Amsterdam History - How it started.
Amsterdam made a late start as a city.
Not surprising, as what is now the centre of Holland once was an almost uninhabited peat wilderness.
That changed about a thousand years ago, when people started to come down from the higher grounds, to drain and develop this boggy jungle for agriculture. And by doing so, they created serious problems, but that´s another story.
See page sinking land.
At first, the place was nothing but a tiny hamlet on the banks of an inland peat river. A few farmers and fishermen, constantly raising little elevations for their dwellings with whatever rubble they had, desperately trying to keep dry feet.
It was not even Holland territory, as the bishop of Utrecht ruled here. But the count of Holland was slowly but steadily pushing east for more land.
Actually, Holland and Utrecht waged more than 300 years of war for the ownership of the lands around the rivers Amstel and Vecht. More on that struggle between Holland and Utrecht in the river Vecht history (How the bishop butchered his goose with the golden eggs).
It´s only after a dam was built in the river Amstel mid 13th Century, and the "people living around the dam" were granted special toll rights by the count of Holland, that the place was first named and mentioned in a document : "Aemstelredamme".
Now, that´s a bit hard to pronounce, even for the Dutch, so in time it became "Amsterdam".
Coat of arms of Amsterdam. The cog ship was crucial in the early history of the city.
The little town looked perfectly Medieval, but already, it was different from older cities elsewhere in Europe. Because from the very beginning the citizens decided very much for themselves on strategy and policy. Pretty unusual in those days. There was no king here, or nearby count with a castle. Or a bishop ruling, like in much more important Utrecht.
And as the best way to survive in these water infested lands proved to be trade and business, they sailed out and laid the foundations of what a few hundred years later was to become a financial centre and economic world power.
There´s almost nothing left of that Medieval Amsterdam.
It was a wooden town, and a couple of giant fires brought massive destruction.
One of the few surviving buildings is the Old Church, now in the middle of the Red Light District. It took hundreds of years to build that church, and only a few years after it was finished at last, the protestants took over in 1578.
This very special building that can be visited. See Old Church.
The Old Church, today, and in the 17th century.
Just a few hundred meters away, on Dam Square, there´s another gothic church, called the New Church. You may wonder, because they both got their global aspect in the 1400s. Only, the New Church is a couple of decades younger, that´s why.
In the late Middle Ages the little town grew rapidly.
Population statistics :
in 1300 AD - 1.000 people
1400 AD - 3.000
1500 AD - 12.000
1600 AD - 60.000
1650 AD - 150.000
1690 AD - 200.000.
By the end of the 16th century Amsterdam was already by far the most important town in Holland, ready to play a dominant role in the Dutch Golden Age.
That 17th century changed Amsterdam totally. The concentric rings of canals was laid out, along the canals the fine houses we know today were built.
And many other remarkable buildings, like around 1650 a new city hall, intended to display the power and the wealth of the city.
Today, we call it the Royal Palace on Dam Square. Absolutely worth a visit.
Without exaggeration, it can be said that around that time, Holland ruled the world. At least for a couple of decades. True, also because the other European powers had problems of their own then.
More on that 17th "Dutch Century" in the history section.
With a history walk of a couple of hours in Amsterdam you can discover this fascinating city and it´s history in depth.
Private and tailor-made tours for indiviuals, families or small groups (8 max) are possible in Amsterdam, other historical Dutch towns, and in the countryside.
See the overview of walks and countryside bicycle day trips.
More images of Amsterdam on page Amsterdam Photo.
For a collection of practical links on Amsterdam, see Amsterdam Links.
to top of page