Magazine article History Today

Gdansk - Millennial

Magazine article History Today

Gdansk - Millennial

Article excerpt

May you live a thousand years', spits a vengeful harpy at a rival in an eighteenth-century comedy. The problem with birthdays is that as one gets uglier and older they become more painful and less easy to celebrate. Human life is but short when compared to that of cities, and unlike humans they can resurface themselves with new beauty.

Not often does a really big birthday occur, however, such as this year's at Canterbury, and in 1997 that city must share glory with a venerable Polish port on the Baltic Sea. For 1997 is also a star date for Gdansk. The city of shipyards, of the Teutonic knights, of the black towers of granaries, of the birth of Solidarity in 1980, is 1000 years old this month.

As a settlement at a focus of trade routes and cultures Gdansk was presumably even then a well-established infant settlement, yet the first time we hear of it is 997. Then a bishop voyaging in the train of Prince Boleslaw the Brave conducted a mass baptism in the port town, or urbs, without realising he was marking an official birth too. The date appears in the writings of the scribe Johannis Cannaparius, a Benedictine monk, who dutifully recorded Gdansk as having been visited by Bishop Adalbert.

As a port the city has always attracted foreign visitors and settlers -- Germans, Slavs and Scandinavians were among its earliest residents. It figures in old maps as Dansicum, or Danzig, threaded through by rivers and defended with a star burst of Vauban-like fortifying walls. Its old centre is still a place of high spires and wide squares, tall gabled houses and impressive towers.

From medieval battles, through the days of the Polish kingdom, right up to modern times, the city on the sea has known both a golden and a violent, often terrible history. Although it has been frequently fought over and sometimes crushed, it always rises again. The most recent destruction was in 1945 when, targetted as a major port, 60 per cent of old Gdansk was reduced to rubble by a Nazi offensive in the last months of the Second World War.

The city is extremely proud of its culture, very much on display in this birthday year. It has also a history of educating its citizens, and from the sixteenth century efforts were made to ensure all children were offered schooling: the Gdansk Academic Grammar School was founded in 1558, when Elizabeth I ascended the English throne. Daniel Fahrenheit came from the city, and Jan Heweliusz the astronomer, also Peter Kruger, the mathematician, and in the early nineteenth century the philosopher Schopenhauer lived here. Gottfried Lengnich wrote the first history of Poland and also taught the future King Stanislaw. …

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