- A city under a prince's castle and around marketplaces
- Prague's three towns
- The Imperial Seat and Prague's fourth town
- The Prague Hussites
- The Imperial Seat of Rudolph II
- The Baroque fortress of Prague
- The new city of Prague beyond the fortifications
- Prague – the metropolis of an independent state
- An occupied city
- Another occupation, another liberation
It all started a million years ago
The Prague basin has offered settlements excellent natural conditions since prehistoric times. Its elevation put it in a position that was relatively easy to defend, and it had fertile soil and plenty of water.
The first hunting party arrived here roughly one million years ago. Long-term inhabitation was established during the early Stone Age (about 5500 BC - 4300 BC). Archaeologists have documented all kinds of prehistoric Central European cultures here.
Around halfway through the 6th century AD the Slavs moved into Prague's environs. Germanic and Slavic settlements existed side by side here for some time, though the Slavs eventually outnumbered their neighbours. In the 8th century the Slavs built a network of colonies. In the second half of the 9th century a settlement was founded on the hilltop site where Prague Castle was later built. From here the historical city unfurled.
A city under a prince's castle and around marketplaces
In the decade of 880 to 890, the Prague settlement became the permanent seat of the ruling Premyslid princes. Borivoj I first had the Church of Our Lady (kostel P. Marie) built here. The construction of the Basilica of St. George and St. Vitus' Rotunda followed. At the foot of the castle hill a new settlement sprung up by the shallow crossing points over the Vltava River, where long trade routes converged.
A connecting road between Prague Castle and the second seat of the principality – the newly built Vysehrad – was another important route to the newly established town. The establishment of Prague's episcopacy in 973 strengthened its central position in the nascent Czech state.
During the 11th century the medieval city began to expand from the right bank of the Vltava River and around a large marketplace that is today's Old Town Square (Staromestske namesti). From the start, the city evolved as a multinational centre: Na Porici was once a settlement of German merchants, and the oldest reference to a Jewish settlement comes from the end of the 11th century.
Prague's three towns
Medieval Prague originated as an agglomeration of towns and several smaller settlements of craftsmen, merchants, and farmers. Stone fortifications protected Prague's Old Town as it grew from the right bank of the Vltava. In 1257, Premysl Otakar II founded Prague's Smaller Town (Mensi Mesto - later renamed Lesser Town, Mala Strana) on the left bank and summoned colonists from northern Germany to settle there. In the 1330's Prague's third town - Hradcany - was established as a town of subjects under the administration of the burgrave of Prague Castle.
The Imperial Seat and Prague's fourth town
With the accession of the Luxembourg family to the Czech throne, the Romanesque city was converted to the Gothic style. John of Luxembourg strengthened the legal stature of Prague's towns and laid the cornerstone of Prague's cathedral. During his reign, Pope Clement VI promoted Prague's diocese to archdiocese.
John's son and successor, Charles IV, dutifully carried out his program to transform Prague into a second Rome, the European centre of spirituality, politics, and commerce. In 1348 he founded Prague's New Town (Nove Mesto) over an expanse of 360 hectares – a modern town in the form of an extensive area surrounding the Old Town. In Prague, during the same year, he established Central Europe's oldest university.
The Prague Hussites
After Charles' death, university professor Jan Hus, one of the most famous medieval heretics, began to spread his reform-centred teachings. The Hussite Wars began in 1419 with the New Town Insurrection.
Prague also headed the nobility's uprising against the Habsburgs in 1547. Although the brutal defeat of the estate owners weakened Prague's position of power, its royal towns held their key cultural role even during the fading of the Gothic style and the entry of the Renaissance.
The Imperial Seat of Rudolph II
Prague around 1657
In 1583 Emperor Rudolph II took up residence in Prague Castle and made Prague the centre of European politics, art and science. An international clique of artists around the Emperor's court led the development of European Mannerism, and Prague's towns were forming a new Renaissance city of culture.
The carefully selected collective of artists and scientists that Rudolph II brought to Prague to work, or at least to visit, is impressive: painters Giuseppe Arcimboldo, Bartholomew Spranger, Hans von Aachen, Josef Heintz, Jacob Hoefnagel, Petr Stevens, Roelant Savery, and Hans Mont; sculptors Adrian de Vries and Giovanni Battista Quadri; etcher Wenceslas Hollar; copper engraver Aegidius Sadeler; goldsmiths Paul van Vianen, Anton Schweinberger, and Jan Vermeyen; gemstone cutter Ottavio Miseroni; poetess Elisabeth Westonia; composers Filip de Monte, Charles Luyton and Jakob Handl-Gallus; philosopher and theologist Giordano Bruno; physicist Michael Mayer, astronomer Tycho de Brahe; astronomer and mathematician Johannes Kepler; mathematician and machinist Joost Bürgi; mathematician John Dee; physician and alchemist Anselm Boethius de Boodt; the scholarly rabbi Jehuda Low ben Bezalel; and spiritualist Edward Kelley.
The death of Rudolph II in 1612 marked the end of the most celebrated period in Prague's history. His successor, Emperor Matthias, returned the Habsburg seat back to Vienna.
Another insurrection of the nobility ended with the slaughter of the Battle of White Hill (Bila Hora) in 1620. This was followed by the Thirty Years War. The Saxons plundered the city, already ravaged after the Battle of White Hill, from 1631 to 1632. Then in 1648 the Swedes did the same. The city's fall from an imperial seat to a provincial town prompted an economic collapse and a decrease in Prague's population.
The Baroque fortress of Prague
Prague around 1800
The restorations that took place following the Thirty Years War were already connected with a new style – Baroque. Baroque buildings both new and reconstructed enriched the Prague's medieval city plan with new dominant features and accents. Since the Renaissance period, a substantial part of construction activity, from planning to the smallest finishing touches, had been in the hands of members of the Italian community.
Prague's strategic importance was expressed not only in the construction of extensive Baroque fortifications but also in unsettled wartime affairs: in 1741 – 1742 French troops occupied Prague and in 1744 Prussian troops occupied the city, laying siege to it again in 1757. In 1784, by the order of Emperor Joseph II, the four so-far independent towns of Prague (Old Town, New Town, Lesser Town and Hradcany) were joined to form one single city.
The new city of Prague beyond the fortifications
Within the walls of the city's fortress, Prague did not feel the onset of industry and the influx of provincial residents in the 19th century. Immediately beyond the ramparts, however, several new towns began to grow, including Karlin, Liben, Holesovice, Smichov, Kralovske Vinohrady, Zizkov, and others.
The city received a new promenade road with the demolition of the fortifications between the Old and New Towns and the filling of the fortress moat. An embankment was built along the Vltava River. Several new public buildings rose along here, all built in the Neo-Renaissance style. In 1874 most of the Baroque fortifications and their bastions were taken down.
Prague – the metropolis of an independent state
A unique cultural environment sparked Prague's transformation into a large modern European city, primarily through the coexistence of Czech, German and Jewish cultures. The development of original Cubist architecture was interrupted by World War I, which positioned Prague as the capital city of an independent state.
The transformation into a big modern city continued at an increasing rate and Prague swiftly became a well-known point on the map of modern European architecture. During his visit in 1928 Le Corbusier himself commented with envy on Prague's large Functionalist buildings.
Prague grew in terms of both its surface area and population. The Law of Greater Prague of 1920 expanded the city and in 1922 it incorporated several neighbouring towns and citizens.
An occupied city
Not even the economic crisis at the turn of the 1920's could stop the city's expansion. However, a disruption occurred, causing Czechoslovakia to lose its sovereignty in 1938. On March 15, 1939, the Germans occupied all of Czechoslovakia and Adolf Hitler came to Prague.
The occupation resulted in the decimation of Prague's Jewish community, in which roughly 40 000 of its members were murdered. Losses incurred by bombardments and battles during the Red Army's liberation of Prague, though far from trivial, fortunately did not damage the overall character of the city.
Another occupation, another liberation
Following the communist coup of 1948, the influx of residents to Prague continued. New residential complexes began to spring up on the city's outskirts; however, in comparison with the buildings of the 19th century, they were dull and utilitarian.
In August 1968 Soviet tanks put an end to the test period of a new democratic attitude. The ensuing era of communist normalisation resulted in the stagnation of the city and the brutal intrusion of its historical architectural landscape by buildings of low quality and cold appearances.
The return of freedom after November 1989 offered Prague new opportunities. World-famous architects such as Frank O. Gehry, Jean Nouvel, Eva Jiricna, and Ricardo Bofill have graced the city with their work. Prague is regaining its beauty and international character. The ages-old history of one of the world's most beautiful cities is still being written…