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The Romantic Road to Heidelberg

As we passed through the Schwarzwald (Black Forest) it seemed as if centuries had rolled away. The countryside was enchanted with lush undergrowth rising to meet the dark, whispering pines.


A little further, we found ourselves in a silent glade where a stream bubbled out of the ground and meandered its shining course through the foliage. A half-timbered watermill dozed in the sunlight. Little brown-and-white ducks bobbed in the water. “Any minute now:, I thought, “The Wicked Witch will step out of her secret abode”, half expecting to see her come out of a woodland cottage, or to see all manners of demons and trolls and ogres lurking behind the trees, or to see a knight to canter up on his white charger, his pennants resplendent in these lost shades.


Some grand views flashed by, as we left the thermal springs of Baden-Baden and the darkness of the lofty forests. The silver line of the River Neckar gleamed in the far distance and the splendid medieval spires of Heidelberg town stretched out in magnificent welcome. Soon, like pilgrims arriving at a shrine, we looked up in wonder at the awesome ramparts of the Schloss (castle) Heidelberg perched on its rock, as we passed into its protection.


The ancient German town of Heidelberg is not unknown to people in Pakistan, because our national poet, Iqbal, once studied here. In fact, an ‘Iqbal Chair’ still exists here at the university, as does an Iqbal Strasse (street) where the ‘Poet of the East’ must have roamed in search of inspiration. In this place, it is not difficult to imagine that he must have been amply rewarded in his poetic reveries.


Situated in the Baden-Wurttemberg state of South-West Germany, Heidelberg lies at the very neck of the Neckar as it emerges from the thickly forested hills into the Rhine plain. An ancient university and market town, Heidelberg fist finds mention in records circa 1196 AD, as the capital of the Rhineland-Palatinate and the seat, or residence of the electoral ‘Counts Palatine’. In its old quarter, with wood-fronted houses and elaborate alleys, its medieval quality survives. The Ruprecht-Karl Universitat (Heidelberg University) is the oldest university in Germany, modeled on the University of Paris, and founded in 1386 by the Elector Count Rupert I, initially to train priests of the Cistercian Order but later developing into a secular institution and a renowned centre of law, literature, science and philosophy. Today, a state-of-the-art medical faculty offers renewed prestige.


The Alte Brucke (Old Bridge) divides Heidelberg along the banks of the swollen Neckar and the gray mist lies low over the castle, on the other side. Thousands of students throng the roads and parks, some bicycling by, some walking and chatting excitedly, some lounging in languid poses along the riverside. There is something electrifying in the air, something magically attuned to the past splendour of the town, inspite of the repeated devastation of wars and fortunes. An ethos of chivalry, of nobility, pervades the ringing bells and cloisters of the Holy Ghost Church and the echoing cobblestones of Der Marstall, once the Royal stables. Though much smaller, in its ambience this place reminds me of certain obscure corners of Old Lahore.


I am reminded here, too, that it was in the Rhine Valley that the German people witnessed the first evolution of their language and literature, from the Old to the Middle forms, roughly between 1000-1400 AD. By the late 11th century, their poets began to adapt existing Italian, French and Spanish works, thereby preparing the way for a significant literature of their own in German. The earliest of these works were religious, philosophical or lyrical tracts, modeled on the heroic and allegorical ballads of the Middle Ages. The first truly great German epic, Parzival, was written by the poet-knight Wolfram von Eschenbach in nearby Thuringia in 1211-1212.


Our host, Herr Speier, smiled when I mentioned these facts. He agreed that there was some ‘fairy-tale quality’ to Heidelberg bound to appeal to poets and scholars of history. He said:


“The romance of Heidelberg is most characteristic. It inspired one of our greatest poets, Joseph von Eichendorff in his own student days here (1807-1809) to write tremendously lyrical songs; in turn [to] inspire composers such as Schumann, Mendelssohn and Strauss. The great Romantic Movement in  German poetry and letters also had its stronghold in the ‘Heidelberg Romantics’—led by Clemens Bentano, Achim von Arnim and Joseph Gorres, around these same years. . . they deeply influenced German intellectual life, stimulated a revival in history, medieval philology and literature…”


No wonder, I remarked, that Iqbal had felt at home here, by the Neckar, under the battlements of Heidelberg Castle. Herr Speier simply beamed at this, exclaiming with suppressed mystery:


Ach, Iqbal! Iqbal had much, much more to look back on. The oldest medieval manuscripts and tales—most of these treatises, do you know, had their beginnings in the troubadours, the traveling poet-singers and mystics from ‘Arabic’ Spain? Iqbal had to come a long way, you see, to find out his true cultural self, his roots disguised in Western garb”.


With the Gothic arches silhouetted against the darkening clouds, a new spiritual awareness was born within my heart. The streets and walls of Heidelberg seemed to speak with renewed exaltation, removing many veils from the senses.

Annemarie Schimmel
The River Bridge at Askole*