Cultural Entities 


Return to overview



1. Overview




River Ems, Dollart Bay, German-Dutch border, neighbouring entities Oldambt in the Netherlands, Krummhörn, Moormerland and Overledingen in Germany


around 650 km²

Location - map:

East Frisia in Lower Saxony, Lower Saxony, Germany

Origin of name:

not known

Relationship/similarities with other cultural entities:

Similar natural landscape to the neighbouring cultural entities around the Dollart Bay, however the cultural landscape is similar to the other neighbouring entities in Lower Saxony (Krummhörn, Moormerland).

Characteristic elements and ensembles:

Marshland villages, polders and straight drainage-ditches, terps and mound villages, linear villages built on dykes, brick manufacturing, area of polder princes.

2. Geology and geography

2.1 General
The Rheiderland, sited between the Ems, the Dollart and the German-Dutch border, is one of the four historic communities of the administrative district of Leer, together with the Overdingerland, the Moormerland and the Legenerland. Nowadays the German side of the region Rheiderland is composed of the communities Weener, Jemgum and Bunde as well as Bingum, a part of the city of Leer. From north to south the Rheiderland stretches 30 km from Pogum to Halte. At the widest point, between Dollard and Bingum, the region measures 20 km. The Dutch part (Reiderland) is located in the Dutch province of Groningen and is described in the cultural landscape unit of Oldambt.
The northern part of the Rheiderland is marshland, whilst the southern part is characterised by embankments of the River Ems and an accompanying sand ridge. Geologically the landscape is derived from sedimentation layers and the development of peatlands due to the rise of the sea level after the Ice Age. Due to marine incursions, not only the low lying land but also the shore land occasionally proved unsuitable for human settlements.

2.2 Present landscape
Rheiderland is a plantation-landscape, almost without relief, which thanks to alluvial marsh soil is very fertile. At present the landscape is characterised by its marshland villages and straight drainage-ditches. These marsh landscapes and polders, new territory gained by erecting dykes around marshes, are characteristic of the East Frisian landscape. Feature of this landscape are the small number of trees and the far reaching panoramic view to the horizon.
The farmers used to be wealthy, which is still mirrored today in the splendid single farms. In the Christian-Eberhards-Polder for instance there are wonderful single farm complexes surrounded by water with their own names, whose owners used to be called “Polder Princes”. On the newer polders are found linear villages along roads and dykes with a dense ditch system.
The northern part of the Rheiderland was regained from the Dollart by means of numerous dykes and is very fertile because of the marsh soil. The Dollart originated in its present shape in the Middle Ages due to a number of storm floods. Today this roughly 100 km2 sized bay is connected to the North Sea by the Dollartmouth. During the 18th and 19th centuries there were numerous attempts to gain new territory, which can still be seen in the present landscape. Dykes and marshland alternate. The settlement form is mainly that of linear villages built on dykes. Some marsh farming land is up to 1m below sea level and is used for grazing. In the south of Rheiderland there are peatlands, including the tail end of the Bourtanger Moor, which is located in the Emsland and only partially survives.
The historical structure of land use, with main settlement-concentrations inland along the old trade route Groningen-Bremen has hardly changed.

3. Landscape and settlement history 

The large scale investigation of the North German mud flats and the Rheiderland marsh, by the Archaeological Service of the East-Frisian Association (Ostfriesische Landschaft) and the Institute for Historic Coastal Research among others, has added considerably to our understanding of this area.

3.1 Prehistoric and Medieval Times

Archaeological finds demonstrate that roughly 7.000 years ago Mesolithic hunters and gatherers frequented the landscape of the lower Ems consisting of peatlands, marshes, rivers and sand islands. In the Neolithic period settlements of the Funnel Beaker Culture developed in the area. It was only at the end of the Bronze Age that the marshes along the Ems were colonised. Important excavations have been undertaken in the Iron Age settlements of Jemgum and Hatzum. Farms were built in the Roman period, and trading centres developed on the elevated embankments of the Ems on tidal channels. The danger of storm floods led to the creation of the first dwelling mounds.

The Rheiderland was settled very early and continuously by Frisians. The settlements in the south, were located on the sandy soil, and in accordance with the prevailing conditions, spread out along the banks of the Ems and into the marsh. Settlement layers in both terpen and graveyards close to Oldendorp (7-9th century) are proof of later early medieval settlements. On the terpen village-like settlement groups developed. In the later Middle Ages the building of dykes led to a further heightening of the terpen with the additional material. With the additional security afforded by the dykes, inland colonisation took place with the expansion of settlements into low lying lands. In addition, the bogland in the southern Rheiderland was made usable, for example in Weenermoor and Wymeer, where narrow long strips of farmland, in accordance with the Upstreek-law were extended into the bogs, reaching lengths of more than a kilometre. The trade- and craft-settlements of Jemgum and Hatzum developed as villages with narrow streets on long terpen.
Well-fortified tower houses made of brick testify to the expulsion of foreign rulers from Friesland in the 13th century. As a result the Rheiderland, like the other Frisian areas, formed an independent self-governing territory with a council constitution. Feudal rule was unknown in these provincial communities. The principal places at the time were probably Weener and Hatzum.
In the Middle Ages the Rheiderland was oriented towards the west and Groningen’s Ommelande. Only since the breakthrough of the Dollart (in 1362) which led to areas of the Rheiderland being flooded and forming a natural border to the Ommelande, did the land communities turn more strongly to the Frisian areas to the east of the Ems.
The origin of the Dollart goes back to several storm floods and inroads made by the sea which caused constant land loss on the Dollart. The eastern Dollart bay in the Netherlands was formed in the first half of the 15th century. By 1454 an emergency dyke was constructed to protect the Oldambt, leading from the stable banks of the Ems straight through the peatland area up to high Geest near Finsterwolde. The western bay may have only originated in the 1460s. In 1509 the Cosmos and Damian Flood penetrated far inland, covering many areas of the Rheiderland with marine clay. The sea bay, which had advanced as far as the gates of Ditzum, flooded four towns, 46 villages and killed several hundred thousand people. However, the exact year of its origin is not certain.

3.2 Early Modern Times
From the end of the 16th century, the systematic recovery of land began with the construction of polders, which led to today's coast line. Between the 17th and the 20th centuries numerous other polders were constructed so that now the Dollart has shrunk to one-third of its original size. The following polders deserve mention: the Bunderpolder of 1707, the Bunder-Interessenten-Polder, the Landschaftspolder and Preusspolder of 1744 and 1752 and the Heinitzpolder of 1755. The most recent is the Kanalpolder surrounded by dykes in 1877 on the eastern side. The dykes and drainage-systems of this time still exist in today’s landscape, although they are now far inland.
The economic significance of the polders is still clearly visible in the large gulf-houses. The whole of the Rheiderland was primarily devoted to agriculture and the land reclamation work became especially intensive in the middle of 18th century, due to the grain prices being high. Ditzum was important as a port. However reduced yields and competition from producers from abroad reduced profits, causing in our days the closure of numerous farms. For the people of the area nothing remained but to emigrate. Inland, some large villages (Weener, Bunde, Stapelmoor) with churches dating to the 13th century developed out of linear farm settlements.
From 1413 the Rheiderland came under the administrative rule of the ruling family Tom Brok and then to the family Focko Ukena and then the family Cirksena. The land communities only gained their autonomy once again for a short time. The Rheiderland became a part of the country of East Friesland and has shared its fortunes ever since.
In 1735 the German part of the Rheiderland was a part of the department of Emden and Leer, divided into the Bunder, the Weeniger, the Bingumer, the Jemgumer and the Dietzumer Protectorates. Then in 1859 only the departments of Weener and Leer, which became independent administrative districts in 1932 existed. The administrative district of Weener was dissolved by an order of the Prussian state ministry and was united with the administrative district of Leer.

3.3 Modern Times
The appearance of the Rheiderland underwent major changes in the 19th and 20th centuries when the Ems clay was excavated for the brickyards situated outside the dykes. Brick production influenced the further economic development of the region considerably. In order to extract clay numerous tracts of land were lowered by 1m. Bricks are still formed and fired, as they were in the past, from this clayey soil. Many of the typical brick buildings of East Friesland are built from Rheiderland bricks. Nevertheless, this could not prevent many brick manufacturers closing for economic reasons and being left to decay.
Agriculture is another important area of employment. The very fertile soil is still present. However, the area used for agriculture has dropped by nearly 2% during the last four years. Agricultural production is generally decreasing.
The construction of the motorway A31 caused far reaching changes in the cultural landscape. A west-east connection already existed during the time of the Hanse (around 1500) as a trade route between Groningen and Bremen. This trade route appears around 1863 for the first time as an Oldenburg state road on maps.
However, the Rheiderland was not only cut in two by the extension of the motorway, but this also led to changes in infrastructure. The expansion of the residential areas and industrial areas in many places has contributed to the loss of the formerly typical settlement pattern. Traditional settlement forms such as the North German linear settlements or closed marshland villages along the Ems are to be found less and less in the region.

4. Modern development and planning

In its regional planning report for 2005 the Federal Office for Building and Regional Planning lists the Rheiderland as a region which is marked by economic growth. This development has led and will lead to an increased use of space for settlements, which is accompanied by traffic growth.

4.1 Land use
The Rheiderland has the appearance of a plantation-landscape, shaped by unfavourable natural and economic conditions. In view of the intensive agricultural use of the marshy soils it can be assumed that farms sizes will increase to the disadvantage of other farms. Marshland used for arable farming is mainly on the Dollart; in the north of the Rheiderland meadowland marshes prevail and in the south there are valley meadows and moor geest. At present, the proportion of people employed in agriculture is under 34 % and will decrease even further during the course of future rural developments. This development is to be seen in connection with the intensification of agriculture which will, in view of the world-wide competition, lead to the enlargement of farms and to the adaptation of land use to economic constraints.
Aspects of the Rheiderland concerned with nature protection are apparent in the form of designated nature reserves. The Dutch part of the Dollart has been under nature protection since 1977 and has been a Ramsar-area since 1990. In 1980 the German part of the Dollart, which covers about 30% of the Dollart, was declared a protected area, provided it belongs to regional district Leer/ East Frisia. In the Rheiderland, the protected area of Saint Georgiwold and the nature reserve of Wymeer with its idyllic peatland can be found.

4.2 Settlement development
The traditional, rural settlement forms of the 19th century in the western Rheiderland are linear settlements in the form of marsh or peatland villages as well as villages along roads. However, further to the east along the Ems, this typical settlement form is replaced by scattered villages. The characteristic form of the villages on dwelling mound only appears in the north of the Rheiderland. In the entire Rheiderland you find Frisian gulf-houses, so important from the point of view of cultural history.
Today the administrative district of Leer is marked by relatively low population-density, it is about 90 inhabitants per km². The construction of the motorway A 31 simplified and improved the accessibility of the Rheiderland and therefore the mobility of the people living in the Rheiderland. Nevertheless it is still beyond the catchment area of Emden. The commuter flow to Leer is limited and negligible.
The Rheiderland as a place to live, contrasts with the North Frisian coast as a tourist area, the quality of which is based on the traditional, agricultural use of the land and on the mud flats. Although the visitor figures do fall from the north to the south considerably, the peak values still amount to approximately three million overnight stays per year.
The Rheiderland does not have either a state museum or a trans-regional one. There are two local museums in Bunde and Weener. In addition there is a monastery dating from the Middle-Ages in Jemgum and the monastery of Dünebroek. The region is also known for its large number of important churches, e.g. the Church of the Holy Cross in Bunde, the "polder church" in the Landschaftspolder or the oldest church in Midlum (around 1200) and the oldest bell tower (13th century). The church-organs, which are especially striking, were bought centuries ago by the communities and have been preserved to this day. The most significant one is the Arp Schnitger organ in St George’s church in Weener.
The Rheiderland, as a historic area with its own cultural history, is home for many Frisians in whose consciousness the Rheiderland is strongly rooted. This is made clear by local associations, by Rheiderland having its own coat of arms (referring to Frisian autonomy), its own newspaper (Rheiderland – the independent newspaper) and by the companies whose area of influence takes in the whole of the Rheiderland (Ems Dollart Post).

4.3 Industry and energy
There are no significant industrial sites in the Rheiderland. Although Emden and Leer are important sites for industry, only the construction of vehicles is of significance here. In addition there are gas-pipelines which run from north to south along the motorway and east to west from Groningen to Oldenburg, Bremen and Hamburg. Further underground gas-reservoirs are planned in Jemgum and Holtgaste. The numerous wind farms are among the latest developments which have thoroughly changed the original appearance of the flat land thoroughly.

4.4 Infrastructure
Traditionally the Rheiderland was accessed in terms of traffic by water and roads (long-distance roads; motorway). Diverse harbours facilitate the crossing of the Ems. Furthermore the line Emden-Dietzum-Delfzijl operates in summer. Other former sluice-harbours, which were used to ship bricks from the brickworks, are now used by sports boats and leisure cruisers.
The motorway connecting the Rheiderland to Lower Saxony and the remainder of the German traffic-network was opened in the 1990s. The settlement picture of the region was changed considerably by the completion of the motorway A31. With a use of about 10.-20.000 vehicles per 24 hours, four motorway-accesses and a well designed country road-system the whole area is well developed. This is reflected in the mobility of the people of Rheiderland who can reach the arterial routes of Germany in a short time. Moreover the connection to the Dutch A7 to Groningen also plays a part in local access.

The railway connection of Rheiderland from the Netherlands to Overledingen was built by 1876. The north to south connection from Emden via Leer and Papenburg to the Ruhr area, built in 1854, also played a big role.

5. Legal and spatial planning aspects

Administratively Rheiderland is divided into the communities of Weener, Bunde and Jemgum as well as of Bingsum, a part of the town of Leer which are all subordinate to the administrative district of Leer. The largest place is the town of Weener. From 1885 to 1932 the administrative district of Weener existed, which included the entire Rheiderland. In their present form the communities of Bunde and Jemgum originate from the fusion of communities and villages in 2001.
According to the regional planning programme of Lower Saxony the Rheiderland is classified as a weakly structured area without centres. The next middle-sized centres are Leer and Emden. From a regional planning point-of-view the Rheiderland is part of the Regional Structure Conference of East Frisia, which has not yet submitted a development concept. The Regional Council of the east Frisian Area (Landschaftsverband Ostfriesische Landschaft) extends over the entire governmental district (administrative districts of Wismund, Aurich, Emden and Leer). In addition there are the outline plans for the area and plans concerned with the utilisation of land of the communities as well as the development plans concerning the coast line of Lower Saxony.

6. Vulnerabilities

6.1 Strategic Planning
The opening of the motorway in the 1990’s has created easy access to Rheiderland and will potentially lead to development pressure. Any strategic planning for future development will need to have both the natural and cultural heritage integrated into any decision making.

6.2 Settlement
The historic settlement pattern is important within this area and is vulnerable to the threat from development within the core and expansion around the perimeter especially if tourism continues to expand. The historic farmsteads are already vulnerable to change of use away from traditional agricultural production.

6.3 Agriculture
In view of international competition, the pressure to use all land optimally, resulting from globalisation, will mean adjusting the means of agricultural production to economic constraints. In this context the agricultural use of the marsh areas is problematical, as the areas are fragmented by numerous ditches and drains, consequently modern machines cannot be used. An additional factor is the reduced deployment of yield increasing measures in accordance with the European RAM acre-guideline. The enlargement of the production areas leads to many farms being abandoned and to the disappearance of traditional, small farms.

6.4 Tourism
The growing dependence of the Rheiderland on tourism can lead to an erosion of the cultural heritage of the area. For many people in the area tourist activities are an alternative to the non profit making agriculture they have abandoned. This has resulted in historic farm complexes and agricultural practices being lost to the needs of modern mass-tourism. It is essential to identify ways in which both the tourism can be promoted but still retaining the cultural history both in the landscape and structures. The lack of a state or trans-regional museum within Rheiderland could restrict the promotion of the areas cultural heritage.

6.5 Industry and energy
The increase in renewable energy production, such as wind farms, has a significant impact on the historic open landscape. In addition, it has a negative influence on the varied bird-life of the mud flats, causing many birds to be killed by the rotor blade movements. These changes to the landscape have a negative effect on both the natural and cultural-historic landscape of Rheiderland.

7. Potentials

7.1 Settlement
The historic settlement pattern and its associated landscape is important within this area and has potential for being a resource to encourage tourism. Careful integration of the cultural heritage into planning proposals provides the potential both for the preservation and management of the historic settlements. The marshland villages of the 12th century show a visible history and tradition of the Rheiderland; and are a strong link for the Frisians with their home country. The historic farmsteads have the potential to promote local agricultural production as well as to be carefully used as tourist accomodation.

7.2 Agriculture
Agriculture has been the main historic economy for this area and remains so. The area has not suffered as badly as other areas through intensification and many of the historic monuments associated with agriculture survive within the landscape. These have great potential to be promoted, protected and managed via tourism and protection via agricultural schemes. These features tell an important story for the development of this area and their value should be identified both to the local population and the incoming tourists.

7.3 Tourism
Beside the strong identification of the Rheiderland people with their native land, the cultural history of the landscape can be promoted as a tourist attraction. Thus the numerous dykes show the many century-old history of dyke-building. Now that the dykes are inland it is possible to illustrate this type of land reclamation by means of walks and excursions on the dykes. In this fashion the tourism trade which already exists could diversify, focusing on the cultural landscape of the Rheiderland. The museums can be a further source which can promote the history of the Rheiderland.

7.4 Nature Conservation
There is potential for the cultural heritage to be incorporated within management plans in those areas protected as nature reserves.

7.5 Industry and energy
The historic brick making industry within Rheiderland can become a centre for the production of traditional building material and a possible tourist attraction.

7.6 Infrastructure
Within Rheiderland there is excellent linkage in the regional and trans-regional transport infrastructure as well as in an existing tourist infrastructure, which has been operating for many years. There is the potential to exploit this infrastructure to promote the cultural heritage of the area.

8. Sources

Author: Meike Levin

Behre, K.-E. (1995): Die Entstehung und Entwicklung der Natur- und Kulturlandschaft der ostfriesischen Halbinsel. In: K.-E. Behre, K.-E. & van Lengen, H. (Hrsg.): Ostfriesland. Geschichte und Gestalt einer Kulturlandschaft. Aurich 1995 (durchgesehene 3. Aufl. 1998), 5-36.

Behre, K.-E. (1999): Die Veränderungen der niedersächsischen Küstenlinien in den letzten 3000 Jahren und ihre Ursachen. Probleme der Küstenforschung im südlichen Nordseegebiet 26, 1999, 9-33.

Brandt K. (1977): Die Ergebnisse der Grabung in der Marschsiedlung Bentumersiel/Unterems in den Jahren 1971-1973. Probleme der Küstenforschung im südlichen Nordseegebiet 12, 1977, 1-32.

Bundesamt für Bauwesen und Raumordnung (BBR) (2005): Raumordnungsbericht 2005. Berichte 21, Bonn.

Raumordnungskonzept für das niedersächsische Küstenmeer. Herausgegeben vom Niedersächsischen Ministerium für den ländlichen Raum, Ernährung, Landwirtschaft und Verbraucherschutz – Regierungsvertretung Oldenburg – Landesentwicklung, Raumordnung. Stand 2005.

Schwarz W. (1995): Die Urgeschichte in Ostfriesland. Leer 1995.

Schwarz W. (1995): Archäologische Quellen zur Besiedlung Ostfrieslands im frühen und hohen Mittelalter. In: Behre, K.-E. & van Lengen, H. (Hrsg.): Ostfriesland. Geschichte und Gestalt einer Kulturlandschaft. Aurich 1995 (durchgesehene 3. Aufl. 1998), 75-92.