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Travel: Cologne's enduring spirit

A saga of biblical bones, British bombs and incredible courage



A little more than 2,000 years ago three wise men, the Magi of old, mounted their camels and followed a star to the town of Bethlehem. There they knelt down and worshiped a tot in one of the stables, proclaimed him to be "King of the Jews" and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. And that's about all I ever heard of them.

Admittedly my knowledge of things biblical is sadly lacking but, if I thought about it at all, I assumed that the three Magi got back on their camels and rode off into the desert to do whatever wise men did in those days. In all honesty their fate never crossed my mind - until this past October when I was traveling up the Rhine River in Germany and came upon a box purporting to contain their bones. How the mortal remains of three ancient Persian kings ended up in a bejeweled triple sarcophagus behind the Alter of Cologne's magnificent gothic cathedral struck me as curious enough to warrant a bit of research. And this is what I learned.

By being the first to worship the infant Jesus, Gasper, Melchior and Balthasar not only assured that they and their camels would be immortalized on Christmas cards and calendars throughout the Christian world, but also that their mortal remains would be of incalculable religious value. After leaving Bethlehem the magi are said to have stepped down from their kingly roles and devoted the rest of their lives to good Christian deeds. All three lived to be well over 100 and their bodies were respectfully interred somewhere in Persia but their bones were destined to keep moving for several more centuries.

In about 300 AD Roman Emperor Constantine gave his mom, Helena, unlimited access to the Imperial Treasury and instructed her to search for relics of the Judeo-Christian tradition. Helena, who was later sainted for her diligence, pursued the quest with a passion and, among other things, came up with chunks of the "true cross," the nails used in the crucifixion, and the bodies of the three Magi, which she carted off to Constantinople. Shortly after Helena's death in 330 AD Constantine put the holy remains in a heavy marble casket and sent them off to the Bishop of Milan but just short of its destination the ox cart carrying the casket became mired down in mud. Seeing this as a signal from God the Bishop ordered that a basilica to house the remains be built on the very spot where the cart was stuck. And there the bones of the Magi remained until Holy Roman Emperor Fredrich I (Barbarossa) sacked Milan in 1162. Fredrich gathered up the spoils of war and shipped them off to recipients of his choice. Cologne got the bones of the Magi, a gift that profoundly altered the future course of that city's history.

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