History of the City of Prague

History of the City of Prague (1)

Prague, the jewel of Central Europe, with its numerous palaces and picturesque narrow streets stands majestically and full of history in the heart of Bohemia. Built along the River Vltava, its 18 bridges link both banks of a city where modernity and tradition go hand in hand.

The Gothic framework of the Old Town, the modern elegance of the New Town, the violent past of the Jewish Quarter, the peaceful streets of Malá Strana and the monumental nature of the Castle are the guarantee of a trip full of contrasts. Moreover, the intense cultural and artistic life of Prague ensures that there will always be an exhibition to see or a concert to listen to in one of its many churches and several concert halls. Don’t worry though, there is also the time and place to go shopping, try the cuisine or have the pleasure of relaxing in one of its delicious cafés.

The myth surrounding the founding of Prague speaks of Premys, an ancestor of the Czechs, and Princess Libuse. Libuse was not only a princess, however, but also a sorceress and prophetess. She is attributed as being the founder of Prague Castle with the vision that here a city would be built whose glory had to reach as high as the stars. The site for the founding could not be chosen at random. Libuse ordered her soldiers to enter the forest until they found a man that would be carving a door. And given that even the most powerful dropped their heads to pass through a low door, the city had to be called “Prah”, which in fact means door.

The legend tells that once ascending to the throne, Libuse had to get married. Once again she ordered her men to go in search of a peasant who would be ploughing the land with two oxen. This man, whose name was Premysl, married the princess wearing a pair of sandals so that nobody would forget his humble origins. And this would be, according to tradition, the founding of the kingdom of Bohemia and of the Premyslid dynasty.

Although not lacking charm and poetic nuances, historians attribute a rather distinct origin to the founding of Prague. It seems that in the 6th century some Slav tribes inhabited this area. Around the 9th century, the Premyslid dynasty began the construction of Prague Castle and Vysehrad Castle. From then on, nearly the entire population moved to live between the two buildings, above all in the area we now call Malá Strana.

One of the rulers of the Premyslid dynasty was Wenceslas, who died at the hands of his brother and later became a saint. Although he ruled for a short time, his left his mark among the Czechs and is the patron saint of Bohemia. References to Saint Wenceslas can be found all over the city, as you will see for yourself.

At the end of the 10th century the Jews were given the authorisation to settle in Prague. Nearly ten centuries had to pass before the walls were demolished of the ghetto where one of the largest Jewish communities on the continent was forced to live.

In the Middle Ages, Prague was already a very important city throughout Europe. Craftsmen and merchants found the privileged position of Prague the perfect place for their blossoming businesses. Meanwhile, the city continued growing on both sides of the river. In 1170 the first bridge was built over the Vltava, called the bridge of Judith in honour of the queen.

At the end of the Premyslid dynasty, it became the turn of the Luxembourg dynasty. Charles IV ascended to the throne to become one of the wisest and most enterprising kings in the history of Prague. No challenge seemed too big or too risky for this visionary sovereign, who founded the first university of Central Europe, built the bridge that today carries his name or undertook the creation of the New Town. The list of works and exploits related to his figure, however, would require volumes of books.

The history of Prague cannot be understood without referring to the religious affairs that caused the outbreak of bloody wars and which shook every level of society. In the 15th century, the reformist cleric Jan Hus became famous due to his criticisms of the opulence and corruption of the Church. His followers, called the Hussites, came each day to listen to the sermons in which he defended the need to return to the practices of the Gospel. But his ideas did not go down at all well in Rome, where the Pope ordered his excommunication. In 1415 Jan Hus was burnt at the stake as a heretic but he has continued to be venerated for centuries as martyr of the Czech people.

On the other hand, the Hussites became a military force capable of defeating the troops of the Catholic emperor. However, internal differences led to a period of wars, which ended in 1434 with the victory of the moderate Hussite King George of Podebrady.

In 1526 the Hapsburg dynasty ascended the throne, the last one that would rule in Bohemia. 50 years later, the eccentric Emperor Rudolf II would come to power to turn Prague into one of the European art capitals. Painting, music, alchemy or science would be much more important than politics for this sovereign. As a result of the revolts that took place under his reign the Defenestration of Prague took place in 1618, after a group of angry noblemen threw two catholic governors out of a window.

This episode led to the Thirty Years War and the imposition of Catholicism and persecution of the other religions. The Czech people were gradually separated from the institutions, which were Germanised. This period dates the Baroque reform of many of Prague’s churches.

Industrialisation in the 19th century brought with it a revival in the Czech national, cultural and linguistic consciousness. Still under the domain of the Austrian empire, wonderful public institutions arose such as the Museum and the National Theatre.

It was not until the end of the First World War in 1918 that the Czechs achieved political independence, creating their own state together with neighbouring Slovakia. The first President of Czechoslovakia was Thomás Masaryk.

Between 1939 and 1945 Prague experienced Nazi occupation, with tragic consequences for most of the Jews. At the end of the war, a Communist government was declared and in tune with the USSR became a fully Stalinist country.

1968 saw the events of the Prague Spring, which was the first sign of resistance against the regime’s dehumanisation. The movement was brutally crushed and the protests ended in 1969 when the young student Jan Palach self-immolated himself in Wenceslas Square.

Despite the apparent control, the Czech people were increasingly in disagreement with their leaders. The student opposition and the resistance movement led to the fall of the government and the withdrawal of Soviet troops. It was the mythical Velvet Revolution of 1989.

In 1990 the first democratic elections for more than half a century were held. Two years later, the writer and leader of the revolution Václav Havel was elected President. At the same time, Czechoslovakia disassembled the state and moved back to its origins, becoming two again, the Czech Republic and Slovakia. In 2004, the Czech Republic joined the European Union. 

It is this character, young but wise, vibrant and in full evolution, which you will encounter and appreciate during your stay in Prague.

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