Sitten, Sion, Valeria/Valère. Foto/Photo: TES

The ancient centre and nature of the Episcopal town of Sitten

Sion (Sitten in German) in the canton of Valais (Wallis) is one of Europe’s most important prehistoric archaeological sites. The basin of the Sionne, the Rhone and the Valeria and Tourbillon hills have been continuously inhabited since prehistoric times. At the end of the 1st century BC, Sion became the capital of the Sedunes, one of Valais’s four Celtic peoples. The other tribes were the Nantuates, Verager and Uberer.

The Roman settlement was mainly located in the area of the present-day church of St Theodul and the western side of Valeria Hill. Large Roman bathing complexes were found under the church, which have been partially excavated. By the mid-4th century, Christianity was already the main religion.

St. Theodul Church and the square of the cathedral

The bishop’s seat was moved from Martigny to Sion at the end of the 6th century, and the first cathedral also dates from this time. King Rudolf III (977-1032) of Burgundy’s gift of the Valais to the bishop in 999 made the episcopal city the county’s capital.

The old town, view from the Valeria.

The prince-bishop had jurisdiction and administered the county through fiefs and officials. The inhabitants of Sion were subject to the bishop’s Meier (maior) as judge, the Viztum (vicedominus) as administrator and the Weibel (salterus).

The decline of the feudal social order and concessions by the bishop led to the citizens of Zion becoming increasingly independent. A document from 1217 can be considered the city’s first freedom document.

In 1338, the bishop recognised the rights of the citizens through a ‘letter of freedom’. In 1339, the Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, Ludwig the Bavarian (1282-1347), granted the city the status of a free Reichsstadt. (imperial immediacy or Rechtsunmittelbarkeit). The bishop could no longer ignore citizens’ increased wealth and power, as in most cities of the Holy Roman Empire. Sitten was also one of the seven Sends of Oberwallis and, thus, a powerful political player.

Majorie Castle and the Museum of Art

In the 15th century, the episcopal town became embroiled in a power struggle between Savoy and Oberwallis, the so-called Raronhandel of 1414-1418. During the Burgundian Wars (1474-1477), Savoy 1475 conquered the city again. However, Savoy’s success was short-lived, as the Zenden of Oberwallis defeated Savoy’s troops in the same year and conquered Unterwallis. The seven Sends then ruled the area as Untertans territory until 1798.

 After that, the city experienced relatively peaceful times until 1798. Even the Reformation largely passed the town by, although there was a large community of Protestants in the mid-sixteenth century. However, the Zenden of Oberwallis chose the old faith.

However, the period of revolutionary France from 1789 onwards brought Wallis and Sitten to the brink of civil war. Supporters of French revolutionary ideals and representatives of the Ancien Régime rapidly polarising.

Things remained unsettled after the French invasion in 1798 and Napoleon’s founding of the Helvetic Republic (1798-1803). Oberwallis even started an armed rebellion in 1799, and Sitten, as the government town of the Helvetic Republic, was even pillaged.

Napoleon intervened in 1802 and declared Valais an independent Republic (i.e., not part of the Helvetic Republic but under French control). In 1810, the appearance of independence was over, and Napoleon annexed Wallis as the new Simplon Department of the Empire of France.

The History Museum 

Allied troops ended the French era in 1813, and in 1815, Sitten became the capital of the new canton of Valais.

However, peace had not returned. Supporters of the Ancien Régime and reformists were as irreconcilably opposed as ever. The confrontation eventually led to the Battle of Triente Bridge in 1844, the Sonderbund’s affiliation, and a lost war in 1847.

Natural History Museum

The new Constitution of the canton of Valais came into force in January 1848, and the new Municipal Law in 1851. After several amendments to the Constitution after 1848, the draft of a new Constitution for the canton was rejected by the citizens of Oberwallis and Unterwallis by a large majority. Local government also underwent several changes from 1851 in line with further democratisation. Today, the majority of the city is French-speaking.

(Source and further information: gemeinde Sitten; Sitten, Historisches Lexikon der Schweiz)

The environment and nature of Sitten

The Valère and Tourbillon hills in canton Valais/Wallis are included in the federal inventory of landscapes of national interest (Inventaire fédéral des paysages, sites et monuments naturels/Das Bundesinventar der Landschaften und Naturdenkmäler). They offer refuge to a large number of plants and small animals, some of which are very rare.

These hills result from geological forces that formed the Alps millions of years ago and by the erosion of glaciers that 20,000 – 15,000 years ago covered the Rhone valley with a 1,500 – 2,000-metre thick ice sheet.

For centuries, the dry meadows and grasslands have been the habitat of plants of Mediterranean or oriental origin adapted to the dry climate. Several rare insects, birds, small mammals and Mediterranean fauna feel at home in this environment.

The slopes of the hills are covered with steppe grassland, which is yellow and dry. They are structured by rocky outcrops of quartzite, a very ancient rock. In the valleys and mountain slopes, traces of centuries-old agriculture and viticulture can still be seen, irrigated by the famous suones with the Rhone and countless streams as water suppliers.

Impressions of Sion/Sitten