Zagreb’s known history begins with two hills. Kaptol, now the site of Zagreb’s cathedral, was a thriving canonical settlement in the 11th century while another small settlement was developing on nearby Gradec hill. Both were devastated by the Mongol invasion of 1242.
In order to attract foreign artisans to the ruined region, King Bela walled Gradec and turned it into a sort of royally controlled ‘fiscal paradise’ (tax haven) with numerous privileges. Kaptol remained unprivileged, unwalled and under the church’s jurisdiction. As the centuries rolled on, a ruinous rivalry developed between the two towns that frequently descended into violence and near-warfare.
On a number of occasions, the bishops of Kaptol excommunicated the entire town of Gradec, which responded by looting and burning Kaptol. The two communities put aside their quarrels only when their commercial interests united them, such as during the annual fairs that brought merchants and money to the neighbourhood. Unfortunately, there were only three big fairs a year.
In the middle of the 15th century, the Turks got as far as the Sava River, prompting the bishop to finally fortify Kaptol. By the mid-16th century, the Turks had taken much of the surrounding territory, but not the two hill towns. Both towns lost their economic importance by the beginning of the 17th century and, out of self-preservation, merged into one town which was called Zagreb.
Zagreb emerged as the capital of the tiny Croatian state largely because there were few towns left standing after the Turkish onslaught. The commercial life of the city stagnated during the ensuing two centuries of warfare, compounded by fires and plague. In 1756, the seat of Croatian government fled from Zagreb to Varaždin, where it remained until 1776. By the end of the 18th century, there were a mere 2800 residents of Zagreb, of whom the majority were German or Hungarian.
Meanwhile, the plain below the fortified hill towns became a commercial centre when the space now known as Trg Josip Jelačića was chosen as the site of Zagreb’s lucrative trade fairs. The new marketplace spurred construction around its edges that increased as the Turkish threat receded in the 18th century. The straight streets running south of Trg Josip Jelačića provided an important link between Zagreb and other villages on and beyond the Sava River.
In the 19th century, Zagreb finally came into its own. The economy expanded with the development of a prosperous clothing trade, a steam mill and a tannery. A rail link to Vienna and Budapest connected Zagreb to important markets. The city’s cultural and educational life also blossomed with the opening of the Music Institute, a theatre, the Croatian Academy of Arts & Sciences and the University of Zagreb. Zagreb also became the centre for the Pan-Slavic Illyrian movement that was pressing for south-Slavic unification, greater autonomy within the Austro-Hungarian Empire and recognition of the Slavic language. Count Janko Drašković, lord of Trakošćan Castle, published a manifesto in Illyrian in 1832 and his call for national revival resounded throughout Croatia.
Drašković’s call came to fruition when Croatia and its capital joined the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes after WWI. Between the two world wars, working-class neighbourhoods emerged in Zagreb between the railway and the Sava River and new residential quarters were built on the southern slopes of Mt Medvednica. In April 1941, the Germans invaded Yugoslavia and entered Zagreb without resistance. Ante Pavelić and the Ustaše moved quickly to proclaim the establishment of the Independent State of Croatia (Nezavisna Država Hrvatska) with Zagreb as its capital. Although Pavelić ran his fascist state from Zagreb until 1944, he never enjoyed a great deal of support within the capital, which consistently maintained support for Tito’s Partisans.
In postwar Yugoslavia, Zagreb (to its chagrin) clearly took second place to Belgrade, but the city continued to expand. The area south of the Sava River developed into a new district, Novi Zagreb, with residential blocks, Pleso airport and the Zagreb fairgrounds.
Zagreb was made the capital of Croatia in 1991, the same year that the country became independent.