Prague is the capital and largest city of the Czech Republic.
Situated on the River Vltava in central Bohemia, Prague has been the political, cultural, and economic centre of the Czech state for more than 1100 years. The city proper is home to more than 1.2 million people, while its metropolitan area is estimated to have a population of over 1.9 million.
Since 1992, the extensive historic centre of Prague has been included in the UNESCO list of World Heritage Sites. Nicknames for Prague have included “the mother of cities” and “city of a hundred spires” and “the golden city”.
The history of Prague spans thousands of years, during which time the city grew from the Vyšehrad Castle to the multicultural capital of a modern European state, the Czech Republic.
The area on which Prague was founded was settled as early as the Paleolithic Age. Around 200 BC the Celts had a settlement in the south, called Závist, but later they were replaced by the Marcomanni a Germanic people and later by the Slavic people. According to a legend, Prague was founded by Libuše and her husband, Přemysl, founder of the dynasty with the same name. Whether this legend is true or not, Prague’s first nucleus was founded in the latter part of the 9th century as a castle on a hill commanding the right bank of the Vltava: this is known as Vyšehrad (“high castle”) to differentiate from another castle which was later erected on the opposite bank, the future Prague Castle.
Under emperor Otto II the city became a bishopric in 973. Until Prague was elevated to archbishopric in 1344, it was under the jurisdiction of the Archbishopric of Mainz. Soon the city became the seat of the dukes and later kings of Bohemia.
It was an important seat for trading where merchants from all of Europe settled, including many Jews, as recalled in 965 by the Jewish merchant and traveller Ibrahim ibn Ya’qub. The Old New Synagogue of 1270 survives.
King Vladislav II had a first bridge on the Vltava built in 1170, the Judith Bridge, which collapsed in 1342.
In 1257, under King Otakar II, Malá Strana (“Lesser Quarter”) was founded in Prague in the future Hradčany area: it was the district of the German people. These had the right to administrate the law autonomously, pursuant to Magdeburg Rights. The new district was on the opposite bank of the Staré Město (“Old Town”), which had a borough status and was defended by a line of walls and fortifications.
The era of Charles IV
The city flourished during the 14th century reign of the king of Bohemia and Holy Roman Emperor Charles IV of the new Luxembourg dynasty. He ordered the building of the New Town (Nové Město) adjacent to the Old Town. The Charles Bridge was erected to connect the new district to Malá Strana. Monuments by Charles include the Saint Vitus Cathedral, the oldest gothic cathedral in central Europe, which is actually inside the Castle, and the Charles University. The latter is the oldest university in central Europe. Prague was then the third-largest city in Europe. Under Charles, Prague was, from 1355, the actual capital of the Holy Roman Empire, and its rank was elevated to that of archbishopric (1344). It had a mint, and German and Italian merchants, as well as bankers, were present in the city. The social order, however, became more turbulent due to the rising power of the craftsmen’s guild (themselves often torn by internal fights), and the presence of increasing number of poor people.
During the reign of King Wenceslas IV (1378-1419), Jan Hus, a theologian and lector at the Charles University, preached in Prague. In 1402, he began giving sermons in the Bethlehem Chapel. Inspired by John Wycliffe, these sermons focused on reforming the Church. Having become too dangerous for the political and religious establishment, Hus was summoned to the Council of Constance, put on trial for heresy, and burned in Konstanz in 1415. Four years later Prague experienced its First Defenestration (the act of throwing someone out the window as a political protest – in this case, the city’s councillors out the window of the New Town Hall), when the people rebelled under the command of the Prague priest Jan Želivský. Hus’ death, coupled with Czech proto-nationalism and proto-Protestantism, had spurred the so-called Hussite Wars. In 1420, peasant rebels, led by the general Jan Žižka, along with Hussite troops from Prague, defeated the Bohemian King Sigismund, in the Battle of Vítkov Hill.
In the following two centuries, Prague strengthened its role as a merchant city. Many noteworthy Gothic buildings were erected, including the Vladislav Hall of the Prague Castle.
In 1526, the Kingdom of Bohemia was handed over to the House of Habsburg: the fervent Catholicism of its members was to bring them into conflict in Bohemia, and then in Prague, where Protestant ideas were at the time having increasing success.
These problems were not preeminent under Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II, elected King of Bohemia in 1576, who chose Prague as his home. He lived in the Prague Castle where his court saw invitations to astrologers and magicians, but also scientists, musicians, and artists. Rudolf was an art lover too and Prague became the capital of European culture. This was a prosperous period for the city: famous people living there in that age include the astronomers Tycho Brahe and Johann Kepler, the painter Arcimboldo, the alchemists Edward Kelley and John Dee, the poetess Elizabeth Jane Weston, and others.
In 1618, the famous Second Defenestration of Prague provoked the Thirty Years’ War, a particularly harsh period for Prague and Bohemia. Ferdinand II of Habsburg was deposed, and his place as King of Bohemia taken by Frederick V, Elector Palatine; however the Czech army under him was crushed in the Battle of White Mountain (1620) not far from the city. Following this in 1621 was an execution of 27 Czech lords (involved in the Battle of White Mountain) in the Old Town Square and an exiling of many others. The city suffered subsequently during the war under Saxon (1631) and Swedish (1648) occupation.
Moreover, after the Peace of Westphalia of the next year, Ferdinand moved the court to Vienna, and Prague began a steady decline which reduced the population from the 60,000 it had had in the years before the war to 20,000. Population had been increasing from half of the 17th century. Jews have been in Prague since the end of the 10th century and, by 1708, Jews accounted for about a quarter of Prague’s population
In 1689, a great fire devastated Prague, but this spurred a renovation and a rebuilding of the city. In 1713–1714, a major outbreak of plague hit Prague one last time. The economic rise continued through the 18th century, and the city in 1771 had 80,000 inhabitants. Many of these were rich merchants who, together with noblemen of German, Spanish and even Italian origin, enriched the city with a host of palaces, churches and gardens, creating a Baroque style renowned throughout the world. In 1784, under Joseph II, the four municipalities of Malá Strana, Nové Město, Staré Město and Hradcany were merged into a single entity. The Jewish district, called Josefov, was included only in 1850. The Industrial Revolution had a strong effect in Prague, as factories could take advantage of the coal mines and ironworks of the nearby region. A first suburb, Karlín, was created in 1817, and twenty years later population exceeded 100,000. The first railway connection was built in 1796-1842.
The revolutions that shocked all Europe around 1848 touched Prague too, but they were fiercely suppressed. In the following years the Czech nationalist movement (opposed to another nationalist party, the German one) began its rise, until it gained the majority in the Town Council in 1861. Prague had German-speaking near-majority in 1848, but by 1880 the German population decreased to 14% (42,000), and by 1910 to 6.7% (37,000), due to a massive increase of the city’s overall population caused by the influx of Czechs from the rest of Bohemia and Moravia and also due to the assimilation of some Germans.
The Jerusalemer Synagogue, built in 1905 to 1906 by Wilhelm Stiassny, of Bratislava, is the largest Jewish place of worship in Prague
At the beginning of the 20th century Czech lands were the most productive part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and some Czech politics began with attempts to separate it from Habsburg empire.
The 1st Republic
World War I ended with the defeat of the Austrian Empire and the creation of Czechoslovakia. Prague was chosen as its capital and Prague Castle as the seat of president (Tomáš Masaryk). At this time Prague was a true European capital with highly developed industry. By 1930, the population had risen to a startling 850,000.
Second World War
Occupation of Czechoslovakia
Hitler ordered Germany’s army to enter Prague on 15 March 1939 and from Prague Castle proclaimed Bohemia and Moravia a German protectorate. For most of its history Prague had been a multiethnic city with important Czech, German, and (mostly Czech- and/ or German-speaking) Jewish populations. From 1939, when the country was occupied by Nazi Germany, and during World War II, most Jews either fled the city or were killed in the Holocaust.
In 1942, Prague was witness to the assassination of one of the most powerful men in Nazi Germany – Reinhard Heydrich (during Operation Anthropoid). Hitler ordered bloody reprisals. At the end of the war Prague suffered several bombing raids by the U.S. Air Force. Over 1000 people were killed and hundreds of buildings, factories and historical landmarks were destroyed (however the damage was small compared to the total destruction of many other cities in that time). Once it was certain that the outcome of the war was decided and Germany would surrender to the allies, Prague revolted against the Nazi occupants on 5 May 1945 two days before Germany capitulated, on May 7. Four days later the Soviet army entered the city. The majority of German population either fled or was expelled in the aftermath of the war.
Prague was a city in the territory of military and political control of the Soviet Union . The 4th Czechoslovakian Writers’ Congress held in the city in 1967 took a strong position against the regime. This spurred the new secretary of the Communist Party, Alexander Dubček to proclaim a new deal in his city’s and country’s life, starting the short-lived season of the “socialism with a human face”. It was the Prague Spring, which aimed at the renovation of institutions in a democratic way. The Soviet Union and its allies reacted with the invasion of Czechoslovakia and the capital in August 1968 by tanks, suppressing any attempt at work.
Era after the Velvet Revolution
In 1989, after riot police beat back a peaceful student demonstration, the Velvet Revolution crowded the streets of Prague and the Czechoslovak capital benefited greatly from the new mood. In 1993, after the split of Czechoslovakia, Prague became the capital city of the new Czech Republic. In the late 90’s Prague became again an important cultural centre of Europe and was notably influenced by globalization.