage (Worms has a UNESCO Memory of the World listing for Luther already). I of course focused on the 2 locations included in this TWHS: the former Synagogue Compound in the Jewish quarter and Old Jewish 'Heiliger Sand' Cemetery of Worms.
Every Friday at 11 am there is a guided tour of the Heiliger Sand cemetery. I aimed my arrival in Worms to be in time to participate, which meant that I left my home already at 5 am! An 8 EUR ticket has to be bought beforehand at the Tourist Information in the city center, the tour starts at the entrance of the cemetery just outside it. Upon buying my ticket I was told that the tour would start half an hour later today. I arrived around 11.15 and noticed rightaway an official looking group with people in neat clothes including one or two who could pass for specialists on Jewish heritage. My guide later on confirmed my first impression: these were UNESCO / ICOMOS members and specialists on a site visit related to the appraisal of the WH nomination.
For my tour 13 people showed up (15 is the maximum). The tour is conducted in German only. The guide managed to fill almost 2 hours – it was her first tour post-Covid and maybe she got a bit carried away. The cemetery certainly isn’t large and half an hour would be enough when you’re on your own. But I was glad that I joined the tour as lots of little details were pointed out. The cemetery lies outside the medieval city walls of Worms and within its own enclosed area (it is locked during the night, but I noticed no other obvious security measures). A lot of new research on it has been done to strengthen the world heritage nomination dossier.
The cemetery is located at the site of a former quarry. The lower part near the entrance has the oldest tombstones. They all have long inscriptions in ancient Hebrew. The 2 most famous stones date from the late 13th century and are those of the Maharam of Rothenburg and Alexander ben Salomon Wimpfen. The first was a Rabbi who was captured by the German king while fleeing from his tax regime. Alexander eventually paid up to have the rabbi’s remains released, on the premise that he himself would be buried beside him. Visitors now leave pebbles on their stones as a memorial.
Higher up lie the dead of later centuries. The Jews in Worms at that time were more assimilated into the German mainstream. The texts on the grave stones were written in German instead of Hebrew, the Christian calendar was used to display the year of death instead of the Hebrew one. The shape of the headstones became more similar to Christian gravestones as well. But still here are a few interesting grave traditions to see, such as the use of a broken column to represent a young man's life cut short.
At the other end of the Worms city center lies the former Jewish quarter, centered around the Judengasse. Here the synagogue complex can be found – with the male and female sections, the ritual bath (now closed for renovation) and the small Jewish museum. It all felt a bit over-restored and clinical. The museum display especially seemed to showcase a far and distant culture instead of a once flourishing local community and the neighbours of the grandparents of today's citizens of Worms.
So what’s the verdict on this TWHS? I am “sitting on the fence” on this one. The historical value of the 3 ShUM cities in the Jewish diaspora is undoubted. However there are very few original tangible remains left and what bothered me the most is that it is a dead culture, fully cut short in the 1930s. The cemetery being advocated in the nomination dossier as a pilgrimage site “for Jews from all over the world” may be a stretch – it’s not that droves of Jews visit the site on special days or so. The City of Worms, volunteers and donators should be praised for rebuilding and taking good care of these monuments, but its Jewish soul left already long time ago.
Read more from Els Slots here.
The term ShUM is an acronym from the initial letters of the medieval names of Speyer, Worms and Mainz in Hebrew: Schin (Sh) for Schpira, Waw (U) for Warmaisa und Mem (M) for Magenza. The Jewish communities in these three cities originated in the 9th and 10th centuries and had their heyday between the 11th and 14th centuries. During this period several important scholars and teachers lived in the ShUM communities. The three cities were a centre of Jewish culture, law and learning and were highly influential in the development of Ashkenazic Judaism. Their significance declined in the mid-14th century, the inexplicable outbreak of the Black Death pandemic led to pogroms throughout Europe and the Jewish quarters in the ShUM communities were burned and widely destroyed. Jews came back a few years later, but the communities never regained their former importance.
The site in Speyer is an easy catch when you visit the Cathedral, the Judenhof is just 200 metres away. The Judenhof was the centre of the medieval Jewish quarter, today you can visit the ruins of the synagogue, the ritual bath and a small museum. The synagogue dates back to the early 12th century, but only the outer walls have been preserved. The mikveh from the same period is considered the oldest of its kind in Central Europe. It has been preserved almost unchanged and has a nice Romanesque vaulting. A staircase leads through a vestibule down to the water basin ten metres below ground level. The ritual bath is worth seeing and is the most interesting part in Speyer (the lower photo shows the vestibule).
Worms is one of the oldest cities in Germany, but it was heavily damaged in WWII and only little remained of the historic structure. But with regard to the Jewish heritage Worms is probably the most interesting of the three cities. The former Jewish quarter was located in the northeast of the old town along the medieval city walls, parts of the wall are still standing. The medieval layout of the quarter is still visible, eg in the Judengasse, although most of the houses were newly built during the following centuries. The first synagogue in Worms was built in the 11th century, but it was destroyed and rebuilt several times. Like most other Jewish buildings, synagogues and stores in Germany, the synagogue in Worms was completely destroyed in the Novemberpogrom 1938. Reconstructed to its original plan after WWII (in part with the original material), it was reconsecrated in 1961 (the upper photo shows the entrance). Next to the synagogue is the ritual bath, it is very similar to the one in Speyer.
The second site in Worms is the cemetery Heiliger Sand. It is considered the oldest Jewish cemetery in Europe. In total there are more than 2000 graves, the oldest legible gravestone dates back to 1059, the most recent graves are from the early 20th century. Surprisingly, the cemetery survived the ravages of the Nazis largely unscathed. A number of important scholars are buried in Worms, their gravestones are covered all over with small slips of paper and stones, a sign of special reverence. I used to live near Worms and I visited the Jewish sites several times. I like in particular the oldest part of the cemetery, it has a special atmosphere.
In Mainz, only the Judensand cemetery is part of the nomination. It is located at the site of the medieval cemetery, but was laid out as a memorial cemetery in 1926, which means the recovered medieval gravestones have been re-erected, but not at their original location. Unfortunately, the cemetery can be visited by prior appointment only. Thus, it is not worthwhile to go to Mainz only because of the T-list site. Other remarkable sights in Mainz are the modern New Synagogue from 2010 and the stained-glass windows by Marc Chagall in St Stephan Church.
There are three sites of Jewish heritage on the German Tentative List, the ShUM cities seem to have the best chances for an inscription. The remains in Worms, Speyer and Mainz date back to the Middle Ages and are among the oldest remains of Jewish culture and religion in Central Europe. The WHS with Jewish sites, such as Prague, Krakow and Trebic are from later centuries. Moreover, the ShUM communities have historical significance, they were important for the development of Judaism in Europe.
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