Kraków (Polish pronunciation: [ˈkrakuf] ( listen)) also Cracow, or Krakow (English /ˈkrækaʊ/), is the second largest and one of the oldest cities in Poland. Situated on the Vistula River (Polish: Wisła) in the Lesser Poland region, the city dates back to the 7th century. Kraków has traditionally been one of the leading centres of Polish academic, cultural, and artistic life and is one of Poland’s most important economic hubs. It was the capital of Poland from 1038 to 1569; the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth from 1569 to 1596; the Grand Duchy of Kraków from 1846 to 1918; and Kraków Voivodeship from the 14th century to 1999. It is now the capital of the Lesser Poland Voivodeship.
The city has grown from a Stone Age settlement to Poland’s second most important city. It began as a hamlet on Wawel Hill and was already being reported as a busy trading centre of Slavonic Europe in 965. With the establishment of new universities and cultural venues at the emergence of the Second Polish Republic in 1918 and throughout the 20th century, Kraków reaffirmed its role as a major national academic and artistic centre. The city has a population of approximately 760,000 whereas about 8 million people live within a 100 km radius of its main square.
After the invasion of Poland by Nazi Germany at the start of World War II, Kraków was turned into the capital of Germany’s General Government. The Jewish population of the city was moved into a walled zone known as the Kraków Ghetto, from which they were sent to extermination camps such as Auschwitz and the concentration camp at Płaszów.
In 1978, Karol Wojtyła, archbishop of Kraków, was elevated to the papacy as Pope John Paul II – the first Slavic pope ever, and the first non-Italian pope in 455 years. Also that year, UNESCO approved the first ever sites for its new World Heritage List, including the entire Old Town in inscribing Cracow’s Historic Centre. Kraków is classified as a global city by GaWC, with the ranking of High sufficiency.
Kraków’s prehistory begins with evidence of a Stone Age settlement on the present site of the Wawel Hill. A legend attributes Kraków’s founding to the mythical ruler Krakus, who built it above a cave occupied by a dragon, Smok Wawelski. The first written record of the city’s name dates back to 965, when Kraków was described as a notable commercial centre controlled first by Moravia (876–879), but captured by a Bohemian duke Boleslaus I in 955. The first acclaimed ruler of Poland, Mieszko I, took Kraków from the Bohemians and incorporated it into the holdings of the Piast dynasty towards the end of his reign.
In 1038, Kraków became the seat of the Polish government. By the end of the 10th century, the city was a leading centre of trade. Brick buildings were constructed, including the Royal Wawel Castle with St. Felix and Adaukt Rotunda, Romanesque churches such as St. Adalbert’s, a cathedral, and a basilica. The city was almost entirely destroyed during the Mongol invasion of 1241. It was rebuilt practically identical, based on new location act and incorporated in 1257 by the king Bolesław V the Chaste who following the example of Wrocław, introduced city rights modelled on the Magdeburg law allowing for tax benefits and new trade privileges for the citizens. In 1259, the city was again ravaged by the Mongols. A third attack in 1287 was repelled thanks in part to the new built fortifications. In 1335, King Casimir III of Poland (Kazimierz in Polish) declared the two western suburbs to be a new city named after him, Kazimierz (Casimiria in Latin). The defensive walls were erected around the central section of Kazimierz in 1362, and a plot was set aside for the Augustinian order next to Skałka.
Tomb of king Casimir III of Poland in the Wawel Cathedral, 14th century
The city rose to prominence in 1364, when Casimir III of Poland founded the University of Kraków, the second oldest university in central Europe after the Charles University in Prague. King Casimir also began work on a campus for the Academy in Kazimierz, but he died in 1370 and the campus was never completed. The city continued to grow under the joint Lithuanian-Polish Jagiellon dynasty. As the capital of the Kingdom of Poland and a member of the Hanseatic League, the city attracted many craftsmen, businesses, and guilds as science and the arts began to flourish.
The 15th and 16th centuries were known as Poland’s Złoty Wiek or Golden Age. Many works of Polish Renaissance art and architecture were created, including ancient synagogues in Kraków’s Jewish quarter of Kazimierz, such as the Old Synagogue. During the reign of Casimir IV, various artists came to work and live in Kraków, and Johann Haller established a printing press in the city after Kasper Straube had printed the Calendarium Cracoviense, the first work printed in Poland, in 1473.
In 1520, the most famous church bell in Poland, named Zygmunt after Sigismund I of Poland, was cast by Hans Behem. At that time, Hans Dürer, a younger brother of artist and thinker Albrecht Dürer, was Sigismund’s court painter.Hans von Kulmbach made altarpieces for several churches. In 1553, the Kazimierz district council gave the Jewish Qahal a licence for the right to build their own interior walls across the western section of the already existing defensive walls. The walls were expanded again in 1608 due to the growth of the community and influx of Jews from Bohemia. In 1572, King Sigismund II, the last of the Jagiellons, died childless. The Polish throne passed to Henry III of France and then to other foreign-based rulers in rapid succession, causing a decline in the city’s importance that was worsened by pillaging during the Swedish invasion and by an outbreak of bubonic plague that left 20,000 of the city’s residents dead. In 1596, Sigismund III of the Swedish House of Vasa moved the administrative capital of the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth from Kraków to Warsaw.
Already weakened during the 18th century, by the mid-1790s the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth had been twice partitioned by its neighbors: Russia, the Habsburg empire, and Prussia. In 1791, the Austrian Emperor Joseph II changed the status of Kazimierz as a separate city and made it into a district of Kraków. The richer Jewish families began to move out. However, because of the injunction against travel on the Sabbath, most Jewish families stayed relatively close to the historic synagogues, maintaining Kazimierz’s reputation as a Jewish district long after the concept ceased to have any administrative meaning. In 1794, Tadeusz Kościuszko initiated an unsuccessful insurrection in the town’s Main Square which, in spite of his victorious Battle of Racławice against a numerically superior Russian army, resulted in the third and final partition of Poland. Following the Uprising, Kraków became part of the Austrian partition in a province of the Kingdom of Galicia and Lodomeria. In 1809, Napoleon Bonaparte captured former Polish territories from Austria and made the town part of the Duchy of Warsaw. Following Napoleon’s defeat in Russia, the Congress of Vienna in 1815 mostly restored earlier oppressive structures, although it also created the partially independent Free City of Kraków. As in 1794, an insurrection in 1846 failed; resulting in the city being annexed by Austria under the name the Grand Duchy of Krakow (Polish: Wielkie Księstwo Krakowskie).
Tadeusz Kościuszko Monument, Kraków, entrance to Wawel Castle
In 1866, Austria granted a degree of autonomy to Galicia after its own defeat in the Austro-Prussian War. Politically freer Kraków became a Polish national symbol and a centre of culture and art, known frequently as the «Polish Athens» (Polskie Ateny) or «Polish Mecca». Many leading Polish artists of the period resided in Kraków, among them the seminal painter Jan Matejko, laid to rest at Rakowicki Cemetery, and the founder of modern Polish drama, Stanisław Wyspiański.Fin de siècle Kraków evolved into a modern metropolis; running water and electric streetcars were introduced in 1901, and between 1910 and 1915, Kraków and its surrounding suburban communities were gradually combined into a single administrative unit called Greater Kraków (Wielki Kraków).
At the outbreak of World War I on 3 August 1914, Józef Piłsudski formed a small cadre military unit, the First Cadre Company — the predecessor of the Polish Legions — which set out from Kraków to fight for the liberation of Poland. The city was briefly besieged by Russian troops in November 1914. Austrian rule in Kraków ended in 1918 when the Polish Liquidation Committee assumed power.
Poland’s Minister of Defense unveiling the monument to Marshal Józef Piłsudski buried at Wawel in 1935; Old Town Kraków, 2008
With the emergence of the Second Polish Republic, Kraków restored its role as a major academic and cultural centre with the establishment of new universities such as the AGH University of Science and Technology and the Jan Matejko Academy of Fine Arts, including a number of new and essential vocational schools. It became an important cultural centre for the Polish Jews with a Zionist youth movement relatively strong among the city’s Jewish population. Kraków was also an influential centre of Jewish spiritual life, with all its manifestations of religious observance from Orthodox, to Chasidic and Reform flourishing side by side.
Following the invasion of Poland in September 1939, the Nazi German forces turned the city into the capital of the General Government, a colonial authority headed by Hans Frank and seated in Wawel Castle. In an operation called «Sonderaktion Krakau», more than 180 university professors and academics were arrested and sent to Sachsenhausen and Dachau concentration camps, though the survivors were later released on the request of prominent Italians. The Jewish population was first confined to a ghetto and later murdered or sent to concentration camps, including Płaszów and Auschwitz in Oświęcim.Roman Polanski, the film director, is a survivor of the Ghetto, while Oskar Schindler, the German businessman portrayed in the Steven Spielberg film Schindler’s List, selected employees from the Ghetto to work in his enamelware plant (Deutsche Emailwaren Fabrik, or Emalia for short), thus saving them from the camps. Although looted by occupational authorities, Kraków remained relatively undamaged at the end of World War II, sparing most of the city’s historical and architectural legacy.
After the war, under the Stalinist regime, the intellectual and academic community of Kraków was put under total political control. The universities were soon deprived of printing rights and autonomy. The communist government of the People’s Republic of Poland ordered construction of the country’s largest steel mill in the newly created suburb of Nowa Huta. The creation of the giant Lenin Steelworks (now Sendzimir Steelworks owned by Mittal) sealed Kraków’s transformation from a university city to an industrial centre. The new working class, drawn by the industrialization of the city, contributed to rapid population growth.
In an effort that spanned two decades, Karol Wojtyła, cardinal archbishop of Kraków, successfully lobbied for permission to build the first churches in the new industrial suburbs. In 1978, Wojtyła was elevated to the papacy as John Paul II, the first non-Italian pope in 455 years. In the same year, UNESCO placed Kraków Old Town on the first-ever list of World Heritage Sites.