The unusually charming Berlin Kiez of the Nikolaiviertel, with its cobbled streets, jaunty Plattenbau, and imposing twin-spired Nikolaikirche, bears the distinction of being one of the oldest areas of the city’s central Mitte district. Dating back to the early 1200s, when the settlement of Alt-Berlin was recognised here – on the northern bank of the meandering river Spree.
The medieval settlement of Cölln, situated on the opposing southern bank of the river would come to be considered the birthplace of the city – dating as it does back to 1237 – seven years older than its sister settlement across the water. The site of the grandiose Stadtschloss occupied by the Hohenzollern royal family, Cölln would unite with the more residential Alt-Berlin in 1710 to form the capital of the Kingdom of Prussia.
While the Nikolaiviertel can boast of a long and colourful history, it is an area that suffered greatly during the bombardment of Berlin by the Anglo-American forces in WWII. Situated as it was in the heart of the then Nazi capital; it was a part of the city that would prove to be a prime target for the attacking forces. What is visible today is a reconstructed district, an emulation of this medieval quarter courtesy of the East German government – referred to by locals as the “Disneyland of the East’. Rebuilt in 1987 in a distinctly kitsch postmodernist style – with the deconsecrated Nikolaikirche, the oldest church in Berlin, at its centre.
Originally a late-Romanesque basilica, the Nikolaikirche – as with all churches in the area – was conceived as a Roman Catholic place of worship. At the time of the construction of the church – before this region was known as Germany, or Prussia – or even the city of Berlin recognised – it would lie in the territory of the Margraviate of Brandenburg. An area simultaneously ruled over by two brothers – John I and Otto III – by allied with the powers in Rome. During their joint-reign they would increase the power of this region, from a seemingly insignificant sandy backwater, to consolidate their role within the Holy Roman Empire – and acquire the indisputable right to vote in the election of the King of the Germans.
When this region officially embraced the ideas of the Protestant Reformation in 1539, the Nikolaikirche would be converted for a Lutheran congregation. It would serve in this capacity for a further 399 years – when in 1938, five years after the Nazi takeover, it was deconsecrated due to the declining number of parishioners in the area. The industrialisation of Berlin and the commercialisation of the centre of the city had driven many people away into the suburban districts, leaving the church largely isolated in the centre of the capital.
When the Second World War in Europe ended in May 1945, the Nikolaiviertel fell into the hands of the Soviet administration, eventually becoming part of East Berlin – and the German Decractic Republic in 1949. As a result of the damage inflicted on the area during the war, it remained as an empty shell of its former glory – with the Nikolaikirche reduced to a stump of the tower and the few surviving surrounding walls. Eventually, in 1981, the East German regime would begin to reconstruct the building based on old plans.
The oldest remaining room in Berlin is accessible at the Nikolaikirche - the Beyer crypt. Located at ground level, as it was when the city was founded, and now containing a unique treasure trove of coins that Berliners amassed between 1514 and 1734 to pay for the Nikolaikirche steeple ball.
Stepping inside the Nikolaikirche today, visitors are greeted with an exhibition maintained by the Museum der Stiftung Stadtmuseum Berlin – which has been responsible for the use of the church as an exhibition space since 1995. A permanent display tracing the origin and use of the church over the past 800 years, under the title From City Ground to Double Head (in reference to the two church spires), has been in place since 2010, when it was opened by then Berlin mayor, Klaus Wowereit.
Beyond serving as an exhibition space, the church also fulfils other duties. Following the reunification of Germany, and Berlin, in 1990, the first constituent meeting of the newly elected Berlin House of Representatives would take place here on January 11th 1991. Its central hall is also used as an auditorium for musical performances with space for around 250 people.
While the interior of the church maintains its mixed Gothic and Baroque style, the structural changes to the exterior of the church do much more to clarify the story of the many different construction periods of the building. Although, it is considered the oldest church in the city – the church’s current appearance is nothing like it would have looked back in 1230.
It was only fitting in the 13th century that when constructed the Nikolaikirche would be named after Saint Nicholas of Myra, the patron saint of sailors and merchants – due to its locations in the maritime centre of old Berlin. While the use of the area has changed drastically since that time, the church still stands as evidence of the many eras it has endured. With its exterior form capable of being read like the pages of a book.
The distinctive two spires that tower over the red brick base of the building – the oldest part of this structure dating back to the Romanesque period – were not originally included in the first form of the building. Instead there was a single spire, as is typical of most churches, to the right side. The Gothic hall was added behind this section of the building, following a fire, in 1470 – and financed by the sale of a 40-day indulgence to anyone who contributed to its construction – while the Berlin Bakers Guild donated the church altar.
When reconstruction work was carried out in the 1980s by the East German government, a collection of graves (around 150) were found beneath the Nikolaikirche providing important insight into the founding of Berlin. These West-East orientated graves, identifiably Christian, would suggest that rather than being conjured into existence by a single legal decree that Berlin evolved around this site – with the area surrounding the Nikolaikirche as the epicentre of what would grow to be recognised as medieval Berlin.