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Lhasa rose to prominence as an important administrative centre in the 7th century AD, when Songtsen Gampo (c 618–49), a local ruler in the Yarlung Valley, continued the task initiated by his father of unifying Tibet. Songtsen Gampo moved his capital to Lhasa and built a palace on the site now occupied by the Potala. At this time the temples of Ramoche and the Jokhang were established to house Buddha images brought to Tibet as the dowries of Songtsen Gampo’s Chinese and Nepali wives.

With the break-up of the Yarlung empire 250 years later, Buddhism enjoyed a gradual resurgence at monastic centres outside Lhasa and the centre of power shifted to Sakya, Nedong (Ü) and then Shigatse (Tsang). No longer the capital, Lhasa now languished in the backwaters of Tibetan history until the fifth Dalai Lama (1617–82) defeated the Shigatse kings with Mongol support.

The fifth Dalai Lama moved his capital to Lhasa. He built his palace, the Potala, on the site of the ruins of Songtsen Gampo’s 7th-century palace. Lhasa has remained Tibet’s capital since 1642, and most of the city’s historical sights date from this second stage of the city’s development.

Modern Lhasa in many ways provides the visitor with both the best and the worst of contemporary Tibet. Photographs of the city taken before October 1950 reveal a small town nestled at the foot of the Potala and linked by an avenue to another cluster of residences in the area of the Jokhang. The population of the city before the Chinese takeover is thought to have been between 20, 000 and 30, 000. Today the city has a population of around 500, 000, and Chinese residents easily outnumber ­Tibetans, perhaps 2:1.

Shöl, the village at the foot of the Potala, has all but disappeared, and the old West Gate, through which most people entered the Holy City, was torn down during the Cultural Revolution to be replaced by a smaller, modern version in 1995. The area in front of the Potala has been made into a Tiananmen-style public square, complete with a 35m-tall monument to the ‘liberation’ of Tibet (under constant guard to prevent vandalism). What used to be the Tibetan picnic spot of Gumolingka Island is now a Chinese-style shopping and karaoke complex.

The Tibetan quarter is now an isolated enclave in the eastern end of town, comprising only around 4% of the total area of contemporary Lhasa. Even these lingering enclaves of tradition are under threat despite official protection. Lhasa has probably changed more in the last 20 years than in the thousand years before.