The Letters of Utrecht
A poem for the future grows in the stones of the street in the center of the town of Utrecht, The Netherlands. One character per stone, one stone per week. Every Saturday a stone mason turns the next stone into the next Letter. In months words appear. With the years verses grow in the streets, extended by a different poet of Utrechts’ guild of poets every few years. Through the centuries the line of the poem will itself draw letters on the map of the changing city.
The poem continues for as long as someone is willing to contribute the next Letter as a gift to his town and its future citizens and link his or her name with a Letter by bearing the costs of its creation. The costs per Letter are expected to be around 100 Euro, including 10 Euro for a good cause. A consecutive number will help the sponsor find his/her letter, and count the weeks since the beginning of the year 2000. Contribute your Letter!
At the same time of the publication on the street the Letter appears on this website, with the name of the sponsor. The stone mason can engrave the name or initials of the sponsor in the side of the stone (invisible under the surface of the street).
The Letters of Utrecht were unveiled on June 2, 2012. The beginning of the poem of the Letters of Utrecht was predated to fictitiously start on New Year’s day of the year 2000. The first 648 characters were actually placed on May 30th and 31st, 2012. From June 2d, 2012 onwards the next character is hewn out of the next stone every Saturday.
Stichting Letters van Utrecht organizes the project, the fiscal authorities in the Netherlands mark it as a cultural organization for the general benefit (culturele ANBI). Gifts can be declared in a Dutch tax declaration.
The poem that the Letters of Utrecht spell out on the street is also published on this site (Dutch version, seeNederlands), up to the most recently hewn letter.
The parts not yet published in the street will remain secret. The poem will be extended by a different poet whenever required. It is never completed.
The following is a rough translation of the poem:
Ruben van Gogh (Letters 1-124):
Je zult ergens moeten beginnen om het verleden een plaats te geven, het heden doet er steeds minder toe. Hoe verder je bent, hoe beter. Ga maar door nu,
You have to begin somewhere to give the past its place, the present matters ever less. The further you are, the better. Continue now,
Ingmar Heytze (Letters 125-240):
laat je sporen na. Vergeet de flits waarin je mag bestaan, de wereld is je stratenplan. Was er een tijd dat je een ander was: die ging voorbij.
leave your footprints. Forget the flash, in which you may exist, the world is your map. If there was a time when you where another: it went by.
Chrétien Breukers (Letters 241-374):
Je bent die ander al. Je bent, zoals je weet, van dit verhaal de spil. Dit is de eeuwigheid. Die duurt. Die heeft de tijd. Ga daarom op in je verhaal en zwelg. Vertel.
You are the other already. You are, as you know, the center of this story. This is eternity. It lasts. It has the time. Become one with your story and revel. Tell.
Alexis de Roode (Letters 375-532):
Vertel ons wie je bent met elke stap. In ons verhaal verdwijnen wij vanzelf, en enkel jij blijft over op den duur. Jij en deze letters, die uit steen gehouwen zijn. Zoals de letters op ons graf.
Tell us who you are with every step. In our story we vanish inevitably, only you remain in the long run. You and these letters hewn from stone. As the letters on our grave.
Ellen Deckwitz (Letters 533-682):
De barsten in de Dom. Naar de hemel opgestoken als een wijsvinger, om de schuldigen aan te duiden en meer tijd te eisen. Zodat we weer rechtop kunnen gaan, als mensen langs de gracht.
The cracks in the cathedral’s tower. Raised to heaven as an index finger, to identify the guilty and demand more time. So that we can walk straight again as humans along the canal.
Mark Boog (Letters 683-?)
Die naar hun voeten staren. …
Those staring at their feet. Look upwards! See Utrecht’s churches…
(roughly translated up to Letter 733
The History of Utrecht
Utrecht (/ˈjuːtrɛkt/; Dutch pronunciation: [ˈytrɛxt] ( )) is the capital and most populous city in the Dutch province of Utrecht. It is located in the eastern corner of the Randstad conurbation, and is the fourth largest city of the Netherlands with a population of 327,834 on 1 November 2013.
Utrecht’s ancient city centre features many buildings and structures from the Early Middle Ages. It has been the religious centre of the Netherlands since the 8th century. Currently it is the see of the Archbishop of Utrecht, the most important Dutch Roman Catholic leader Utrecht is also the see of the archbishop of the Old Catholic church, titular head of the Union of Utrecht (Old Catholic), and the location of the offices of the main Protestant church. Until the Dutch Golden Age, Utrecht was the most important city of the Netherlands; then, Amsterdam became its cultural centre and most populous city.
Utrecht is host to Utrecht University, the largest university of the Netherlands, as well as several other institutes for higher education. Due to its central position within the country, it is an important transport hub for both rail and road transport. It has the second highest number of cultural events in the Netherlands, after Amsterdam.
Origins (until 650)
Although there is some evidence of earlier inhabitation in the region of Utrecht, dating back to the Stone Age (app. 2200 BCE) and settling in the Bronze Age (app. 1800–800 BCE),the founding date of the city is usually related to the construction of a Roman fortification (castellum), probably built in around 50 CE. These fortresses were designed to house a cohort of about 500 Roman soldiers. Near the fort a settlement would grow housing artisans, traders and soldiers’ wives and children. A line of such fortresses was built after the Roman emperor Claudius decided the empire should not expand further north. To consolidate the border the limes Germanicus defense line was constructed. This line was located at the borders of the main branch of the river Rhine, which at that time flowed through a more northern bed compared to today, along what is now the Kromme Rijn.
In Roman times, the name of the Utrecht fortress was simply Traiectum denoting its location at a possibility to cross the Rhine. Traiectum became Dutch Trecht. The U comes from Old Dutch “uut” meaning downriver. It was added to distinguish from the other Tricht, Maas-tricht. In 11th-century official documents it was then Latinized as Ultra Traiectum. Around the year 200, the wooden walls of the fortification were replaced by sturdier tuff stone walls, remnants of which are still to be found below the buildings around Dom Square.
From the middle of the 3rd century Germanic tribes regularly invaded the Roman territories. Around 275 the Romans could no longer maintain the northern border and Utrecht was abandoned. Little is known about the next period 270–650. Utrecht is first spoken of again centuries after the Romans left. Under the influence of the growing realms of the Franks a church was built in the 7th century within the walls of the Roman fortress during Dagobert I‘s reign. In ongoing border conflicts with the Frisians the church was however destroyed.
Centre of Christianity in the Netherlands (650–1579)
By the mid-7th century, English and Irish missionaries set out to convert the Frisians. The pope appointed their leader, Willibrordus, bishop of the Frisians; which is usually considered to be the beginning of the Bishopric of Utrecht. In 723, the Frankish leader Charles Martel bestowed the fortress in Utrecht and the surrounding lands as the base of bishops. From then on Utrecht became one of the most influential seats of power for the Roman Catholic Church in the Netherlands. The see of the archbishops of Utrecht was located at the uneasy northern border of the Carolingian Empire. Furthermore it had to compete with the nearby trading centre Dorestad, also founded near the location of a Roman fortress. After the downfall of Dorestad around 850, Utrecht became one of the most important cities in the Netherlands. The importance of Utrecht as a centre of Christianity is illustrated by the election of the Utrecht-born Adriaan Florenszoon Boeyens as pope in 1522 (the last non-Italian pope before John Paul II)Pope Adrian died one year later after his election and although he ordered to build the Paus Huize in Utrecht he never actually saw it.
When the Frankish rulers established the system of feudalism, the Bishops of Utrecht came to exercise worldly power as prince-bishops. The territory of the bishopric not only included the modern province of Utrecht (Nedersticht, ‘lower Sticht‘), but also extended to the northeast. The feudal system led to conflict, and the prince-bishopric was at odds with the Counts of Holland and the Dukes of Guelders. The Veluwe region was soon seized by Guelders, but large areas in the modern province of Overijssel remained as the Oversticht.
Several churches and monasteries were built inside, or close to, the city of Utrecht. The most dominant of these was the Cathedral of Saint Martin, inside the old Roman fortress. The construction of the present Gothic building was begun in 1254 after an earlier romanesque construction had been badly damaged by fire. The choir and transept were finished from 1320 and were followed then by the ambitious Dom tower. The last part to be constructed was the central nave, from 1420. By that time, however, the age of the great cathedrals had come to an end and declining finances prevented the ambitious project from being finished, the construction of the central nave being suspended before the planned flying buttresses could be finished. Besides the cathedral there were four collegiate churches in Utrecht: St. Salvator’s Church (demolished in the 16th century), on the Dom square, dating back to the early 8th century. Saint John (Janskerk), originating in 1040; Saint Peter, building started in 1039 and Saint Mary‘s church building started around 1090 (demolished in the early 19th century, cloister survives). Besides these churches the city housed Saint Paul‘s Abbey. The 15th-century beguine monastery of Saint Nicholas, and a 14th-century chapter house of the Teutonic Knights.
Besides these buildings which were part of the official structures of the bishopric; an additional four parish churches were constructed in the city: the Jacobikerk (dedicated to Saint James), founded in the 11th century, with the current Gothic church dating back to the 14th century; the Buurkerk (Neighbourhood-church) of the 11th-century parish in the centre of the city; Nicolaichurch (dedicated to Saint Nicholas), from the 12th century and the 13th-century Geertekerk (dedicated to Saint Gertrude of Nivelles).
City of Utrecht
The location on the banks of the river Rhine allowed Utrecht to become an important trade centre in the Northern Netherlands. The growing town Utrecht was granted city rights by Henry V. in 1122. When the main flow of the Rhine moved south, the old bed, which still flowed through the heart of the town became evermore canalized; and a very rare wharf system was built as an inner city harbour system. On the wharfs storage facilities (werfkelders) were built, on top of which the main street, including houses was constructed. The wharfs and the cellars are accessible from a platform at water level with stairs descending from the street level to form a unique structure. The relations between the bishop, who controlled many lands outside of the city, and the citizens of Utrecht was not always easy. The bishop, for example dammed the Kromme Rijn at Wijk bij Duurstede to protect his estates from flooding. This threatened shipping for the city and led the city of Utrecht to commission a canal to ensure access to the town for shipping trade: the Vaartse Rijn, connecting Utrecht to the Hollandse IJssel at IJsselstein.
The end of independence
In 1528, the secular powers of the bishop over both Neder- and Oversticht – which included the city of Utrecht – were transferred to Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor, who became the Lord of the Seventeen Provinces (the current Benelux and the northern parts of France). This transition was not an easy one and Charles V tried to exert his power over the citizens of the city, who had achieved a certain level of independence from the bishops and were not willing to cede this to their new lord. Charles decided to build a heavily fortified castle Vredenburg to house a large garrison whose chief task would be to maintain order in the city. The castle would last less than 50 years before it was demolished in an uprising in the early stages of the Dutch Revolt.
Republic of the Netherlands (1579–1815)
In 1579 the northern seven provinces signed the Union of Utrecht, in which they decided to join forces against Spanish rule. The Union of Utrecht is seen as the beginning of the Dutch Republic. In 1580 the new and predominantly Protestant state abolished the bishoprics, including the one in Utrecht, which had become an archbishopric in 1559. The stadtholders disapproved of the independent course of the Utrecht bourgeoisie and brought the city under much more direct control of the Holland dominated leadership of the republic. This was the start of a long period of stagnation of trade and development in Utrecht, an atypical city in the new state, still about 40% Catholic in the mid-17th century, and even more so among the elite groups, who included many rural nobility and gentry with town houses there.
The city, which was held against its will in the states of the Republic, failed to defend itself against the French invasion in 1672 (the Disaster Year).
The lack of structural integrity proved to be the undoing of the central section of the cathedral of St Martin church when Utrecht was struck by atornado in 1674.
Since 1723 (but especially after 1870) Utrecht became the centre of the non-Roman Old Catholic Churches in the world.
Modern history (1815–present)
In the early 19th century, the role of Utrecht as a fortified town had become obsolete. The fortifications of the Nieuwe Hollandse Waterlinie were moved east of Utrecht. The town walls could now be demolished to allow for expansion. The moats remained intact and formed an important feature of the Zocher plantsoen, an English style landscape park that remains largely intact today.
Growth of the city increased when, in 1843, a railway connecting Utrecht to Amsterdam was opened. After that, Utrecht gradually became the main hub of theDutch railway network.
In 1853, the Dutch government allowed the bishopric of Utrecht to be reinstated by Rome, and Utrecht became the centre of Dutch Catholicism once more.
With the industrial revolution finally gathering speed in the Netherlands and the ramparts taken down, Utrecht began to grow far beyond the medieval center from the 1880s onward with the construction of neighbourhoods such as Oudwijk, Wittevrouwen, Vogelenbuurt to the East, and Lombok to the West. New middle class residential areas, such as Tuindorp and Oog in Al, were built in the 1920s and 1930s. During this period, several Jugendstil houses and office buildings were built, followed by Rietveld who built the Rietveld Schröder House (1924), and Dudok’s construction of the city theater (1941).
During World War II, Utrecht was held by the Germans until the general German surrender of the Netherlands on 5 May 1945. Canadian troops that surrounded the city entered it after that surrender, on 7 May 1945.
Since World War II, the city has grown considerably when new neighbourhoods such as Overvecht, Kanaleneiland, Hoograven and Lunetten were built. Additionally the area surrounding Utrecht Centraal railway station and the station itself have been developed following modernist ideas of the 1960s, in a brutaliststyle. This led to the construction of the shopping mall Hoog Catharijne, music centre Vredenburg (Hertzberger, 1979), and conversion of part of the ancient canal structure into a highway (Catherijnebaan). Protest against further modernisation of the city centre followed even before the last buildings were finalised. In the early 21st century the whole area is being redeveloped. An architectural unique music palace is being constructed, that will be run jointly by Vredenburg, Tivoli and the SJU Jazzpodium.
Currently the city is expanding once more with the development of the Leidsche Rijn housing area.