Cracow is one of the oldest cities in Poland – it dates back to the seventh century. As the legend goes, Cracow was founded by Prince Krakus, above the cave inhabited by a dragon and settled here after defeating the dragon. Krakus poisoned the dragon and set the residents free. Thus, the name of the city comes from the name of this legendary ruler.
By the end of the tenth century, the old town became a leading economic center. The earliest settlement was established on Wawel Hill, where the Royal Wawel Castle was built. In 1038 the castle and the Cracow itself, became the seat of the Polish government. In the thirteenth century, the city was almost entirely destroyed during the Mongol invasions, but then successfully rebuilt.
In 1241, Cracow took an intense conquering from the Tatars, who burned it to the ground. However, within two decades, a new town center had been built; Rynek Glowny (Main Market Square) was the centerpiece in the new design, and Cracow’s magnificent Wawel Castle was situated to the south.
Economic success and a cultural growth led to a golden age in the 15th and 16th centuries, during which the prosperous nations of Poland and Lithuania merged into a single state. When the Cracow Academy, today known as Jagiellonian University, was established as the second university in the central Europe, the town became the center of science, arts and literature. The Renaissance was also the time when most of Cracow’s architectural landmarks were created. However, this belle époque was brought to an unexpected end when Russia, Prussia and Austria carved up Poland in the Third Partition of 1795, effectively eliminating the country from the map. Cracow became a major center for Polish culture and the spiritual capital of a country that no longer existed.
After the Polish state was partitioned in the late eighteenth century, Cracow became a part of the Austrian province. Cracow did not give up. Under the leadership of Tadeusz Kościuszko, the people of the city revolted in Cracow’s market Square but were put down by the Prussian army. The revolt is known as the Kościuszko insurrection. Later, in 1815, the Congress of Vienna gave Cracow independence as the Free City of Cracow. Interestingly, under partitions Cracow was the center of Polish culture and also began to become a modern metropolis.
Between the two World Wars, the city was a major Jewish center. When the Nazis forces entered Cracow on September 1939, they stated occupation. The war took a heavy toll. Most of the city’s cultural heritage was destroyed, the monuments, buildings, architectural attractions. Hundreds of professors and academics were murdered. The Jewish population was ghettoized in the Jewish ghetto in Cracow and then murdered. Historians claim Hitler liked Cracow due to its visual similarities with some German cities, which may explain why it became a regional headquarters for the Nazis. Although much of Poland was devastated during WWII, Cracow remained largely untouched.
Although Cracow was once the capital of this historical country, those boasting rights now belong to Warsaw with much to the dismay of Cracow’s inhabitants. By way of conciliation, the town has retained its status as the ‘royal capital’ and is often regarded as the creative capital of Poland.