The Fortress on Lindenhof Hill

It took a bit of climbing, and some beautiful views, before I reached the top of the hill.

Why rush though, I wasn’t pressed for time. So I waltzed like a tourist and took my time to soak in the beauty before me. The waterfront was beautiful, why rush on a leisurely trip when beauty surrounds you? Relatively short buildings lined the streets separated from me by a wide canal. The waterways were clear from clutter and the breeze was fresh. The gentle breeze was cooling just as the sun was lightly warm. For a moment, I stopped thinking of the world around me and let my eyes take in the gorgeous sight in front of me, a vista made more stunning with the sun full in its glory.

I finally made my way up to the top of the hill only to be greeted a steep downward slope.

This couldn’t be the hill and so I turned and continued up the only stairs I could find. Those stairs opened up to one of the highest points in the city the Lindenhof Park.

It would have been to the great credit of the genius of the architects if they had planned for this high vantage point to be park. That was not to be. What is Lindenhof Park today came much later, the acclaim for discovering and making use of this location should perhaps go to soldiers instead.

The city of Zurich is open and unfortified now, welcoming people and finance from all over the world but that was not the case when the location was first settled by a large empire*. It was built first as a customs station in 12 BC early into the reign of Caesar Augustus, just as the Roman Empire got going and was called Turicum.

The region served as a tax collecting point for good that would be loaded onto the water for transport across the lake route. A settlement began to be built all around the station with residential and commercial properties sprouting. As the Roman Empire grew however, more and more people from the northern tribes, the Alemanni sought to raid the settlement, the Alemanni people were essentially early Germanic tribes. To prevent the raiding of these people into their hometown, Emperor Valentinian I built a fortress on the hill.

Why built a fortress on a gentle hill that anyone could climb up though? To understand this we need to imagine that the whole area around Lindenhof was essentially water. The nearby buildings that it overlooks now were swamps. It’s imposing height gave it advantages as a lookout point and defensive fortification making it an idea place for the establishment of a citadel.

The Roman Empire split in 395 and by the 500s the Western Roman Empire was a shell of its former self and was replaced by regional warlords in what is present day France, Spain and Germany.

The region that housed Turicum was now under the control of the Carolingian dynasty. By that point there was no need for a denfensive fortification and instead a kaiserpfalz (a palace) was built in the Roman Palladium style. Even though Rome had fallen, Roman culture was still the culture epitome of any peoples of the time.

A few more palaces were rebuilt in the space, each one grander than the next. This followed the growth of the Frankish Kingdom into an empire, the successor of the former Western Roman Empire – the Holy Roman Empire (which was Roman only in name, and German in every other respect). The settlement around it was rebuilt in the style of the palace to suit. The Holy Roman Empire was an elective monarchy with kings elected to the throne and not born into it. To control an empire that large however required more delegation and therefore a system of noble families was created and given lands to rule over. A House ruled over what Zurich the House of Zähringen.

The Zähringen House founed many cities and lands including Bern, Fribourg and Thun in Switzerland. They were also rulers of Zurich until 1218. That year was an important year for the city, because the last ruler of the House Berthold V died without an heir causing the extinction of the House. The physical wall at Lindenhof came down that year too symbolising a new beginning for the city. With the extinction of the house came the awarding of Zurich a status of imperial immediacy (free of the control of a local lord and reporting directly to the emperor), and the city remained such until the establishment of the Swiss Confederation.

This freedom came under threat 1291 when Albert I of Germany threatened to invade the city and amassed his troops. The men in the city had gone out to fight a war leaving only the old, women and children in the city and Albert I smelt a chance to enlarge his control (civil war was tolerated in the Holy Roman Empire as long as no one threatened the authority of the Emperor) A lady named Hedwig amassed the women in the city to the city store and asked the women to dawn military garb and clothes and bear arms – they weren’t going to fight, they were going to trick the Germans. When Albert I saw from a distance the Zurich ‘men’ dressed in militia attire and ready to fight back, he turned back. That important founding story of the city remains today through a fountain – the Hedwig Fountain.

The physical wall came down at Lindenhof because a new city wall was being built around the expanded confines of the city, and the former citadel and castle became a park instead. The same space that remains till this very day, a popular place with locals and tourist alike because of the amazing views that it opened up to.

I too was enthralled.


*While the final phrasing is clumsy (having to qualify by a large empire) this is particularly important as there is history of human settlement in Zurich even before the Romans. These people lived near the lake.

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