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Visiting Basel, Switzerland: enduring and remarkable

Updated on April 9, 2011
Flag of Switzerland
Flag of Switzerland | Source
The City of Basel, and the Rhine, from the Minster
The City of Basel, and the Rhine, from the Minster | Source
The grave of Erasmus, in the Minster of Basel
The grave of Erasmus, in the Minster of Basel | Source
Map showing the City of Basel's location on the Rhine, bordering France and Germany
Map showing the City of Basel's location on the Rhine, bordering France and Germany | Source

Resting place of Erasmus: witness to a towering historical and scholarly figure

The phrase 'the heart of Europe' can be a cliché, but when applied to Basel it applies very well, in many ways.

One of Europe's greatest sons is buried in the Minster Church, sometimes referred to as a cathedral, overlooking the Rhine River, in Basel: his name: Erasmus. Regarding the great Renaissance scholar Desiderius Erasmus of Rotterdam (1466/7-1536), it is rather difficult to overstate the colossal importance and influence of this towering figure in history.

As the early printing industry emerged in the late 15th and early 16th centuries, Erasmus used his deep knowledge of Greek and Latin to prepare editions of manuscripts and texts for posterity. Erasmus built on the methodology of Laurentius Valla, and produced — among others — editions of his Novum instrumentum , first printed in 1516, which contained the Greek text of the New Testament, the purpose of which was to justify his emendations to his edition of Jerome's Latin Vulgate. Indeed, from the prolific pen of Erasmus flowed book editions, letters, satire and commentaries.

Indeed, there is a sense in which notions of historical-grammatical hermeneutics — interpreting what words mean in their context — owe a great deal to the labours and standards which this great Renaissance scholar set. His labours are a reminder that in law, religion, administration and in so many areas of life, what existing words mean in their context are an essential gift to humanity: and not what motivated people with vested interests might campaign to make them mean. Erasmus, through his copious writings, a friend of so many scholars he never met, during his lifetime and since, was certainly excoriated by both sides of the religious controversies of his day. But his essential message, with whatever sort of writings that one is dealing with, seems to be: let the words in their context speak for themselves.

The Basel printer Johann Froben collaborated with Erasmus for various of the latter's publications. His printing house was founded in 1491 and the printer himself was the subject of a portrait by Hans Holbein the Younger.

History of the Minster church

This church (der Basler Muenster ) was built from the 11th to the 15th centuries, in a combination of styles: both Romanesque and Gothic. Some sources claim that a bishop of Basel was based at the Roman settlement of Augusta Rarica, 12 kilometres away, as early as the 4th century.

In 1356 the need arose for the rebuilding of the Minster church, after an earthquake. The Council of Basel was held here between 1431 and 1449. The scholar Johannes Oecolampadius , who assisted Erasmus editorially, also ministered at the Cathedral. In 1529 control of the church building passed to the Swiss Reformed Church, as did the city. It was during this period that a number of items of artwork, previously used in veneration, were destroyed.

In the 19th century some modifications were made to the interior of the building, which proved to be controversial and contemporary attempts to preserve the building include efforts to reverse some of these 19th century changes regarded as unacceptable.

The Marktplatz and the City Hall

One of Basel's main squares is the Marktplatz (Market Place). Among the most significant buildings on this square is the City Hall (der Rathaus ). A Medieval city hall stood on the site of the current structure, which dates from the 16th century, with modifications from the 19th century.

Guided tours of the City Hall are available. The building is noted for its distinctive sandstone, and mural art.

University of Basel

This 15th century institution is the oldest in Switzerland. Founded in 1460, Erasmus was later to teach in it, as did, in the 19th century, the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. Later, the theologians Carl Jung and Karl Barth were to teach at the university.

The university's library is the largest in Switzerland.

Basel cantonal history

Basel joined the Swiss Confederation in 1501. At the time of the French Revolution, a short-lived republic, using events in France as an inspiring model, was established.

In 1833, a civil war arose. Part of the results of this war was the division of Basel's Canton into two parts: Basel City (Basel-Stadt ) and Basel Country (Basel-Landschaft ).

...and a word on spelling

While on the borders of France, Basel is within the German-speaking part of Switzerland; indeed, is one of its major cities. The German spelling of the city is 'Basel' and increasingly English writers use this spelling also. Previously, in English, the spelling would sometimes be given as 'Basle'. This purported to be the French spelling; however, the actual French spelling is: Bâle, and this is has also sometimes been used in English.

I like the Dutch spelling, though: 'Bazel', as in the Dutch phrase about Erasmus, born at Rotterdam, The Netherlands: 'Hier rees die grote zon, en ging te Bazel onder' (Here rose this great sun, and set in Basel).

Also worth seeing

Riehen (distance: 7.2 kilometres) is a suburb of Basel situated north of the Rhine River, from Downtown area, accessible by streetcar. Its St. Martin's church has a Medieval tower. Riehen has a well-appointed Toy Museum (das Spielzeugmuseum ) and the grounds of the Wenkenpark are worth visiting.

Augst (distance: 12 kilometres) has a Roman museum and well preserved Roman ruins known as Augusta Rarica.


How to get there: Air France, Delta and KLM , which have a code-sharing agreement, operate flights from New York to EuroAirport Basel Mulhouse Freiburg, via stopovers. Car hire is available at this airport. Please check with the airline or your travel agent for up to date information. Please refer to appropriate consular sources for any special border crossing arrangements which may apply to citizens of certain nationalities.

MJFenn is an independent travel writer based in Ontario, Canada.

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