Prague is my favorite city in the world. When we visited with Electra, I had taken a whole bunch of photos but didn’t really know what to do with them. So, this guest post by Jeff Townes about the history of Prague gives me the perfect opportunity to do so!
Jeff has been obsessed with the beauty and the wonder of this wide world since before he could walk or even talk. He was always exploring as a toddler – much to his parents’ dismay – and things haven’t changed since. As soon as he finished school, he was off and around the world. He has spent the last 3 1/2 years (and counting) writing his way around every corner of this incredible globe and doesn’t plan on slowing down any time soon.
A History of Prague
The history of Prague is a long one. Clues found suggest humans hunting large animals roamed this region during the last Ice Age. The first evidence of permanent civilization points to a time period between 5000-4000 BC, when the northwestern region of Prague was inhabited by Germanic and Celtic tribes.
The first of these tribes we know by name were the Boli, who settled in the region from around 500 BC and gave their name to the region of Bohemia (“home of the Boli”).
Slowly, the Germanic and Celtic tribes began to migrate south and the region was taken over by Slavic tribes. The next major event in the history of the region took place in the 6th Century when Nomadic Avars attacked two Slav tribes that had built settlements on either side of the Vltava river. They defeated the Slavs easily and held control of the region until a Frankish trader arrived, united the Slav tribes, and forced the Avars out.
Legend has it that Prague was founded in the 8th century by a Libuše, a mythical Czech princess, and her peasant husband, Přemysl. Together, they founded the Přemyslid dynasty which ruled the Czech lands until 1306. Libuše, a seer, had a vision of a great city overlooking the Vltava River and ordered her subjects to build a castle in the spot where a man was adding the threshold to the doorway of a house. She named the castle Praha (Prah is the Czech word for threshold) as even noblemen have to bow before a threshold.
A more realistic, less romantic, interpretation for the origin of Prague may be that a castle was built at the crossing point of the Vltava river, the word Prah meaning ‘ford’ or ‘rapid’.
Prague becomes important
Whether you choose to believe the tales of legend or historical findings, the fact remains that by around the year 800 there was a small fort, fortified by wooden buildings, occupying two-thirds of the area that later, in about the year 870, became Prague Castle.
The castle, built by Prince Borijov, became the seat of early Prague Kings and a major trading center in Europe. Prague, as we know it today, was established.
Holy Roman Empire
In 950 the German king Otto I conquered Bohemia and incorporated it into the Holy Roman Empire. Another Slav alliance was formed and they were allowed to rule Prague on behalf of the Germans. In 1085, Vratislav II became the first Czech king, but remained under the control of the Holy Roman Empire and German King.
One of the enduring and most famous constructions of Prague was first built in 1172: the first stone bridge over the Vltava river was erected by King Vladislav II and named Judith Bridge in honor of his wife. The bridge collapsed due to flooding in 1342 and was replaced by a new one, Charles Bridge, in 1357. Today, this bridge is one of the most recognizable landmarks in Prague and the best place in the city to watch a sunrise.
Prague’s golden age is commonly understood to be the period during the reign of King and Holy Roman Emperor Charles IV (1346-1378), who made Prague his residential capital and commissioned many of the famous structures we see today.
Under his supervision, Prague grew into one of the largest and most prosperous cities in the known world, and its Gothic look took shape with the construction of the aforementioned Charles Bridge, St. Vitus Cathedral, Old Town Hall, New Town, and Charles University.
A more detailed history of this period and excellent guides exploring these constructions can be found on the Prague Minos Guide app, which is a wonderful companion on a trip to Prague. To avoid large data roaming charges, you may wish to unlock your iPhone before you go and purchase a local sim card while you are there.
The Hussite Revolt
After the death of King Charles IV, there was a long period of instability in Prague. His son, Wenceslas IV was faced by an uprising brought about by the preacher Jan Hus. Hus, in an act that predated Luther’s famous 95 Theses by over a century, called for Church reform and the abolishment of Indulgences, while also condemning the Crusades.
The Pope invited him for discussions but instead imprisoned him for a year, even though Hus’s safety had been guaranteed by the German Emperor Sigismund himself. A furious Sigismund threatened the prelates with dismissal; however, they convinced him that he could not be bound by promises to a heretic. With Sigismund out of the way, the Church burned Hus at the stake in 1415.
The Papal betrayal caused many to make a martyr out of Hus. Rebellions formed across the city, leading to the rise of the Hussites. Their emblem was a Chalice, in protest to a decision by the Church to only allow the aristocracy to drink from the Chalice during the Eucarist; the rest were only allowed to partake of Sacramental bread.
Twenty years of bloody wars followed – which included the (in)famous defenestrations, or throwing people from windows. Eventually, Holy Roman Emperor Sigismund managed to take back the city, but not before many historical artifacts were destroyed and Prague Castle left in a state of disrepair.
Once again, the city became the imperial seat of the Holy Roman Empire when Rudolf II is crowned the Czech king in 1575, and peace and prosperity returned to Prague. Much of the beautiful Renaissance and Baroque architecture you see if Prague today was built during this era, and Prague also evolved as a center of science and alchemy.
However, by the first quarter of the 17th Century, Prague was in turmoil again as the Protestant uprising against the Catholic Habsburgs began in 1618, which led to The Thirty Years War; a dark time in the history of the city.
A period of reawakening preceded the industrial revolution under the rule of Empress Maria Teresia in the 18th century as education for children was made compulsory, and many productive factories started popping up all over the city.
In 1784, the 4 towns of Prague (Old Town, Lesser Town, Hradčany and New Town) were merged into one under the guidance of King Joseph II and Prague became a unified Capital City.
This spurred a period of what became known as National Revival and the Industrial Revolution arrived at the start of the 19th century, Prague was in a very strong position to prosper. And prosper it did.
In 1845, a railway connecting Prague to Vienna was opened and Prague’s population increased as people came from the countryside in search of work. The prosperity of Prague during this period led to a growth in middle-class communities and an even greater desire for nationalism.
The National Museum (1868) and National Theatre (1890) were built and Czechs finally defeated Germans in the Prague council elections.
The Czech people and their Slovakian neighbors chose not to support their Austrian and Hungarian rulers during World War 1, so when the Austro-Hungarian empire was defeated in 1918, Czechoslovakia declared its independence with allied support and Prague became the capital of the new republic.
During World War II, Prague was occupied by Nazi-Germany and the city’s large Jewish population either fled or were sent to concentration camps. Devastatingly, about three-quarters never returned.
Thankfully, Prague itself managed to avoid any major bombing raids and the city’s historical buildings remained mainly intact.
After 6 years of occupation, Prague was liberated by the Russians in 1945, only be controlled and governed by the Soviets for the next 50 years. The lowest point came during the Prague Spring of 1968 when the head of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia tried to get more freedoms introduced. The Soviets invaded and put down the reform attempts.
The velvet revolution, named for its non-violent nature, of 1989 came about in the days after 50,000 students made a peaceful demonstration in Wenceslas Square. They went there to honor the 9 students that were killed by the Nazis in 1939, only to be cornered by police, with hundreds beaten and arrested.
This shocking event set off a wave of national outrage and the following days saw mass protests throughout Prague, which eventually led to the top leadership of the Communist Party resigning and democracy brought to the country with the leading dissident, Vaclav Havel, being named President of Czechoslovakia. 1990 saw the first free elections after the communist era.
On the first of January 1993, Czechoslovakia split in two and Prague became the capital of Czech Republic.
In 2002, rains cause the Moldava river to overflow and Prague was flooded. The flood caused a great deal of damage and parts of the city were evacuated. Fortunately, none of the city’s major attractions were damaged and they are all still there for you to see today.
All photographs are by Nicholas C. Rossis.