Island in North Frisia, neighbouring entities Amrum, Föhr and Wiedingharde on the mainland, Island of Rømø in Denmark
99 km², 38 km from south to north, 12.6 km from east to west
Island in the very north-west of North Frisia, Schleswig-Holstein, Germany
Origin of name:
Probably derived from a word meaning sill, which referred to the elongated shape.
Relationship/similarities with other cultural entities:
Clustered villages like on Föhr and moraine mainland, built heritage like farmhouses, churches, residential houses, lighthouses as in other entities, field enclosures with low banks as on Föhr, heath land, burial mounds and megalithic tombs as on Föhr, Amrum and mainland moraines, spa architecture as on Amrum, Wyk on Föhr
Characteristic elements and
Clustered villages with irregular fields enclosed by low banks, Uthlande style farmhouses with Frisian walls, medieval churches, 19th century lighthouses, spa buildings, heath land, burial mounds and megalithic tombs, raised prehistoric settlement sites, areas of imported soil, prehistoric and early historic remains underneath dunes, WWII fortifications and facilities
2. Geology and geography
The central part of the island around Westerland and Ost-Sylt consists of remains of moraines from Saalian ice age glaciers and even bits of earlier rock formations from before ice age periods, like the cliffs of Morsum. These have been strongly eroded since the North Sea reached Schleswig-Holstein some 8000 years ago. Tide and coast parallel currents have formed the characteristic, elongated sand arms, reaching several kilometres to the south and north, by constant erosion and sedimentation, presumably on top of older bits of land. Yet, the sea has more and more worn away the western part of the moraines throughout the centuries, resulting in up to 25m high cliffs, like the
Rote Kliff, but also in a constant threat to settlements. Dunes have developed on a large scale especially since the Middle Ages and cover now vast expanses along the western shore and the total of the sandy northern and southern parts. Their constant und unhindered move westward in the past covered earlier settlements. Sylt used to be part of the vast area of salt marshes and bogs which spread across the Wadden Sea of North Frisia till the late Middle Ages. Today, embanked marsh areas only exist along the southern coast of the central part. Smaller stretches of salt marshes are located east of Rantum and north of Archsum. The southern and northern fringes of the moraines gradually slope down to the
2.2 Present landscape
Most of the elongated northern and southern parts is dune covered and widely uninhabited. The larger villages of List and Hörnum on the northern and southern tips and few smaller settlements in-between make the exception. The central, Pleistocene core in the west around Westerland, Wennigstedt and Kampen is rather densely inhabited while the hinterland between Kampen and Keitum still has some open areas consisting of heath land, golf courses and the area of the airport. The eastern part of the moraines on Sylt-Ost is more rural with fields and pastures divided by low banks around small villages and scattered single farmsteads and houses. The embanked marshes in the south are mostly uninhabited and intersected by a small-scale pattern of rectangular drainage ditches oriented along new roads and irregular former tidal inlets. The adjacent Rantum Basin is an enclosed area of open water and marshland without built structures. The island is spotted with small forests, especially between the villages in the west. Buildings are of different type, from larger structures like barracks, apartment buildings, public houses, spas and resorts to single, detached houses which contribute the largest share to the built substance on the island. Some constructions exceed 3 or 4 storeys, like apartments blocks along the promenade in Westerland, a number of lighthouses or the large aerial in Rantum with about 200m of height. The central part of the island is closely meshed with a network of roads and cut in half by the railway from Niebüll to Westerland. A large open space near Westerland is utilised by the airfield with two runways.
3. Landscape and settlement history
3.1 Prehistoric and Medieval Times
Megalithic tombs like the Denghoog in
Wenningstedt and a multitude of still extant single mounds and mound cemeteries of Bronze Age to Viking Age origin, like the Tinghooger on the airfield and mounds near the lighthouse of
Kampen, bear ample visible proof of almost constant settlement on the island from the late Stone Age on. Unique are remains of mounds and megalithic tombs situated in the marshes, like close to Weststeg near Keitum, as they were originally placed on low moraine hillocks which are now covered by marshland. The island was rather densely inhabited in prehistoric times, as also many remains of settlements demonstrate, like Melenknop in Archsum.
Megalithic tomb of the Young Stone Age covered by marshland west of
Here, as on many other spots around the area, clay and other material was introduced to provide more fertile soil. Settlements were raised in height due to constant occupation of the same place, a situation quite singular on the moraines of the Wadden Sea area of Schleswig-Holstein. Yet, both features are scarcely noticeable today. In Roman Times the salt marshes were used for stock breeding by a growing number of settlements along the edge of the moraines.
Settlement seemed to cease for a while in the 5th and 6th century AD, usually ascribed to migration to Britain. During the Viking Age, the island was inhabited again, presumably by Frisians from the western Wadden Sea, resulting in cemeteries with large numbers of mounds like on
Morsum Kliff. The circular earthen rampart of the
Tinnumburg, a fortified Viking age settlement provides the most prominent archaeological monument on Sylt.
The circular earthen rampart of the Tinnumburg, a fortified Viking age
Vestiges of medieval settlement have only been preserved underneath the dunes, like the site of
Alt-List which was an important natural harbour at the time with abundant finds from ship construction. Villages and farms frequently had to be moved further east due to constant erosion of the west coast and movement of the dunes.
Westerland, for instance, was founded in the hinterland as successor of the village of
Eidum, which perished in the waves during the 15th century. Other villages, like
Keitum, Morsum and
Kampen, had their origins in the high and late Middle Ages, usually as a cluster of farms without a specific structure. The inhabitants lived mostly on stock breeding and farming and, starting in the 15th century, to an increasing degree on herring fishing around Helgoland. A now vanished harbour in
Buder near Hörnum served that purpose. Intensive land use and removal of top soil had turned agricultural land into unfertile heath land at the time which used to cover large parts of the island till Modern Times. Remains of which are still extant between Wenningstedt and Braderup or near Keitum. The earliest stone churches were partly erected in tuff from the Rhineland and in brick as simple Romanesque hall constructions usually without attached stone belfry during the 1100, like in
Keitum and Morsum.
3.2 Early Modern Times
Hering fishing brought moderate income to Sylt, but when the shoals subsided by the end of the 16th century, a new means of subsistence could luckily be found on whaling ships of Hamburg and Dutch ownership bound for Greenland and Svalbard. Thus, new houses increasingly rendered the new circumstances and the increasing wealth of some. Grave slabs like on the cemetery of Keitum tell about the dangerous business of whaling. Uthlande style farmhouses had been built from the 17th century on till around 1800, which were more adapted to cattle breeding than farming. Agriculture, which decreased in importance, had to be maintained mainly by the women of the seafarers and elderly people. Some of the sometimes splendidly fitted farmsteads, often connected to other farm buildings in the typical angular shape, have survived in the old village centres, as in
Wenningstedt or Morsum but are now used as apartments or second homes. The island was then administered by a representative of the Danish county administration in Tønder, who lived in the
Landvogtei in Tinnum, a large, thatched Baroque building of mid 17th century origin. The incessant threat by gnawing waves at the cliffs and the shifting sand dunes required the abandonment of many buildings, like at least two churches in Rantum built in short succession in the second half of the 18th century. People began to plant trees now in order to slow down the movement of the dunes. The first duck catching facility on Sylt,
duck decoys, quite common on the island of North Frisia and especially in West Frisia, Groningen and England, was constructed at the time north of
Kampen. By the end of the century the administration ordered a land consolidation especially of former commons resulting in larger fields and pastures now divided by low banks. The common work on whaling vessels was eventually replaced by the even more profitable employment on trading ships, which lead to a short economic bloom furnishing the more splendid sitting rooms, ending rather abruptly by the Napoleonic continental blockade. The settlement structure of loosely scattered villages, hamlets and farmsteads of the time has mostly vanished today and is best preserved around Morsum and Archsum.
3.3 Modern Times
No new business followed trade as most important source of income after its rapid decline which caused considerable economic problems on Sylt. Then the upcoming tourism in the first half of the 19th century set foot on the island with the foundation of a spa in the village of
Westerland in 1855. This triggered a rapid and massive landscape change which has lasted until today. During the 19th and early 20th century, however, building activities connected with tourism remained mostly confined to Westerland. The village grew rapidly, taking over the role as the island’s most important village from Keitum by the end of the 19th century. Visitors arrived from the harbour of Hoyer, which came under Prussian and later German rule after 1864. New harbours like
Hörnum consequently developed on Sylt to cater for the incoming ships. This village was freshly founded around 1900 on the formerly uninhabited southern tip to welcome cruisers mainly on the route from Hamburg to Helgoland. A
railway was installed for tourist transport, like on Amrum, in the later half of the 19th century. It was taken down again only in the 1970ies when the prevailing car traffic no longer rendered the trains economic and its track routes are nowadays used for walking and cycling. Despite these developments, most of the island had scarcely changed its face so far. The extensive salt marshes south of the moraine core were largely intersected by tidal inlets and only very few artificial ditches. Remains of former natural watercourses can still be seen in sinuous ditches like
Krüts-Wial and Arch-Wial.
The sinuous drainage ditches of Krüts-Wial and Archs-Wial, former
First measurements to secure the waning cliffs in the west were installed at the time with wooden groynes. The architecture of the several, still extant, lighthouses on the island, built since the middle of the 19th century like
List-West and List-Ost, displays the typical mix of individual construction and general features of the time.
In the first half of the 20th century, Westerland had an economic climax as world spa, resulting in representative constructions and spa related buildings like the
Strandhalle. The First World War caused a heavy decline in Tourism, which was continued when Sylt lost its connecting harbour on the mainland as Hoyer became Danish by vote soon after. The ensuing link to the Wiedingharde by a dam, the
Hindenburgdamm, the installation of a railway on top of it and an early airport near Westerland were largely conceived as a substitute. The strategically important situation of Sylt also caused the military to leave its mark by construction of first barracks and bunkers. The preparation for the Second World War and, later, the island’s status as so-called fortress, however, triggered heavy building measures and landscape changes. Besides bunkers in the dunes, as near Westerland, barracks were extended as in Hörnum, List and Westerland. The
Rantumbecken was originally embanked as tide independent harbour for water planes but then became soon abandoned for the airfield close to Westerland and turned into a nature reserve in the 1960ies. The southern salt marshes were reclaimed, embanked and drained by a mesh of ditches in the 1930ies, due to a program of the Nazi regime to gain new land for settlement and agriculture. A large amount of refugees arrived on the island after the war, inflating the population further. In the 1950ies the island was opened for tourism again and has thrived economically since. This caused an enormous spread of residential areas especially from the 1970ies to the 1990ies. Large expanses on the north-western part of the moraine core are now covered by areas of detached, single-family houses whereas some apartment blocks can be found in Hörnum. The small villages on the dune extensions have also expanded significantly. Some settlements like
Westerheide are altogether new, loosely built housing areas with no definite centre, detached from adjacent villages. Sylt has further been equipped with youth centres, recreation homes and other groups of houses of specific purposes in detached location. Modern coastal protection has also left its marks in form of concrete tripods from the 1960ies and concrete groynes which have proofed little effective.
4. Modern development and planning
4.1 Land use
Agriculture is confined to the eastern part and plays only a minor economic role. Large parts of the uninhabited areas in the west of the island, which mostly consist of dunes and heath land, are under nature protection. Together with the long beach at the west coast they are extremely important for the tourism and spa industry on the island. Many of the tourist facilities are therefore located in or around these areas. Few forests have been planted and plans about new plantations are still being discussed. Coastal protection is a very important issue on the island because of the immediate threat by erosion to settled areas in the west. It is mainly achieved today by the costly procedure of sand being pumped in front of the beaches and dunes.
4.2 Settlement development
Sylt is probably the spot with the highest number of tourists in the Wadden Sea Area. This has shaped the cultural landscape of Sylt over the last 150 years considerably and still is the major factor. New building activities for tourism can only be implemented in restricted areas now and are to be co-ordinated with tourist relevant aspects like landscape. Yet, large building projects are still in progress, like a major hotel in Rantum. Comparatively many golf courses coursed a rather large-scale change in landscape. A zoo in Tinnum, an aquarium in Westerland and a planned marine leisure park are designed to attract younger visitors and
Continuing spread of settlement is curbed by spatial planning. Yet, the settlement pressure is very high, which has resulted in new development areas solely for inhabitants of the island in order to provide real estate at affordable prices. Plans for new areas are under way. Spatial planning requires preserving the remaining free space between the villages around Westerland, which otherwise merge with one another. The rural area on the Nösse peninsular in the east is supposed to be kept loosely settled with fields and pastures in-between. The construction of large scale shops and malls is
The German defence forces are shutting down their facilities on the island, leaving barracks and training areas for other uses. Some of the facilities have been taken down already, while e.g. barracks in Hörnum are planned to be substituted by a new golf course.
4.3 Industry and energy
Wind power generators and producing industry do not exist on the island. A development area beside the airport is especially designated for the relocation of local enterprises which interfere negatively with their surrounding. Other large facilities belong to the German defence forces.
The island has a dense network of roads, but can mainly be reached by car via train transport. Therefore the train connection from Sylt to Hamburg via Niebüll is essential for the connection to the main land. A car ferry is still crossing from List to Rømø. The airport occupies a large area on the western moraines, keeping them free from buildings but also having altered a large expanse of former heath land already since the 1920ies. The air traffic is likely to increase especially as a new hotel of a major travel company is likely to receive its guests via plane. The growing car traffic poses a great burden on the island as many visitors take their vehicles to the island. Therefore, improvement of public transport is strongly recommended by spatial planning. Train traffic is, however, already on a high level and increases due to a growing number of commuters from the Wiedingharde on the mainland. Commuting is also restricted by the single-way
5. Legal and Spatial Planning Aspects
The Wadden Sea area around the island is part of the Wadden Sea national park of Schleswig-Holstein. The major part of the mud flats is archaeological protection area. The island is focus region for tourism with several spas. The landscape framework plan regards several villages, like Keitum, Alt-Westerland or Archsum, as well as farmhouses of Uthlande style with dry stone walls and some churches as cultural landscapes of special importance. The island is valued as area of high suitability for recreation. A nature experience area is proposed for the meadows south of Westerland. The island boasts of some 10 nature reserves, RAMSAR and Natura 2000 areas, like Nord-Sylt, Braruper Heide or Morsum Kliff, some of which are subject to enlargement, and several new sanctuaries. The areas of Sylt-Ost and Westerland-Kampen are suitable as landscape protection areas.
Few areas of historic landscape and structures as well as only a small number of prehistoric monuments have survived. Improvement of traffic infrastructure, especially airport and roads, and new developments areas can threaten these last retreats. Even though cultural and landscape assets are rated very important by regional development concepts, missing integration into practical instruments can also lead to further deterioration of historic landscape and respective elements.
The island has a large number of nature reserves, special geological features and a high rate of remaining prehistoric monuments under protection. Further integration into tourist concepts and spatial plans can help strengthen the islands USPs (unique selling proposition) and help develop sustainable tourism, especially in the health sector. The island’s economy as number one tourist destination in the Wadden Sea Area with a large number of high income inhabitants is rather sound.
Author: Matthias Maluck
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