Gomel is the administrative center of Gomel Voblast and the second-largest city in Belarus. It has a population of 482,652 (2009 census) and its area is 121 km2.
There are at least six versions of the origin of the city’s name. One of the best known is that the name is derived from the name of Gomeyuk stream, which flowed into the Sozh river near the foot of the hill where the first settlement was founded. Other Belarusian cities’ names are formed on these lines: for example, Minsk’s name is derived from the river Menka, Polotsk’s – from the Palata river, Vitebsk’s – from the Vitba river. In historical sources from 1142 to the 16th century Gomel is named as Gom’, Gomye, Gomiy, Gomey, Gomyi. These forms are tentatively explained as derivatives of an unattested *gomŭ of uncertain meaning. The modern form of the city’s name has been used only since the 16th–17th centuries.
Gomel was founded at the end of the 1st millennium AD on the lands of the Eastern Slavic tribal union of Radimichs. It laid on the banks of the Sozh river and the Gomeyuk stream. Sozh’s high left bank cut with canyons made a natural fortification. Some time Gomel was the capital of the Gomel Principality, then it went to the Principality of Chernigov. Gomel is first mentioned in the Hypatian Codex under the year of 1142 as the territory of Chernigov princes. For some time Gomel was captured by Smolensk prince Rostislav Mstislavich but then was re-captured by Iziaslav III Davidovich after whose death it belonged to Sviatoslav Olgovich and then to Sviatoslav’s son Oleg. Under Oleg Gomel went to the Principality of Novhorod-Siverskyi. The next owner of Gomel was Igor Svyatoslavich – the hero of «The Tale of Igor’s Campaign». During this period the town was a fortificated point and the centre of volost. In 12th–13th centuries the city’s area was not less that 40 ha, it had various crafts developed and was connected by trading ways with the cities of Northern and Southern Rus’. From archeological data the city was badly damaged during the Mongol-Tatar assault in the first half of the 13th century.
In 1335 Gomel region was joined to the Great Duchy of Lithuania by Algirdas. In 1335–1406 it was under the ownership of prince Patrikiy Narymuntovich and his sons, in 1406–1419 the city was ruled by Great Duke’s deputies, in 1419–1435 it belonged to prince Svitrigaila, in 1446–1452 to prince Vasiliy Yaroslavich, in 1452–1483 to Mozhaysk prince Ivan Andreyevich, in 1483–1505 to his son Semyon, who transferred Gomel to the Grand Duchy of Moscow. During the Second Muscovite-Lithuanian War of 1500–1503 Lithuania tried to return Gomel and other lands, transferred to Moscow, but suffered defeat and lost one third of its territory. In 1535 Lithuanian forces under Yu. Radzivill, Ya. Tarnovskiy and A. Nemira re-captured Gomel after the surrender of Moscow’s deputy, D. Shchepin-Obolenskiy. In the same year Great Duke of Lithuania Sigismund Kęstutaitis founded the Gomel Starostwo. In reference to the peace agreement of 1537 Gomel together with its volost remained a Lithuanian possession. In 1535–1565 Gomel is the centre of starostwo, from 1565 Gomel is in the Rechitsa Powiat of the Minsk Voivodeship. In 1560 the city’s first coat of arms was introduced. In 1569 Gomel became part of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. From this moment the city has become the arena of numerous attacks and battles between Ukrainian Cossaks, Russia and Polish-Lithuania Commonwealth. In 1572 Gomel Starostwo was given to B. Sapega. At the beginning of 1570s Gomel was captured by the forces of Ivan the Terrible, but in 1576 it was re-captured by Yu. Radzivill. In 1581 Gomel was again attacked by Russian troops, and in 1595–1596 it was in the hands of Severyn Nalyvaiko’s Cossaks. After the beginning of struggle against the Orthodox Christianity in Lithuania the Orthodox Nikolayevskiy Cathedral was closed by the order of Greek Catholic Eparch Josaphat Kuntsevych in 1621. In 1633 the city was besieged by the Cossaks of Bulgakov and Yermolin, in 1648 was captured by the Golovatskiy’s Cossak detachment, in 1649 by Martyn Nebaba’s detachment. After that Gomel got through several besieges in 1651 but in 1564 was captured by Ivan Zolotarenko’s detachment. He and his sons had been holding the city till 1667 and then they began to serve under Alexis of Russia, however, after the Truce of Andrusovo Gomel at last returned to the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, where it firth belonged to M. K. Radzivill and then till the annexation by the Russian Empire – to the Chartoryiskiy family. During the Great Northern War Russian forces under Aleksandr Danilovich Menshikov stood in Gomel. In 1670 Gomel got the Magdeburg rights. Towards the middle of the 17th century the city came to crisis. It suffered a lot of damage, population severely decreased, a lot of crafts disappeared. Taxes were very high – in 1770 Gomel’s inhabitants paid 20 752 złotys to the Polish exchequer and 3532 złotys to the army winter supply.
Gomel has a large Jewish population. Jews have lived in Gomel ever since 1537, when the area was annexed by Lithuania. During the Khmelnytsky Uprising in 1648, the Cossacks invaded Gomel, and killed 2,000 Jews. The Cossacks then forcibly made the Jewish survivors convert to Christianity. The Cossack forces kept a firm grip on the city, until the Treaty of Pereyaslav was signed. The Poles took over Gomel soon afterward, and allowed the converted Jews to revert back to Judaism. Section still under construction