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800 Years of History, With None of the Mess

amsterdam flagYou might think that the three X's which follow the name of the city on its heraldic device, and nearly anything else on which the name appears, are appropriate, considering the free and relaxed reputation the city enjoys due to its unique position on soft drugs and sex-for-hire. Their origin is unclear, although they have been symbolically associated with the city for most of the past millennium. They derive from the cross upon which an apostle by the name of Andrew was crucified. Why there are three is again unclear, but since 1947 when meaning was officially decreed by Queen Wilhelmina, they have represented three moral virtues: Compassion, Resolution, and Heroism. You thought they meant something else?

Not only is Amsterdam one of the world's most beautiful cities and acknowledged as amongst the most important intact city centers in the world, it also distinguishes itself as the most tolerant and hospitable of cities. Some would misread this commitment to social tolerance as a sign of apathy, of not having the energy to object, or as a remnant of the counterculture that thrived in the city during the 60's.

For ages past the prosperity and tolerance of the city have been fueled by matters of practicality pertaining to commerce and trade, and the highly successful economy is the fuel that has kept it all bubbling along on and off (mostly on) for hundreds of years.

Despite a recent plague of high profile killings and assasinations which the world press gleefully reports as if these events are the result of, or forecast the coming demise of, social liberality and tolerance in the Netherlands, Amsterdam continues.

Over the years several (trite and uninspiring) public relations slogans have made their appearances. The latest, since mid-2005, is IAMsterdam.

Aside from the mediocrity of the current crop of politicians, city administrators, and dopey marketing slogans, it's still a great place to be, politicians come and go.

Would you like to read a tour of the Red Light Districts ?

Old Amsterdam

Much of what follows lists those events in the long life of the city which led to it's present form. It's hard to make it seem interesting, except for a historian who would quibble over what we have chosen to include or exclude, but we're sure these events proved interesting to those who were living them at the time. Those who are stuck for something to read, read on. Those short of time, you can skip to the final paragraph.

The dam that gave the muddy little settlement its name arose over the river Amstel during the last decades of the 11th century. Not much is known about this village, Amstelredamme, as it was called, except that its inhabitants were simple fishermen and farmers. This dam is still the heart of the city, but it is now used as a square. Not surprisingly it is called Dam Square, and it continues to serve as location for a variety of civic functions and events; it's also popular with pigeons.

Meanwhile the town extended slowly from the centre around the dam. Land was won from the original banks of the Amstel by filling it in with mud, turf and rubbish; dikes were constructed and canals were dug. The first of the chapels where the present Oude Kerk stands was constructed at the start of 1300.

After 1380 new canals were dug; the Oudezijds Achterburgwal and the Nieuwezijds Achterburgwal (Spuistraat)

Around 1420 in the eastern part of the town a new wall was built along the present Geldersekade and Kloveniersburgwal. Two decades later, another canal was built looping around the west side of the city: the Singel.

The economy at that time was not really developed: the Amsterdam economy was based mainly on beer and herrings. The invention of the cog, a large wooden ship shaped roughly like a clog and which had a capacity 5 - 10 times of those vessels used previously, revolutionized trading, enabling large quantities of goods to be shipped cheaply. Until this time Amsterdam had been a passive partner as part of a larger network of trading routes, now it began to go itís own way.

As Amsterdam grew it begun to cultivate itís individuality, from then until today there is a strong contrast between it and the rest of the country. The rivalry between the Bishops who ruled elsewhere in Holland, and who relied upon the feudal systems crushing burden of heavy taxation for their support, as opposed to the Counts allied with Amsterdam, who appreciated the fact that merchants were not serfs, and who lured merchants by infrastructure improvements, privileges and guarantees. They understood what became and still is one of the foundations of the Netherlands, the need to deal with the new and foreign without smothering them in rules and regulations.

The city began to assume the function of warehouse for goods in transit throughout Europe. Amsterdam's harbour had a stabilizing function: fish from the south, grain and timber from the Baltic countries were traded in Amsterdam markets. Because of this economic prosperity Amsterdam developed into Holland's largest city, with a population of about 30,000.

In the 15th century the Nieuwe Kerk is built. Contrary to what many Amsterdammers think, the terms Oude Zijde and Nieuwe Zijd have nothing to do with the origin of the city. They come from a later period when Amsterdam was split into two parishes, one on either side of the Amstel, Oude Kerks Zijde (Old Church Side) and Nieuwe Kerk Zijde (New Church Side). Somewhere in time the "Kerk" disappeared.

During the second half of the 16th century, Europe had to deal with reformation. The Low Countries seceded from Spain after the Eighty Years' War, putting aside Catholicism. For a long period Amsterdam was allied with the Spaniards, but in 1578 Amsterdam finally united with the rest of the Netherlands as the economic center and newest city in the worlds first modern republic. The city revolted against itís hated Catholic overlords, and they were overthrown during a bloodless coup that became known to history as the ďAlterationĒ. The Catholics had to put aside their offices and churches, but were spared their lives and livelihoods. Calvinism became the new official religion., although it was never to dominate the real official religion, freedom of trade and capital and to a lesser extent, thinking and writing.

Holland was one of the most tolerant regions in Europe during this period. For that reason, many Protestants moved to cities in Holland as did Portugeuse Jews who had lost their livelihoods at home due to the Spanish Inquisition. A large number of them also brought valuable skills, and merchants from Antwerp, a former competitor that had collapsed, resumed their business in Amsterdam, this meant a big boost for the local economy. These immigrants brought with them trading expertise and capital, they initiated the diamond industry and the silk industry. The year 1578 (May 7, to be precise), is believed by many to be the beginning of modern Amsterdam, the year that it kicked the middle ages out beyond the polders.

Golden Age

The Dutch were forced to find their own route to the Indies because of the annexation of Portugal by Spain in 1580. The first voyages to the Indies started in Amsterdam and were a major success. Stimulated by these results plans were made everywhere in the country to send more ships to the Indies. Out of all these initiatives the United East Indian Company came into existence, the VOC. Over fifty percent of the capital from the new company was in the hands of Amsterdam. When the VOC was founded not only merchants were involved, but the citizens invested in the project as well. Part of the success of these ventures was due to the participants recognition of the principle of risk sharing, in shipping this took the form of distributing the goods in transit between several ships, instead of one. If the ship was lost, no single investor lost everything.

The 17th century was the century of Amsterdam, the period of time that later came to be famously known as the Golden Age. Wealth, power, and culture flourished in the city. It was at the height of its urbanization, and of nearly limitless growth. A start was made on the Amsterdam Canal belt. The Herengracht, Keizersgracht and Prinsengracht began to take shape, as a home for the newly wealthy, and beyond the Prinsengracht, the Jordaan was developed as a home for the working class and petit bourgeoisie.

The Government strongly encouraged this development, because it added to Amsterdam's prestige. During the first half of this century two churches were built: the Zuiderkerk and the Westerkerk. The old gothic town hall was burnt down in 1652 and a new town hall was built on the Dam Square. The King of Holland, appointed by his brother Napoleon, during his brief reign, decided the town hall was ideal for use as his palace; itís been a palace ever since. The Plaetse or the Damsquare was enlarged by a huge amount, just like the rest of the city. After the Jordaan was completed, around 1700, approximately 200,000 people were living in Amsterdam.

Culturally these days were booming as well. Due to the economic prosperity of Amsterdam, itís citizens could afford to surround themselves with objets d'art. Bredero, Vondel and P.C. Hooft wrote their poetry, while painters like Frans Hals or Rembrandt and their students had their studios in Amsterdam and philosophers like Spinoza and Descartes formulated their ideas on paper. An interesting thing to consider in this teaming city with its sustaining and all encompassing relationship with water: As Anton Van Leewenhoek refined the microscope he became the first person to look inside a drop of water and view the microbes, the life, within.

Things took a turn for the worst towards the end of the 17th century. In 1672 the powerful Netherlands got involved in a war with France as well as with England. Amsterdam's harbour was inaccessible to the fleets sailing in from the Dutch Indies and because of that the boisterous prosperity came to an end by the end of the 17th century. The structure of Amsterdam's economy also changed: the city lost its position as the stable market for world trade. However, money transfers became more and more important and Amsterdam became the financial heart of the world and the banker for European Monarchs who financed their expensive wars with borrowed money. In 1681 't Amsterdamsch Hoerdom, an ancestor of this website, is published in Rotterdam.

After 1850

Amsterdam moved on quietly until industrialization took hold in the Netherlands. After 1850 the population in Amsterdam increased greatly: from all over the Netherlands people moved to the city seeking employment. The population was approaching half a million people and many great building project were undertaken. In 1873 Centraal Station was erected on a man-made island at the foot of the Amstel, closing off the city from its centuries old direct relationship with the sea, this, the biggest construction project in the history of the city is considered by many the greatest blunder in the history of planning in the city. We tend to agree.

Sixteen canals vanished for misguided reasons of public hygiene, amongst them the Rosengracht, Westergracht, Lindengracht, Overtoom, and a boulevard was built in the center of Amsterdam by closing off and paving over the Damrak and Rokin. The Rijksmuseum (1885) and Concertgebouw (1888), were erected. New residential quarters were needed, resulting in town developments like the Pijp (1868) and Vondelpark. After 1920 the large developments with new districts in West, South and East followed. Plan Zuid by architect Berlage is still very popular. North of the River IJ new quarters also rose up.

Not a shot had been fired in anger for centuries, the countless European wars had come and gone, leaving Holland alone, and Hollands neutrality was respected in World War 1. In 1940 however, World War II and the occupation by Germany hit Amsterdam hard, and it remains a difficult period to come to terms with. Amsterdam got it hands bloody, it had always had a lot of Jewish inhabitants and most of them were deported, most did not survive. Germany never had to post more than 60 officers in the city, even at the height of the Jewish persecution. The Amsterdam police were major collaborators. The Dutch with their customary efficiency did the rest, and deflecting responsibility by claiming that all anyone was doing was arranging the transport of "workers" does not lessen the crimes. Many places, like the Anne Frankhuis and the National Monument on Damsquare, are a reminder of this horrible period, and serve as public relations whitewash, an exercise in portraying Amsterdammers as victims, rather than the collaborators they were in fact, and Amsterdam as a refuge, which it had always been, except during this period. The final winter of the occupation in 1945 became known as the "hunger winter", when nearly the entire city froze and starved, and the former Jewish districts, now derelict, were ransacked for fuel to burn.

In the sixties the Bijlmer was built, with its high blocks of flats. The Biljmer was from a planning standpoint one of two major blunders resulting in crime ridden tenements; the construction of Centraal Station was the other. Bijlmer was brought into the world news in 1992 when one of the towers was destroyed by the crash of an El Al 747. To this day it is uncertain as to the number of fatalities involved as many of the residents of the flats were undocumented illegal aliens.

A new island in the River IJ, IJ-burg is being developed. Work on the new district of IJburg is in full swing. A large part of the land has already been raised and will soon be filled with buildings. Following the city council's approval in 1999 of the urban design scheme Haveneiland and Rieteilanden, work on the architectural fleshing out of the scheme is now in progress. A start has been made on the construction of the infrastructure on both Haveneiland and the Rieteilanden.

Amsterdam is still the undisputed cultural centre in the Netherlands with orchestras, ballet and stages, museums and galleries and two universities. Soccer plays an important role in the life of many Amsterdammers. In the seventies Amsterdam was famous once again because of Ajax, it's soccer team. Ajax and the Dutch national squadís victories are celebrated like national feasts in Amsterdam.

At this writing (January 2006) there are endless construction projects around the city, most notably; the new metro line, the Centraal Station and Rijksmuseum renovations, massive development in the Eastern Docklands, all projects set to continue for several more years. Perhaps they'll all oversee the next hundred years of the city.

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Amsterdam XXX
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RLD Walking Tour
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Privehuis Guide
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Other NL Cities, Int'l
Fun Facts


734.500 Residents
171 Nationalities
80 cm (31.5") Annual rainfall
600.000 Bikes
28 Parks
260 Trams
1 Flower market
4 Flea markets
10.334 Shops
230 Antique shops
24 Diamond Polishing Factories
165 Canals
2.500 Houseboats
1.281 Bridges
110 Canal boats
120 Canal bikes
6.800 16th, 17th, and 18th century houses
1 Royal Palace
13,659 Royal Palace Pilings
6 Geese a-laying
6 Windmills
50 Museums
141 Galeries
1 Casa Rosso
3 Fake Casa Rosso fronts
1 Nightwatch
1 Dulfer, Candy
115 Candles in Madame Tussaud's "Museum"
9 Bell towers
42 Historic churches
40 Concert and  theatre performances per day
70 Theaters and concert halls
1 Concertgebouw Orchestra
1 Music Theatre
600.000 Municipal flower bulbs
52 30N, 5 45E Planetary Coordinates
2.5 Average I,Q. / Policemen
37 Movie Theatres
1.402 Café's and bars
36 Discotheques
755 Restaurants
34.200 Hotel beds
5 Camping grounds
6.868.000 Annual tourists
1 Queen
3,000 Prostitutes
505 Raambordelen