How a forged document is behind a huge party in Hamburg every year

When ports celebrate birthdays!

The famous anniversary of Hamburg’s port can be traced back to an extensive charter which the legendary Emperor Frederick Barbarossa reputedly issued to the city’s residents. On May 7, 1189, he granted ships a custom-free zone on the Elbe, from the city to the North Sea. Building on this, the metropolis was able to develop into a bustling trading center and globally significant port. But was this charter document really legitimate or could it actually have been a momentous forgery? In any case, Hamburg’s residents considered it so important that they celebrate this date in grand style every year. We’ll take a look at the largest port party in the world, the allegations of forgery, Hamburg’s exciting development and how the city came to have 600 breweries.

Of course the city didn’t just come into being when this charter was issued in 1189. It is believed that the first permanent settlements in the city area already existed in the 4th century BC and Romans reported about a place called Treva in their writings. Even then, the town was situated on the banks of the Elbe, directly on two important routes along the “Amber Road”.

Small steps towards a metropolis

Hamburg already had a port in 830 AD – albeit small. At that time, the ruler was building the “Hammaburg” into a starting point for the Christianization of all countries and peoples north of the Elbe. Boats could moor along a tributary of the Alster River and this docking area became the nucleus of today’s port. Over time, the region developed into an important settlement for seafarers and merchants and became a significant transshipment and warehouse area for a wide range of goods. It was the beginning of a success story that continued to grow steadily over the following centuries.

Zero duties, lots of growth

Count Adolf III of Schauenburg, who ruled over the town at that time, already granted many benefits to its residents. In the course of his rule, he obtained the most important privilege of all for the people of Hamburg: a custom-free zone for their ships on the Elbe, from the city to the North Sea. Count Adolf III was the one to convince Emperor Frederick Barbarossa, shortly before embarking on a crusade – namely on May 7, 1189 – to issue a charter to Hamburg residents. Some historians believe that this was how the Emperor was thanking the city residents for their financial support of his crusade to the “Holy Land”. Of course this charter also included additional items, such as provisions on keeping livestock, fishing, clearing forests and compulsory military service. But none of these was as important as the privilege of zero duties. From then on, nothing stood in the way of Hamburg’s growth.

Heavy-handed forgery, subsequent copy or what?

However, this momentous charter no longer exists in the original, only in a copy transcribed at a later date. In the absence of an authentic document from 1189, the Barbarossa charter was drawn up in 1265 and still exists today, but its contents are believed to be falsified. It is highly probable that some of the contents were changed. Some historians go even further, claiming that the charter was a deliberate forgery by cunning merchants in Hamburg from the very start. These kinds of incidents were not unheard of in the Middle Ages and repeatedly led to controversies.
The fact that the place of issue listed on the charter is Neuenburg is one sign that the document is forged. It has been proven that when Emperor Barbarossa prepared his crusade to Palestine, he was situated in distant Regensburg. In addition, the Emperor’s seal on the charter is not from Barbarossa himself but can be attributed to his grandson, Emperor Frederick from the Hohenstaufen dynasty. One thing is clear: the entire matter is pretty murky and there are contradictory views on the subject. However, it certainly benefitted the residents of Hamburg. The “long-established” rules helped the city and its people used them to their own advantage.

Important trade center and a lot of beer

The privileges of the charter allowed trade and commerce to flourish freely – numerous merchant guilds were founded, offices and trading companies were built. In the Middle Ages, the city grew into a thriving trade center and, thanks to its 600 breweries at one time, was jokingly referred to as the “brewery of the Hanseatic League”. The importance of the beer brewing industry can be seen in that to this day, a central square – in the approximate area of the old port facilities – is still referred to as Hopfenplatz, or “Hops Square”.
In the 14th century, as one of the first members of the “Hanse” – a northern European merchant alliance – Hamburg grew into the most important German transshipment and storage center between the North and Baltic Sea. In 1510, Hamburg was finally declared an imperial city and as early as 1558, the Hamburg Stock Exchange was opened, one of the first in the German-speaking region. Even during the rise of Berlin as Germany’s capital, Hamburg remained a significant business location and “Germany’s gateway to the world”.

Festive tradition since 1977

Whether the charter is authentic or not, it was considered a cause for joy throughout the centuries anyway – and in the 20th century, it was decided that its anniversary would be commemorated with a worthy port festival. The port’s anniversary has been celebrated in its current form in Hamburg since 1977 and is now the largest port festival in the world.
Each year, on a weekend around May 7, the entire city celebrates “its port” in a party that also draws countless visitors from far and wide. Over half a million people attend the three-day port anniversary each year to participate in the diverse festival with its eventful program.

Varied cultural offers along the Elbe

As many people know, the “port” in Hamburg isn’t just a harbor area at the outskirts of the city. In Hamburg, the port is part of the center and inextricably linked with the metropolis. It’s therefore no wonder that the port’s anniversary covers around six kilometers along the Elbe, offering a diverse entertainment program in numerous parts of the city. There is something for everyone to enjoy, whether it’s the Fish Auction Hall in Altona, the famous Speicherstadt (city of warehouses, a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2015) or Hamburg’s latest architectural landmark, the Elbphilharmonie. The festivities take place on several live stages and in various other locations. The shows on the “Hafen Rock” stage always draw particularly big crowds.

Ships dance across the water for the tugboat ballet

Some of largest sailing ships in the world start off the festivities with a grand arrival parade. As the approx. 300 ships arrive, the corresponding national anthem is played, or the Hamburg hymn “Hammonia” if the ship is from this city.
The popular dragon boat race on the Elbe is equally popular, as are the large ship inaugurations and the dazzling fireworks during the departure parade on Sunday. Another highlight is the so-called “tugboat ballet.” In their traditional Saturday afternoon show, the extremely maneuverable, 3000-HP tugboats perform an unforgettable dance on the water. The heavyweights float across the Elbe seemingly without effort, performing pirouettes and other dance moves accompanied by classical and famous film music. Year after year, enthusiastic visitors watch the spectacle at the local wharfs. The performance is also broadcast live on TV for those who prefer watching from home.

For 2020 and 2021, the port anniversary was cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. But even if there are no public celebrations this year, traditional program items such as the tugboat ballet and the grand arrival parade will still be held. The most important highlights will be livestreamed (May 7 - 9) into living rooms worldwide. It may not be the same as being right there amid the action, with the wind in your hair, a salty ocean breeze and a fish sandwich in your hand – but anyway, the real stars are clearly the majestic ships at the port of Hamburg.

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