During the Viking Age, Birka was an important trading center. The archaeological sites of Birka and Hovgården, on the neighbouring island of Adelsö, make up an archaeological complex which illustrates the elaborate trading networks of Viking Scandinavia and their influence on the subsequent history of Europe. Generally regarded as Sweden's oldest town, Birka (along with Hovgården) has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1993.

Established in the middle of the 8th century and thus being one of the earliest urban settlements in Scandinavia, Birka was the Baltic link in the river and portage route through Ladoga and Novgorod to the Byzantine Empire and the Abbasid Califate. Birka was also important as the site of the first known Christian congregation in Sweden, founded in 831 by Saint Ansgar.

Sources are mainly archeological remains. No texts survive from this area, though the written text Vita Ansgari ("The life of Ansgar") by Rimbert (archbishop of Bremen-Hamburg, c. 865) describes the missionary work of Ansgar around 830 at Birka, and Gesta Hammaburgensis Ecclesiae Pontificum (Deeds of Bishops of the Hamburg Church) by Adam of Bremen in 1075 describes the archbishop Unni, who died at Birka in 936. St Ansgar's work was the first attempt to convert the inhabitants from the Norse religion to Christianity, and it was unsuccessful.

Both publications are silent on Birca's size, layout and appearance. Based on Rimbert's account, Birca was significant because it had a port and it was the place for the regional ting. Adam only mentions the port, but otherwise Birca seems to have been significant to him because it had been the bridgehead of Ansgar's Christian mission and because archbishop Unni had been buried there.

Birka was abandoned during the later half of the 10th century. Based on the coin finds, the city seems to have silenced around 960. Roughly around the same time, the near-by settlement of Sigtuna supplanted Birka as the main trading centre in the Mälaren area. The reasons for Birka's decline are disputed. A contributing factor may have been the post-glacial rebound, which lowered the water level of Mälaren changing it from an arm of the sea into a lake and cut Birka off from the nearest (southern) access to the Baltic Sea. The Baltic island of Gotland was also in a better strategic position for Russian-Byzantine trade, and was gaining eminence as a mercantile stronghold. Historian Neil Kent has speculated that the area may have been the victim of an enemy assault.

In search of Birka, National Antiquarian Johan Hadorph was the first to attempt excavations on Björkö in the late 17th century. The later excavations soon indicated that a major settlement had been located on the island and eventually. Ownership of Björkö is today mainly in private hands, and used for farming. The settlement site, however is an archaeological site, and a museum has been built nearby for exhibition of finds, models and reconstructions. It is a popular site to visit during the summer times.

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Björkö, Adelsö, Sweden
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Details

Founded: ca. 750 AD
Category: Prehistoric and archaeological sites in Sweden
Historical period: Vendel Period (Sweden)

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Porta Nigra

The Porta Nigra (Latin for black gate) is the largest Roman city gate north of the Alps. It is designated as part of the Roman Monuments, Cathedral of St. Peter and Church of Our Lady in Trier UNESCO World Heritage Site. The name Porta Nigra originated in the Middle Ages due to the darkened colour of its stone; the original Roman name has not been preserved. Locals commonly refer to the Porta Nigra simply as Porta.

The Porta Nigra was built in grey sandstone between 186 and 200 AD. The original gate consisted of two four-storied towers, projecting as near semicircles on the outer side. A narrow courtyard separated the two gate openings on either side. For unknown reasons, however, the construction of the gate remained unfinished. For example, the stones at the northern (outer) side of the gate were never abraded, and the protruding stones would have made it impossible to install movable gates. Nonetheless, the gate was used for several centuries until the end of the Roman era in Trier.

In Roman times, the Porta Nigra was part of a system of four city gates, one of which stood at each side of the roughly rectangular Roman city. The Porta Nigra guarded the northern entry to the Roman city, while the Porta Alba (White Gate) was built in the east, the Porta Media (Middle Gate) in the south, and the Porta Inclyta (Famous Gate) in the west, next to the Roman bridge across the Moselle. The gates stood at the ends of the two main streets of the Roman Trier, one of which led north-south and the other east-west. Of these gates, only the Porta Nigra still exists today.

In the early Middle Ages the Roman city gates were no longer used for their original function and their stones were taken and reused for other buildings. Also iron and lead braces were broken out of the walls of the Porta Nigra for reuse. Traces of this destruction are still clearly visible on the north side of the gate.

After 1028, the Greek monk Simeon lived as a hermit in the ruins of the Porta Nigra. After his death (1035) and sanctification, the Simeonstift monastery was built next to the Porta Nigra to honor him. Saving it from further destruction, the Porta Nigra was transformed into a church: The inner court of the gate was roofed and intermediate ceilings were inserted. The two middle storeys of the former gate were converted into church naves: the upper storey being for the monks and the lower storey for the general public. The ground floor with the large gates was sealed, and a large outside staircase was constructed alongside the south side (the town side) of the gate, up to the lower storey of the church. A small staircase led further up to the upper storey. The church rooms were accessible through former windows of the western tower of the Porta Nigra that were enlarged to become entrance doors (still visible today). The top floor of the western tower was used as church tower, the eastern tower was leveled, and an apse added at its east side. An additional gate - the much smaller Simeon Gate - was built adjacent to the East side of the Porta Nigra and served as a city gate in medieval times.

In 1802 Napoleon Bonaparte dissolved the church in the Porta Nigra and the monastery beside it, along with the vast majority of Trier"s numerous churches and monasteries. On his visit to Trier in 1804, Napoleon ordered that the Porta Nigra be converted back to its Roman form. Only the apse was kept; but the eastern tower was not rebuilt to its original height. Local legend has it that Napoleon originally wanted to completely tear down the church, but locals convinced him that the church had actually been a Gaulish festival hall before being turned into a church. Another version of the story is that they told him about its Roman origins, persuading him to convert the gate back to its original form.

In 1986 the Porta Nigra was designated a World Heritage Site, along with other Roman monuments in Trier and its surroundings. The modern appearance of the Porta Nigra goes back almost unchanged to the reconstruction ordered by Napoleon. At the south side of the Porta Nigra, remains of Roman columns line the last 100 m of the street leading to the gate. Positioned where they had stood in Roman times, they give a slight impression of the aspect of the original Roman street that was lined with colonnades. The Porta Nigra, including the upper floors, is open to visitors.