Almost every town in Europe that I have visited has seen conflict. Some (like Stockholm, Zurich, Tallinn, Vilnius and Gdansk) have been lucky to have emerged relatively unscathed by war, others (like Warsaw, Berlin, Barcelona and Bristol) have been heavily damaged and have had to be remodelled from the ground up.
Then you have Gammelstad Luleå. Being located in the extreme north of Sweden, geographically out of the way and without raw materials that one needs go to war for, Gammelstad Luleå has escaped all these. Because it has never seen conflict since it was built, centuries old buildings in Gammelstad are still open to human occupation.
This makes it a living community that still resembles the same way Northern Scandinavian towns used to look like in medieval times. And it is exactly for this reason that the town was inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1996.
At the centre of almost all European cities, even one as far north as this, is the church. This church, the Nederluleå Church, was completed in the 15th century and has stood the test of time. All that has been done to the structure are paintings in the 17th century of new frescoes and enlargements to the windows the fundamental structure has remained. This is not a small point, most major cathedrals have had to be torn down and rebuilt at some point in their history.
There are 424 red (Falun Red) Wood houses circling the church, and they used to be occupied only on Sundays when the locals would go to church for service. The houses were important because the surrounding countryside was distant and traveling conditions were rough, not every parishioner could make a safe journey home after service – especially not in winter.
It was only 4pm when we arrived, but the sun had already set. The sun barely shines for 2 hours in the peak of winter in the region. We could make out the church in the distance and the many wooden houses nearby. It was clear that people lived there (in some houses further out from the main church and old wooden areas). Gammelstaden was clearly a traditional residential area with little commercial or industrial activity. There were no restaurants, bars or clubs. A small souvenir shop was getting ready to close when we popped in to seek shelter from the cold.
But that is perhaps the very charm and essence or Gammelstad. It is unique because it is residential, small and homely, which recalls a more simple rural lifestyle, its not flashy but things don’t need to be big or dramatic to be valuable part of our collective human heritage. The town is really just a church at the centre and the 424 red wooden houses around it but this to me is a powerful metaphor for the human condition.
People work to live, but live for something higher. In the past that something higher was God – a god to which people place their hopes and dreams for a better life (or afterlife), a god to whom they entrust the judgement of rights and wrongs done to themselves, a god for whom meaning is derived. The presence of God/a god is still a contentious one today, although it is unfortunate that public opinion casts this as a debate between the intelligent (atheist) and the naive (religious).
To some today, knowledge has replaced a need for a religious deity; to others knowledge complements the existence of a God/gods. This god may be replaced today in many cultures, but at its core – the human need for a source of meaning, hope, justice and closure, do not end, they are merely replaced by something else. The search for meaning to our lives, dreams to imagine and hopes to aspire to, continue. Purely working at the periphery and losing sight of the centre creates a life where people become robots; that is why those that live to work, where work does not convey meaning to them, become robots – why people sometimes critisise their fathers/husbands for working so much without realising that these people work hard because providing for their loved ones gives them meaning.
Just as our forebears all over the world developed different religions to explain and give meaning to their lives, we continue today perhaps through different methods but the same desire.
This simple town in the north of Sweden, with barely anything exciting is the same metaphor of that.
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