Tongeren lies in the far east of the Dutch-speaking province of Limburg. It is the oldest town in Belgium, founded in 15 BC to serve as a supply station for the Roman legions based in the Rhine valley. Located on a crossroads of two major military roads, it quickly became an important trade center for the region. ‘Atuatuca Tungrorum’, as the town was called by the Romans, was inhabited by a mix of Roman soldiers and the local Tungri, a group of Belgic tribes in Gaul. The Tungri people were first referred to as Germani (according to Tacitus), which would later become a name widely applied to the peoples east of the Rhine River.
Tongeren gradually developed into one of the largest towns in northern Gaul. In the second century AD the Romans built fortified city walls, which shows the importance and greatness of what had by then become a city. In later Roman times the city became increasingly Christian and churches and chapels were built.
Tongeren then all but disappears from historical records until the early 13th century, when a new basilica and the medieval city walls were built. Nowadays it is a friendly city, steeped in history and located in between the sloping hills and fruit farms of the Haspengouw region.
Basilica of Our Lady
This basilica is by far the most remarkable monument in this two-millennia-old city. Its majestic tower stands 64 meters tall; the inside is definitely worth a visit and behind the basilica lies a small monastery with quiet walkways or corridors. Construction of the building was started in 1240 – it took 300 years to finish this superb building – and one of the most treasured artifacts in the Basilica of Our Lady is the statue of Our Lady of Tongeren, made in 1475.
Just like the beguinage of Lier, the Tongeren beguinage is an extremely tranquil place to go for a walk. It dates from 1257 and used to have its own enclosure wall, which separated this beguine village from the rest of the city. In the 1600s the beguinage counted more than 300 beguines.
In the center of the beguinage stands the Saint Catherine Church, built in 1294 and one of the oldest churches in the entire city.
The Gallo-Roman Museum, located next to Basilica of Our Lady, is the absolute highlight of a visit to Tongeren. It has no less than 18,000 artifacts from prehistoric times until and including the Roman and Merovingian periods. Especially the exhibition of the Roman period includes amazing collections of pottery, glassware, sculptures and bronze artifacts. The collections are organized to show day-to-day life in the city and countryside during the days of Roman occupation.
Roman and Medieval City Walls
Parts – 1,500 meters in total – of the well-preserved Roman walls can still be seen in the city center. It used to be an impressive fortified structure, with a height of six meters and round towers at regular intervals. Large gates in the wall granted access to the city.
In the Middle Ages big parts of the wall were used to build other structures and buildings. After the city was destroyed by the Duke of Brabant in 1213, the city started building another fortified city wall in 1241. This wall, too, had defensive towers and gates for access, some of which still exist to this day.
Statue of Ambiorix
Before the area became occupied by the Romans, the Belgae offered resistance to the invading armies of Julius Caesar. This resistance was led by the Eburone tribe, living in the area around present-day Tongeren. In 54 BC, led by king Ambiorix, the Eburones destroyed a Roman legion that was spending the winter there, killing about 8,000 soldiers. The ferocious resistance by the Eburone and Nervii tribes caused Caesar to write down in his Commentarii de Bello Gallico that ‘of the three regions in Gaul, the Belgae are the bravest’.
The statue of Ambiorix was made in 1866 and you can find it at the main town square, opposite the Basilica of Our Lady.
This good-looking castle lies just outside of town. It can be reached by a nice walk through a nature reserve, which, by the way, used to be the site of a former Roman aqueduct.
This residential castle was built symmetrically and consists of the castle itself, a square farmstead, a park and a pond. The buildings you can see now date from the 17th and 18th centuries. It’s a private castle and not accessible.
To finish up this post, here’s a quick YouTube video with some moving images of Tongeren.
(If you’re reading this via email, click here to watch the video.)
This article is also available as a smartphone app, allowing you to use it as a reference when visiting Tongeren. You can get the app right here!