The first traces of Kraków’s existence date from around the 7th century, but the earliest written record of the town dates from 966, when a Sephardic Jewish merchant from Cordova called Abraham ben Jacob (Ibrahim ibn Yaqub) visited and referred to the town in his account as a trade centre called Krakwa.
In 1000 Kraków was made a bishopric and 38 years later the capital of the Piast kingdom. Wawel Castle and several churches were built in the 11th century and the town, which had sprung up initially around Wawel Hill, grew in size and power.
The Tatars burned Kraków almost to the ground in 1241 but by 1257 the new town’s centre had been set on a grid pattern, with a large market square in the middle.
Kraków rose to new prominence in 1364 when King Kazimierz Wielki, a generous patron of art and scholarship, founded the Kraków Academy, what would later be called Jagiellonian University, the second university in central Europe after the University of Prague founded four years earlier.
Kraków’s economic and cultural boom led to a golden age of expansion in the 15th and 16th centuries. Kraków became a member of the Hanseatic League, which attracted craftspeople. Learning and science prospered – Nicolaus Copernicus, who would later develop his heliocentric view of the universe, studied here in the 1490s – and the population passed the 30, 000 mark.
But all was not well in the royal city. In 1596 King Zygmunt III moved the capital to Warsaw, although Kraków remained the place of coronations and burials. The Swedish invasions, beginning in 1655, accelerated the decline; by the end of the following century the city’s population had been reduced to 10, 000. In the Third Partition of Poland (1795), Kraków was made part of the Austrian province of Galicia.
The city enjoyed reasonable cultural and political freedom under the Austrian landlords; by the close of the 19th century it had become a major centre for Polish culture and the spiritual capital of a country that officially no longer existed. The avant-garde artistic and literary movement known as Młoda Polska (Young Poland) was born here in the 1890s, and it was here that a national independence movement originated. The latter would go on to spawn the Polish Legions under the command of Józef Piłsudski.
By the outbreak of WWII the city had 260, 000 inhabitants, 65, 000 of whom were Jews. During the war, Kraków, like all other Polish cities, saw its Jewish citizens herded into a ghetto and transported to Nazi work and extermination camps; most of them would never be seen again. The city was thoroughly looted by Nazis but didn’t experience major combat or bombings. As such, Kraków is virtually the only large Polish city that has retained its old architecture and appearance.
After the war, the communist government moved quickly to open a huge steelworks at the newly created suburb of Nowa Huta, just 10km east of the Old Town, in a bid to break the traditional intellectual and religious framework of the city. The social engineering proved less successful than its unanticipated by-product – ecological disaster. Monuments that had managed to survive invasions by the Tatars, Swedes and Nazis have been gradually eaten away by acid rain and toxic gas.
With the creation of Nowa Huta and other new suburbs after WWII, Kraków trebled in size to become the country’s third-largest city, after Warsaw and Łódź. The historic core, though, has changed little and continues to be the political, administrative and cultural centre of the city.