Aachen (also known as Bad Aachen; Ripuarian: Óche, Limburgish: Aoke, French: Aix-La-Chapelle) is a spa town in North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany. In French, and sometimes (especially earlier) also in English, the city is known as Aix-la-Chapelle. Aachen was a favoured residence of Charlemagne, and later the place of coronation of the Kings of Germany. Geographically, Aachen is the westernmost city of Germany, located along its borders with Belgium and the Netherlands, west of Cologne. RWTH Aachen University, one of Germany's Universities of Excellence, is located in the city. Aachen's predominant economic focus is on science, engineering, information technology and related sectors. In 2009, Aachen was ranked 8th among cities in Germany for innovation.
Flint quarries on the Lousberg, Schneeberg, and Königshügel, first used during Neolithic times (3,000-2,500 ..), attest to the long occupation of the site of Aachen, as do recent finds under the modern city's Elisengarten pointing to a former settlement from the same period. Bronze Age (ca. 1600 ..) settlement is evidenced by the remains of barrows (burial mounds) found, for example, on the Klausberg. During the Iron Age, the area was settled by Celtic peoples who were perhaps drawn by the marshy Aachen basin's hot sulphur springs where they worshiped Grannus, god of light and healing.
Later, the 25-hectare Roman spa resort town of Aquae Granni was supposedly founded—according to legend—by Grenus, under Hadrian, in ca. .. 124. Instead, the fictitious founder refers to the Celtic god, and it seems it was the Roman 6th Legion at the start of the 1st century that first channelled the hot springs into a spa at Büchel, adding at the end of the same century the Münstertherme spa, two water pipelines, and a likely sanctuary dedicated to Grannus. A kind of forum, surrounded by colonnades, connected the two spa complexes. There was also an extensive residential area. Near Burtscheid were built Roman bathhouses. A temple precinct called Vernenum was built near the modern Kornelimünster. Today, all that remains are two fountains in the Elisenbrunnen and the Burtscheid bathhouse.
Roman civil administration fell apart in Aachen between the end of the 4th and beginning of the 5th centuries. Rome withdrew its troops from the area but the town remained populated. The town came to be ruled by the Ripuarian Franks and subordinated to their capital, Cologne.
The Middle Ages
After Roman times, Pippin the Younger had a castle residence built in the town, and Einhard mentions that in 765–6 Pippin spent both Christmas and Easter at Aquis villa (""), which must have been sufficiently equipped to support the royal household for several months. In the year of his coronation as King of Franks, 768, Charlemagne came to spend Christmas at Aachen for the first time. He went on to remain there in a mansion which he may have extended, although there is no source attesting to any significant building activity at Aachen in his time, apart from the building of the Palatine Chapel in Aachen (since 1929, cathedral) and the palatial presentation halls. Charlemagne spent most winters between 792 and his death in 814 in Aachen, which became the focus of his court and the political centre of his empire. After his death, the king was buried in the church which he had built; his original tomb has been lost, while his alleged remains are preserved in the shrine where he was reburied after being declared a saint; his saintliness, however, was never very widely acknowledged outside the bishopric of Liège where he may still be venerated by tradition.
In 936, Otto I was crowned king of the kingdom in the collegiate church built by Charlemagne. Over the next 500 years, most kings of Germany destined to reign over the Holy Roman Empire were crowned in Aachen. The last king to be crowned here was Ferdinand I in 1531. During the Middle Ages, Aachen remained a city of regional importance, due to its proximity to Flanders, achieving a modest position in the trade in woollen cloths, favoured by imperial privilege. The city remained a Free Imperial City, subject to the Emperor only, but was politically far too weak to influence the policies of any of its neighbours. The only dominion it had was over Burtscheid, a neighbouring territory ruled by a Benedictine abbess. It was forced to accept that all of its traffic must pass through the "Aachener Reich". Even in the late 18th century the Abbess of Burtscheid was prevented from building a road linking her territory to the neighbouring estates of the duke of Jülich; the city of Aachen even deployed its handful of soldiers to chase away the road-diggers.
From the early 16th century, Aachen lost power. A fire devastated the city in 1656. Aachen became attractive as a spa by the middle of the 17th century, not so much because of the effects of the hot springs on the health of its visitors but because Aachen was then — and remained well into the 19th century — a place of high-level prostitution in Europe. Traces of this hidden agenda of the city's history is found in the 18th century guidebooks to Aachen as well as to the other spas; the main indication for visiting patients, ironically, was syphilis; only by the end of the 19th century had rheuma become the most important object of cures at Aachen and Burtscheid. Aachen was chosen as the site of several important congresses and peace treaties: the first congress of Aachen (often referred to as Congress of Aix-la-Chapelle in English) in 1668, leading to the First Treaty of Aachen in the same year which ended the War of Devolution. The second congress ended with the second treaty in 1748, finishing the War of the Austrian Succession. The third congress took place in 1818 to decide the fate of occupied Napoleonic France.
The 19th century
By the middle of the 19th century, industrialisation swept away most of the city's medieval rules of production and commerce, although the entirely corrupt remains of the city's medieval constitution was kept in place (compare the famous remarks of Georg Forster in his Ansichten vom Niederrhein) until 1801, when Aachen became the "chef-lieu du département de la Roer" in Napoleon's First French Empire. In 1815 after the Napoleonic Wars, the Kingdom of Prussia took over and the city became one of its most socially and politically backward centres until the end of the 19th century. Administered within the Rhine Province, by 1880 the population was 80,000. Starting in 1840, the railway from Cologne to Belgium passed through Aachen. The city suffered extreme overcrowding and deplorable sanitary conditions up to 1875 when the medieval fortifications were finally abandoned as a limit to building operations and new, less miserable quarters were built in the eastern part of the city, where drainage of waste liquids was easiest. In 1880, the Aachen tramway network was opened, and in 1895 it was electrified. In the 19th century and up to the 1930s, the city was important for the production of railway locomotives and carriages, iron, pins, needles, buttons, tobacco, woollen goods, and silk goods.
The 20th century
Aachen was heavily damaged during World War II. The city and its fortified surroundings were encircled 13 September–16 October 1944 by the US 1st Infantry Division and 3rd Armored Division in conjunction with the US 2nd Armored Division and 30th Infantry Division during the prolonged Battle of Aachen, later reinforced by US 28th Infantry Division elements. Direct assaults through the heavily defended city finally forced the German garrison to surrender on 21 October 1944. Aachen was the first German city to be captured by the Allies, and its residents welcomed the soldiers as liberators. The city was destroyed partially — and in some parts completely — during the fighting, mostly by American artillery fire and demolitions carried out by the Waffen-SS defenders. Damaged buildings included the medieval churches of St. Foillan, St. Paul and St. Nicholas, and the Rathaus (city hall), although Aachen Cathedral was largely unscathed. Only 4,000 inhabitants remained in the city; the rest had followed evacuation orders. Its first Allied-appointed mayor, Franz Oppenhoff, was murdered by an SS commando unit.
While the emperor's palace no longer exists, the church built by Charlemagne is still the main attraction of the city. In addition to holding the remains of its founder, it became the burial place of his successor Otto III. Aachen Cathedral has been designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.