A Small Village with a Cathedral: Arlesheim Near Basel

The small village of Arlesheim is situated on the outskirts of the city of Basel in Switzerland. Mainly a farming community, it contains a cathedral and a town center built in the 17th century, two castles, and a large English garden. Arlesheim is worth a visit for its sights alone, but a must for music lovers to hear the world-famous Silbermann organ in the cathedral.

As with many small villages, historical documents are sketchy and early history is shrouded in legend rather than fact. The name Arlesheim is a unsolved riddle, and it is doubtful that it was ever meant to contain the part ‘heim’ (meaning home) at all. The name may be nothing more than a transliteration of how it was heard in spoken Alemannic. Arlesheim became part of the princely domain of the Prince-Bishop of Basel in 1239. In 1679, it was designated as the new seat for the Domkapitel, the board of advisers of the Bishop of Basel living in exile in Porrentruy.

In a record two years, the bishop had not only a complete cathedral built, but also a complete town center with houses for the advisers and the administration of the See to go with it. Compared to today’s technological standards, this would mean building the Twin Towers in six months or the Shard in three while filling them with a lifetime of artwork by Andy Warhol at the same time; that is on the spot new art, not pre-produced pictures.

In the total refurbishment and enlargement of the cathedral in 1759, an organ built by Johann Andreas Silbermann was added. Silbermann organs (built by one of the brothers Gottfried and Andreas or the latter’s son Johann Andreas) are known for their superior sound. As Silbermann was included in the planning of the rebuild from the start, the cathedral’s architecture was based on acoustics to compliment the organ's sound. It is for its acoustic value that the cathedral’s organ is often used for recordings of classical organ works.

In 1785, Princess Balbina of Andlau, a friend of Jean-Jacques Rousseau's, started building the Eremitage, a large English garden inspired by the new interest in nature as proposed by Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Inspired by local legends of hermits living in the hills near Arlesheim, she included lakes, follies, and a hermitage in her design. During the French revolution, the garden was completely destroyed by French troops. During the Restoration in Switzerland, it was rebuilt by her son. What can be viewed today is the rebuild of 1812.

One of the mythical hermits that inspired Princess Balbina of Andlau was Saint Odilia, Princess of Burgundy, who is said to have lived her whole adult life in the hills near Arlesheim. Saint Odilia is the patron saint of the village. She has her own altar in the cathedral and a statue dating from the earliest village church is kept there on display. The Andlau family had a manor house in the village which is still a private residence and not open to the public but you are allowed to walk into the driveway.

Above the village and the Eremitage, the ruins of Birseck Castle can be seen. This castle had been part of the defenses of Basel and one of the summer residences of the bishop. It was largely destroyed in the earthquake of 1356 but was rebuilt shortly later. During the French Revolution, the castle was again destroyed. With the Eremitage, Prince Conrad of Andlau also rebuilt the castle as a ruin on a romantic scale with no historical connection to previous builds.

On another hill, the small castle of Reichenstein can be seen. This castle was completely destroyed by the earthquake of 1356, too, and fancifully rebuilt in 1933 by a local merchant family. Arlesheim has become a suburb of the City of Basel during the 20th century and is linked to the city center by tram, bus, and rail services. Useful links for visitors include arlesheim.ch and arlesheim-dom.org.

Since 1921, Arlesheim has the world’s first clinic for anthroposophist medicine. You might know about the village already without knowing it, if you ever noticed products by Weleda in your local pharmacy or drug store. Weleda products are produced on anthroposophist principles and are therefore completely natural and contain no artificial components either for treatment or for conservation.