Cologne, Germany, has the distinction of being built according to the end of the Biblical Book of Revelation: a walled city, 12 churches, and 12 gates. Not all gates would open but that didn’t matter because they were in place. The bishops believed this meant that, at the second coming of the Christ, these people would be gathered into heaven first.

Today, Cologne is the fourth largest city in Germany and is one of the key inland ports of Europe, but its roots go back almost 2000 years when it was a Roman fort. The 12th and 13th centuries were the golden years of Cologne. In 1288, it gained its independence from the archbishops and became a free city, belonging to no nation. However, the city underwent several occupations by the French and the British until the final occupation by the British in 1926.

Cologne lost its status as a free city during the French period. According to the 1801 Peace Treaty of Lunéville, all the territories of the Holy Roman Empire on the left bank of the Rhine were officially incorporated into the French Republic. Finally, in 1815 at the Congress of Vienna, Cologne became part of the Kingdom of Prussia, which brings us to the current era.

During World War II, Cologne was a Military Area Command Headquarters. The city was bombed in 262 separate air raids by the Allies, all by the British Royal Air Force except for a single failed post-capture test of a guided missile by the United States Army Air Forces. The RAF dropped a total of 34,711 long tons of bombs on the city. Although air raid alarms had gone off in the winter/spring of 1940 as British bombers passed overhead, the first bombing took place on May 12, 1940. The RAF continued bombing until the first of March 1945. On March 6, 1945, United States troops captured Cologne.

In 1945, an urban planner described Cologne as the “world’s greatest heap of rubble” and with good reason.

WWII destroyed the city center except The Cathedral, the common name for the St. Peter and Mary Cathedral, Germany’s largest church. The first foundation stone for the Gothic cathedral we see today was laid in August 1248. Lack of money meant construction was only completed in 1880, 632 years later. The completion was celebrated as a national event on August 14, 1880.

The cathedral suffered 14 aerial bomb hits and more than 70 firebomb hits. Badly damaged, it nevertheless remained standing in an otherwise completely flattened city. The twin spires were an easily recognizable navigational landmark for Allied aircraft bombing. Many people then, and now, believe the Allies did not destroy the cathedral completely because it served as an easily recognizable landmark for pilots. Another belief is the building remained standing by an act of God protecting a certain treasure. Still another is that the lack of complete destruction had nothing to do with religion because other churches were destroyed. In any event, it remained standing, thereby aiding the Allies.

Our guide told us that authorities ordered some sections left unrepaired as a memorial to the war damage. Otherwise, repairs to the cathedral were completed in 1956. In 2005, authorities decided to restore the still damaged sections to their original appearance.

Some scholars believe it’s because of the Three Kings, or Wise Men, that Cologne exists at all in the modern world. The Shrine of the Three Kings, said to contain the bones of the three Wise Men from the Bible, brought pilgrims to the town in the Middle Ages and continuing today. Every January 6 (Epiphany in the church calendar), members of the public can walk alongside the ossuary (bone box) and pay their respects. The shrine is a large gilded and decorated triple sarcophagus placed above and behind the high altar of the cathedral. It’s considered to be the largest reliquary in the western world. In December 2007, we could admire it only from a distance, but we could see there were carvings although we couldn’t identify them.

There are various legends on the subject, but the one the powers-that-be in Cologne declare official is as follows.

The relics of the three Magi were originally situated at Constantinople but brought to Milan in 314. Eight centuries later in 1164, a Holy Roman Emperor gave them to the Archbishop of Cologne. In 1164 under questionable circumstances, he brought the bones to Cologne. He was unimpressed with the old cathedral and planned a new one that would be grand enough to house the relics. From then on, every German king would make a pilgrimage after his coronation to present gifts to the remains. They believed that Christ would thus recognize them as monarch, as He had done with the Three Kings themselves.

Naturally, there is controversy. The scholar Patrick Geary has claimed there was no cult of the Magi in Milan before 1164. The three skeletons taken by the archbishop were unidentified. On his way from Milan back to Cologne, he invented the history of the cult of the Magi and identified the relics as those of the Three Wise Men. His reason was to establish the city of Cologne as the equal of Oxen, the seat of the Emperor, by developing a cult equal to that of Charlemagne, and, by this means, to secure the independence and status of the archbishops of Cologne.

Neither our local guide, nor my internet research, answered two important questions. Did the World War II bombing damage the Shrine of the Three Kings, or had someone hidden it away at the beginning of the war in Germany? If so, where was there a safe place?

If you can answer that, please tell me!