Wasser-Flutt in Nieder-Teutschland, 25 Dec. 1717

On Christmas Day in 1717 a horrific flood struck the North Sea coast, from Denmark all the way down to Amsterdam, breaching dikes and inundating hundreds of miles of lowlying farmland. The coast was permanently altered in many places. As a result of the flood, the dikes were rebuilt higher and stronger; they were not broken again until 1825.

A beautiful map of this tragedy was made by Johann Baptist-Homann (1664-1724) in 1720, showing the areas the sea swept over. This is a facsimile of that map.

Click on any picture below to see a larger copy of the image in a new window.

Wasser-Flutt Karte

The full title of the map:

Geographische Vorstellung der jämmerlichen WASSER-FLUTT in NIEDER-TEUTSCHLAND, welche den 25. Dec. Ao. 1717, in der heiligen Christ-Nacht, mit unzählichen Schaden und Verlust vieler tausend Menschen einen großentheil derer Hertzogth. HOLSTEIN und BREMEN, die Grafsch. OLDENBURG, FRISLANDT, GRÖNINGEN und NORT-HOLLAND überschwemmet hat, 1720

Geographical presentation of the horrible WATER FLOOD in LOWER GERMANY, which on December 25th, 1717, on the holy Christian night, with uncountable damage and loss of many thousands of lives, mostly inundated the Duchies of HOLSTEIN and BREMEN, and the counties of OLDENBURG, FRIESLAND, GRÖNINGEN and NORTH HOLLAND, 1720

ostfrisische-flutt karte

Here’s the map’s depiction of Ostfriesland, flooded most of the way back to Aurich. The depiction of the coastline is not quite accurate, though the map’s extra features more than make up for a little straying from geographical truth.

gods must be crazy

These are the guys who caused all the damage: Zeus, with those crazy thunderbolts and rain, and Poseidon, god of an angry sea.

wet lands

The result of the storm flood. Note the holum on the left (a.k.a. a warf or terp), which has stayed dry, above the waves.

the lock gate

Some depictions of the waterworks intended to keep the land dry. On top is a waterwheel, hoisting water out of a flooded area and back into the sea. (Yes, it looks like it’s catapulting it quite nicely, doesn’t it?) Frequently this type of pump would be driven by a windmill; in clement times this technique was used to reclaim tidal flatlands. You build a dike around a wetland, making what’s called a polder. Then you hitch a windmill (a polder mill) to a waterwheel, and you pump the water out. In this picture, of course, it’s being used to recover from a flood.

The bottom pictures show a siel tor. Tor means gate. The siel (pronounced zeal) is the spot in the dike where a river runs out at low tide; at high tide you shut the gate, and the North Sea doesn’t come in. The North Sea coast is lined with dikes; the dikes are all perforated regularly with siels, to let all these little streams (or tiefs) flow out. In a major flood (pictured at right), the seawater has poured over the dike, and now sits on the wrong side of the siel tor.

When I was in Ostfriesland in 1998, I saw the old siel tor from the Benser siel. It looks remarkably like the one in this picture. It’s a pair of big wooden gates. They dug it up from the mud when they were dredging the harbor not so long ago. The old wooden siel tor has been replaced by a modern siel, made of concrete with hydraulic steel gates. It hasn’t ever let the sea in. Yet.


Here’s the story, in German, of what happened. Can’t read it because it’s too small? Along with clicking on the picture above to get a bigger picture in a different window, you can click here to see a huge copy right here in this window. (It will be made up of four images so you can read one while the others load, and on a 28.8K modem it should take a little over a minute to fill in completely.)

Text can be found in full at Frank Bättermann’s excellent site, with even better pictures of this big, beautiful map: http://www.ich-war-hier.de/2012/03/18/weihnachtsflut-1717/

Can’t read it because you don’t speak German? I used to recommend you try Babelfish. Now Google Translate does a pretty good job.

flood of words

As if all that weren’t enough, the map also features citations in German and Latin. (Don’t forget to click the image if you want to read the text in a larger format.) The Latin translates thus:

. . . Every place
Submits to Fortune’s wheel. I have seen oceans
That once were solid land, and I have seen
Lands made from ocean. Often sea-shells lie
Far from the beach, and men have found old anchors
On mountain-tops. Plateaus have turned to valleys,
Hills washed away, marshes become dry desert,
Deserts made pools. Here Nature brings forth fountains,
There shuts them in . . .

Antissa, Pharos, Tyre, all inland cities,
Were islands once, Leucas and Zancle mainland,
And Helice and Buris, should you seek them,
Those old Achaian cities, you would find them
Under the waves, and mariners can show you
The sloping ramps, the buried walls.

from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Book 15, around lines 260-300
(as translated by Rolfe Humphries, 1955, Indiana University Press)

Map facsimile accompanied Heft 7 of Nordseeküste, 1963, a publication of the Küstenmuseum Juist in Juist, Germany.

Back to Ancient Maps of Harlingerland index

All maps on these pages are reproduced courtesy of

The Map Division
The New York Public Library
Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations

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