The first written reference to Ljubljana as the town of Laibach appeared in 1144, but the area had been inhabited for at least three millennia before then. An infertile bog to the south of the present city was settled during the Bronze Age by marsh dwellers who lived in round huts built on stilts. These early people – mostly hunters and fisherfolk – were followed by the Illyrians and, sometime in the 4th century BC, by the Celts, who established themselves along the Ljubljanica River.
The first important settlement in the area, however, came with the arrival of the Romans who built a military camp here in around 50 BC. Within a hundred years, what had become known as Emona was a thriving town of 5000 inhabitants and a strategic crossroad on the routes linking Upper Pannonia in the south with the Roman colonies at Noricum and Aquileia to the north and west. Legacies of the Roman presence – remnants of walls, dwellings and early churches – can still be seen throughout Ljubljana.
Emona was sacked and destroyed by the Huns, Ostrogoths and Langobards (Lombards) from the mid-5th century, but the ‘Ljubljana gate’ remained an important crossing point between east and west. Tribes of early Slavs settled here at the end of the 6th century.
Ljubljana changed hands frequently in the Middle Ages. The last and most momentous change came in 1335, when the Habsburgs became the town’s new rulers. Except for a brief interlude in the early 19th century, they would remain the city’s (and the nation’s) masters until the end of WWI in 1918.
The town and its hilltop castle were able to repel the Turks in the late 15th century, but a devastating earthquake in 1511 reduced much of the medieval Ljubljana to rubble. This led to a period of frantic construction in the 17th and 18th centuries that provided Ljubljana with many of its pale-coloured baroque churches and mansions – and the nickname ‘Bela (White) Ljubljana’. The most important engineering feat was the building of a canal to the south and east of Castle Hill in the late 18th century that regulated the flow of the Ljubljanica and prevented flooding.
When Napoleon established his Illyrian Provinces in 1809 in a bid to cut Habsburg Austria’s access to the Adriatic, he made Ljubljana the capital; Austrian rule was restored in 1813. In 1821 members of the Holy Alliance (Austria, Prussia, Russia and Naples) met at the Congress of Laibach to discuss measures to suppress the democratic revolutionary and national movements in Italy.
Railways linked Ljubljana with Vienna and Trieste in 1849 and 1857, stimulating economic development of the town. Not long after the Ljubljana Tobacco Factory was established in 1871 it was employing 2500 people. By then this city had become the centre of Slovenian nationalism under Austrian rule. But in 1895 another, more powerful earthquake struck, forcing the city to rebuild once again. To Ljubljana’s great benefit, the Secessionist and Art Nouveau styles were all the rage in Central Europe at the time, and many of the wonderful buildings erected then still stand.
During WWII Ljubljana was occupied by the Italians and then the Germans, who encircled the city with a barbed-wire fence creating, in effect, an urban concentration camp. Ljubljana became the capital of the Socialist Republic of Slovenia within Yugoslavia in 1945 and remained the capital after Slovenia’s independence in 1991. Today, Ljubljana is the nation’s largest and most vibrant city.