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Valais abbey celebrates 1,500 years of history

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Valais abbey celebrates 1,500 years of history
Aerial view of Saint Maurice's abbey. Photo: Thomas Jantscher/Abaaye de Saint-Maurice
08:00 CEST+02:00
Switzerland's abbey of Saint Maurice, the oldest Christian monastery still in operation in the western world, kicked off a year of celebrations on Sunday to mark its 1,500th anniversary.

Federal Interior Minister Alain Berset and the head of the abbey, Monsignor Joseph Roduit, presided over ceremonies at the monastery’s basilica in Saint Maurice, a town in the canton of Valais.

Other notables at the event included the head of the Valais cantonal government, Jean-Michel Cina, and former Swiss president Pascal Couchepin.

Built against a cliff on a historic route from Geneva to the Simplon Pass and northern Italy, the monastery dates from 515 when its first buildings were erected.

The abbey is said to be located where a legion of soldiers from Thebes, led by Saint Maurice, was martyred in the third century for refusing to obey orders from the Roman Emperor Maximilian to harass Christians while clearing the Saint Bernard Pass.

Saint Maurice itself is built on the site of a former Roman town known as Agaunum.

In a speech in the monastery church, Berset drew parallels between Saint Maurice and his colleagues from northern Africa who came to die in a foreign land and migrants who risk their lives to come to Europe, the ATS news agency reported.

We “should never remain insensitive to the tragedies of exile that become a part of the news more and more frequently”.

Last week the abbey announced that it would be opening a new trail on Tuesday that guides visitors from the basilica, to the cloister via an archeological site, the catacombs and the abbey’s treasure room.

Lightboxes, interactive screens and 3D films are part of the itinerary.

Partially destroyed by falling rocks, the monastery has been rebuilt and enlarged several times, according to information from the monastery’s website.

Work began more than ten years ago to protect the archeological site that includes the oldest vestiges of the abbey, with a translucent roof built to protect the ruins.

The abbey said its collection of ecclesiastical treasure is one of the most famous in Europe.

On Monday, the traditional festival of Saint Maurice is set to get under way with a procession through the town’s streets, with containers holding relics from the abbey.

A variety of cultural events are planned over the jubilee year. 

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