Gdańsk- a City Encircled by 17th - Century Fortifications, Gdańsk
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Gdańsk- a City Encircled by 17th - Century Fortifications

Gdańsk

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Gdańsk, once one of the most important trade cities in Europe, boasts a unique atmosphere, combining the relaxed ambience of a port with the dignity of a centre of culture conscious of its centuries-old traditions. The first mentions of Gdańsk, pertaining to ad 997, come from the Life of St Adalbert, whilst its stronghold may have been founded by Mieszko I. By the 10th and 11th centuries a number of trade routes crossed here, and luxury goods were arriving from as far away as the Near East. Gdańsk was capital of the Duchy of Pomerania, later becoming a large German-speaking city of the Republic, one of the largest ports in Europe (and largest grain port), the subject of conflict between Germany and Poland, and eventually, the place where the collapse of the Yalta System and the process of European unification began. The patronage of the Polish king saved Gdańsk from the fate of many other north-European cities, where religious persecution ensued after the Reformation. The Catholic Church prevailed in Gdańsk, as did freedom to practise one’s faith. The network of economic links engendered an atmosphere of ethnic and religious tolerance, in which Frisian Mennonites were invited to live on lands in the Żuławy region, English citizens settled in the town and Scots did the same in its episcopal enclave, whilst Lutheran merchants from Gdańsk built their summer residences near the abbey at Oliwa.

The city’s wealth, its citizens’ high standard of living and the opportunities it offered to forge an individual career attracted well-known Europeans (e.g. Johann Sebastian Bach applied for the post of cantor at St Mary’s Basilica). By the 17th century, civic liberties and tolerance marked Gdańsk out as a unique city in northern Europe, where absolutist tendencies had been intensifying since the mid-16th century. In 1772, after the First Partition of Poland, Gdańsk was cut off from the rest of the country, though it still remained the property of the Polish Crown. It was only after the Second Partition, in 1793, that it came to be ruled by Prussia. Being subjects of the Prussian king was not to the liking of Gdańsk’s inhabitants; they realised that the border separating them from the Vistula catchment area did not serve their interests. From 1807 to 1815 Gdańsk was a Free City under the protectorate of France. After the unification of Germany in 1871 it became part of the Kingdom of Prussia. In 1919 it regained its status as a free city. In October 1938 Hitler demanded that Poland accede to Gdańsk becoming part of the Third Reich. Poland declined. On 1 September 1939 the German attacks on Westerplatte and the Polish Post Office were the first acts of war. The German chapter of Gdańsk’s history came to an end in 1945 with the arrival of the Red Army. The city was looted and set alight as soon as its frontline had been crossed. In Potsdam, Gdańsk’s ruins were awarded to Poland, which shouldered the vast burden of rebuilding the city in the 1950s and ’60s.

Few cities in northern Europe have retained as much of their urban structure, created prior to the mid-18th century. It did not undergo the transformation (typical of western European cities in the 19th century) into a modern industrial town, as happened with Hamburg and Copenhagen. Thus, today it is a showcase of late and post-medieval urban heritage.

Gdańsk’s historic centre, known as the Main Town, extends along an axis delineated by Long Street(ulica Długa), which broadens at one end to become the Long Market (Długi Targ). In one corner of the market square stands an imposing town hall. The earliest recorded reference to the Artus Court dates from the mid-14th century (the Curia Regia Arthus is mentioned in documents of this period), but what form this building originally took is not known. Owned by the prestigious Fraternity of St George, the next version of the Court was built before 1382 and burned down in 1476. It was after this fire that the present building was raised (1476-1481). By the late 15th century it had become the grand headquarters of Gdańsk’s mercantile guilds, and served as the city’s premier venue for social gatherings. In architectural terms, 16th-17th-century Gdańsk easily rivalled the royal city of Cracow. The Gothic Basilica of St Mary - the largest brick-built church in the world - was a symbol of Gdańsk’s power. The city thrived on Vistula and sea trade, hence a fountain with a statue of Neptune was erected in its main square in 1615. He watched over the sailors who passed through the Green Gate (official residence of Polish kings) onto the Long Quayside, to set sail for Riga, Amsterdam or the ports of Spain. The city’s defences are notable; they include its 14th-century circuit walls with towers, the 15th-century Gothic Prison Tower, the High Gate, Golden Gate and Great Arsenal. In the medieval period Gdańsk already had water gates as well as city gates. Water gates sealed off those streets which led to the River Motława, and most of them survive to this day. A walk along the river leads towards the Great Crane - a unique, 15th-century gate, tower and port crane combined. It stands at the end of Broad Street (ul. Szeroka), and its present form dates from the mid-15th century.

Further along the Motława, north of the Main Town, lies the oldest part of Gdańsk. Known as the Old Town, it represents a separate entity, dissected by the Radunia Canal. En route we pass St John’s Church, built in the latter half of the 14th century. Originally, a small chapel stood here, being later replaced by a basilica church affiliated to the Old Town’s Church of St Catherine - the oldest parish church in Gdańsk. Its origins date back to the 12th century. Rebuilt after World War II, its interiors include the tombstone of the famous Gdańsk astronomer, Johannes Hevelius (†1687).

The entire urban complex represented by the Main and the Old Town is a heritage asset of the highest class. The coherence of the city within its post-medieval fortifications is of vital importance. From the early 17th century until the 1880s, development of the Gdańsk-fortress urban unit was generally focused ‘inwards’. It was not until the 1890s that the first construction projects were planned and implemented beyond its historic limits. So much of the city’s structure and substance survived after 1945 beacuse the existing urban fabric has barely been disturbed (only two new streets have been added).

General information

  • Type: urban layout
  • Chronology: XIII - XVII w.
  • Form of protection: Historical Monument
  • Address: Gdańsk
  • Location: Voivodeship pomorskie, district Gdańsk, commune Gdańsk
  • Source: National Heritage Board of Poland

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