The UNESCO World Heritage Site of Lorsch Abbey – halfway between Darmstadt and Worms – is a place of concentrated cultural history. Traces lead back from this site to a chequered past that shaped Benedictines, Cistercians, Premonstratensians, and after the dissolution of the monastery, many more. Its high point was undoubtedly in the early Middle Ages around 800, when Lorsch became associated with the Frankish king and emperor Charlemagne († 814) and his successors from the Carolingian dynasty. In 774, the ruler of an expanding great empire that laid the political and cultural foundations of Europe was even there in the flesh. Charles made Lorsch, blessed with the relics of Saint Nazarius, an imperial monastery, thus an agent of his politics, of a church reform and of educational programmes. It became rich and powerful.

Lorsch Abbey with gate hall and church fragment

Small, but world-famous: the gate hall of Lorsch Abbey. Behind it, the fragment of the abbey church.

Foto: Michael Leukel, 2019

The Gate Hall is an unique building 

The Frankish Empire succeeded the Roman Empire. The famous gate hall, one of only three remaining buildings at the site, reflects this with references to antiquity in its architectural decoration. It is the best preserved Carolingian building north of the Alps. The other remnants are the fragment of a basilica, once a “wonder of splendour and beauty”, and two thirds of the abbey wall. Together, they earned Lorsch World Heritage status 30 years ago. Unfortunately, much has been lost and, despite pictorial representations and the ground finds, the complex cannot be accurately reconstructed. Federal investment funds for World Heritage sites helped the idea along: in 2010–2014, the abbey grounds were redesigned.

Lorsch Abbey, church fragment

In its best days, the central abbey church was over a hundred metres long.

Foto: Michael Leukel, 2019

Lorsch Abbey, levels of the new terrain design

Like footprints, depressions in the terrain mark the once existing building structures.

Foto: Hanns Joosten, 2014

Lorsch Abbey, remains of the abbey wall

The wall is the largest structure to have survived Lorsch’s monastic period.

Foto: Hanns Joosten, 2014

Multiple Awards for the Green Reshaping of the Abbey Hill

The known building structures press themselves as “footprints” into a green lawn. But the archaeological layer is not disturbed by this intervention. Earth has been heaped up around the footprints. Like a velvet-lined coin box, the dimensions of the former structures in the terrain and the special aura of the site can be experienced. The design by Topotek1 was awarded the German Landscape Architecture Award of the Association of German Landscape Architects in 2015 and the European Garden Award 2016 of the European Garden Heritage Network.

Lorsch Abbey, herb garden

In the herb garden, what the oldest medical manuscript, the Lorsch Pharmacopoeia, recommended for the art of healing is replanted.

Foto: Hanns Joosten, 2014

Lorsch Abbey, gate hall

View of the back of the gate hall: to the right is the museum centre.

Foto: Hanns Joosten, 2014

Lorsch Abbey, sarcophagus

This sarcophagus is said to have contained the body of a grandson of Charlemagne, King Louis the German.

Foto: Michael Leukel, 2018

Innovative medieval education counts for a lot in Lorsch. For visitors, there is a versatile museum centre, a herb garden and, with the tithe barn, a display depot for architectural sculpture. There are exhibitions, guided tours and hands-on programmes.

Experience on Site, Study Digitally

The former centre of power, intellectuality and science can also be traced digitally: the “Bibliotheca Laureshamensis”, for example, virtually reunites the large but scattered abbey library. One of its treasures is the Lorsch Pharmacopoeia, also bearing the UNESCO seal: the oldest medical manuscript spread the word for the first time that the art of healing does not interfere with God’s plan, but is an act of charity. The plants mentioned can be admired in real life in the medicinal herb garden.

The Lauresham Experimental Archaeological Open-Air Laboratory, newly created in 2014, is also a visitor magnet. It is an ideal model of a Carolingian manor house with residential and farm buildings as well as gardens, meadows, pastures and fields. There you can vividly see what everyday life was like for people around 1,200 years ago.

Experimental Archaeology

At the same time, it is a place of work for scientists in a special field: They use experiments to question the past and (re)construct it. Some of the answers they find, for example about early medieval agriculture and animal husbandry, even extend towards a better ecological future. With a breeding project started at Lauresham that brings cattle as close as possible to the extinct aurochs, Lauresham also promotes biodiversity through extensive grazing with these animals. In this way, the open-air laboratory makes an active contribution to nature conservation.

Tithe Barn Show Depot

Lorsch Abbey, sarcophagus

It is probably the most valuable piece in the show depot: the stone sarcophagus decorated with pilasters – presumably of the East Frankish King Louis the Pious.

Foto: Michael Leukel, 2018