Amsterdam: a concise history lesson

The Royal Palace at Dam Square. Beeld Shutterstock

Did you know that the name ‘Aemstelredamme’ was derived from the dam that was built in the Amstel during the 12th century, protecting the village from the rising waters of the IJ? You do now.

Where does the name Amsterdam derive from?

The name ‘Aemstelredamme’ or ‘dam in the Amstel’ was derived from the dam that was built in the Amstel during the 12th century, protecting the village from the rising waters of the IJ, which was directly connected to sea at the time. Count Floris the Fifth declared inhabitants of ‘Aemstelredamme’ to be exempted from paying a bridge toll to the county of Holland. Back then, the city was nothing more than a small fishermen’s village on the banks of the river Amstel.

The Amsterdam 'Canal Ring’. Beeld Shutterstock

What was the meaning of the ‘Golden Age’ for Amsterdam?

The Dutch Golden Age, with Amsterdam as its epicentre, spans roughly the 17th century. It was a period during which Dutch trade, military, culture and science flourished. 

During these years, Amsterdam developed into an international harbour and became a centre of migration in Western Europe. The city’s population sprawled in this period and grew from 59,551 in 1600 to 235,224 inhabitants in 1700.

The UNESCO World Heritage site, the ‘Grachtengordel’ or Canal Ring, was built in this age as part of one of the world’s first large-scale urban planning projects. Among the multiple sights that are reminiscent of this era, are the former town hall on Dam Square and the Rembrandthuis, one of the houses in which Rembrandt van Rijn – painter of the Night Watch – spent his life.

Did the city enjoy other ‘Golden Ages’?

Unclear: In 2017 former mayor Eberhard van der Laan, who passed away later that year, claimed that the city had already been enjoying a third Golden Age for a couple of years. He referred to the city’s thriving economy that continuously draws both expats and Dutch people alike to the city. Amsterdam has become the home of multiple online giants, such as Booking.com, who have their headquarters in the city.

The Booking.com office in Amsterdam. Beeld ANP

Was this the city’s final Golden Age?

Unclear: In 2017 former mayor Eberhard van der Laan, who passed away later that year, claimed that the city had already been enjoying a third Golden Age for a couple of years. He referred to the city’s thriving economy that continuously draws both expats and Dutch people alike to the city. Amsterdam has become the home of multiple online giants, such as Booking.com, who have their headquarters in the city. 

Amsterdam has a roaring startup scene and with the prospect of the European Medicine Agency moving to Amsterdam from London, the future looks bright. The city’s exciting museums, restaurants, sights and its tolerant image attract both domestic and international tourists. 

There is, however, a downside to these benefits. In 2018, the new municipal government and mayor Femke Halsema faced urgent questions on how to deal with the challenges caused by this economic boom. Among these are a vast shortage of affordable housing and the implications of mass tourism. 

In 2030, Amsterdam is expected to welcome 32 million visitors, roughly doubling 2017’s 21 million visitors. Inhabitants of the city centre continuously raise their concerns about their privacy and feeling at home in their neighbourhoods.

The world's first gay marriage in Amsterdam in 2001. Beeld ANP

What causes Amsterdam’s tolerant image?

The image of Amsterdam as the ‘city where anything is possible’ is traditionally claimed to date back to the Dutch Golden Age, during which Amsterdam became a centre for free press in Western Europe and drew many migrants, along with Portuguese Jews and Eastern Europeans. Contemporary scholars of history raise questions about this so-called ‘tolerance’, but the myth stands strong.

This has everything to do with the 1960s, when crowds of young hippies were drawn to the city to celebrate the ‘Magical Centre’ of the world. They slept in the Vondelpark, gathered at the National Monument at Dam Square and experimented with soft drugs, which were reluctantly tolerated by the city’s administration. The city’s pragmatic approach to sex work and the fact that the world’s first gay marriage was executed by former mayor Job Cohen in 2001, complete the image.

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