World Heritage Gammelstad Church Town

Of Sweden’s total of 71 church towns only 16 remain. Most of these are remnants of what they once were. Gammelstad has the country’s largest and best preserved church town with 405 cottages that holds 553 chambers. The World Heritage site comprises the historically valuable buildings, a total of 520 protected buildings, roads, archaeological ground and the centuries-old practice of staying overnight during weekends in the church cottages. Below are the characteristics that give the world heritage site its outstanding universal value.

UNESCO World Heritage Convention

On December 7, 1996 Gammelstad Church Town was put on UNESCO’s World Heritage List and became what is known as a world heritage site. UNESCO’s motivation:

Gammelstad Church Town is an outstanding example of a traditional church town of northern Scandinavia. It illustrates in an outstanding way the adaptation of traditional town planning to the special geographic and climatic conditions prevailing in a difficult natural environment.

UNESCO has developed several conventions and recommendations for the conservation of nature and culture. One of these is the “Convention on the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage” (World Heritage Convention), adopted in 1972 and Sweden ratified in 1985. It aims to secure the most valuable parts of the Earth’s natural and cultural treasures from destruction and decay. An important part of this work is to strengthen cooperation across borders and to increase understanding of people of different cultural heritage. A World Heritage Site is a unique cultural and natural environment that testify of man or the earth’s history in such a way that it is considered to have universal importance for humanity, present and future generations.

A couple in the Church Town
Photo: Susanne Lindholm

The Church Town

Gammelstad Church Town is more than 400 years old and holds 405 church cottages with six stables and a privy. The church town spread out around the large medieval church. Next door to the church is the parish house and the Tithe Barn in the south. The church towns cottages are small, low buildings, most can only accommodate one or two chambers. The few cottages which measures two stories in height, has more chambers, but most of them have only one floor. Small variations in size, height, roof angle or details makes no house ever the same, even if the differences can be small. Behind the red-colored facades there’s almost always a timber tome hiding, a both simple and complex design that demanded skilled artisans. The cottages have a pitched roof, which is now mostly covered with sheet metal, although there are examples of both brick and board. Most of the cottages have shutters that are closed when the owner is away.

Church cottages from above
Photo: Susanne Lindholm

The Church Town tradition

The church cottages were built by the farmers in the villages, which were located more than a mile away from the church, for overnight accommodation in connection with church attendance, session at the court, parish meetings and markets. The Church Town was the obvious place to meet friends and acquaintances from other villages. In time, the church gatherings become distinctive youth weekends or weekends for the elderly. A lot of new relationships were started during the youth weekends, many of them later led to marriage. The church cottages are still privately owned and a few times a year church cottage owners and other parishioners gathers for church gatherings, fairs, lectures and cultural activities. Other times, the church cottages are uninhabited.

Visitors on a sled during winter time in Gammelstad Church Town
Photo: Susanne Lindholm

The church village

The church town is integrated in a small community – The Church Village in Gammelstad – with 798 inhabitants, of whom nearly 100 households are within the World Heritage Area. Even the parts of the church village not consisting of church cottage settlements is mainly a wooden city, with houses in a two-story height, with simple red-colored facades although other, brighter colors occur. There is a mix of older buildings from the late 19th century to modern times. Even the newer buildings connect to the older tradition through red wooden facades, pitched roof and building height. Nederluleå church owns most of the land where the old cottages are. Luleå municipality owns real estate in the area, but most of the houses are privately owned.

Visitor looking into a Church cottage
Photo: Susanne Lindholm

The settlements expansion and road networks

The street network, which is labyrinthine and linear in different parts testify to the development from the 16 th century to today. In the village there are also traces of earlier activities in the area in the form of foundations and cultural layers. These constitute a legally protected ancient monument which tells us that the first humans began to use the site for around 1000 years ago, when there was still an island in the archipelago. Remains of a temporary settlement and burn-beating meant that it interpreted the tracks that the place was used as pasture for cattle belonging to farmers in the surrounding villages, before the place in the 14th century was mobilized by the church.

The church town is located at an altitude ranging from east to west. The church is located high and from the church site is the access roads terrain conditions in different directions. Most of the World Heritage area is characterized by medieval, organically developed road network. In the northeast around the street towards the former harbors area, the street network is characterized by the short period Gammelstad were Lulea city, with a landscaped grid pattern.