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Old Town in Warsaw

The origins of Warsaw date back to the 13th century, when the Dukes of Mazovia left the castle in Jazdow (currently the location of the Ujazdowski Palace) to establish a new seat on the high escarpment on the Vistula River, where the Royal Castle is situated today. Surrounded by earthwork ramparts – soon to be replaced with stone-walled ones – the settlement comprised a Medieval town with a regular network of streets intersecting at right angles and a rectangular market place in the centre. Favourable topographical conditions and progressive construction of roads contributed to the development of the town. Warsaw’s role as the capital began in 1596, when King Sigismund III Vasa relocated the Royal Court from Cracow to Warsaw. The late 17th century and the 18th century were the times of the city’s greatest splendour.

Following the partitions of Poland, Warsaw lost its prominent role as a capital of an independent state and came under first the Prussian and then the Russian rule. The city sprang back to life when Poland regained its independence in 1918. In the interwar period, the Old Town was refurbished and the tenements surrounding the market square were decorated with murals. Unfortunately, these survived only until 1944, when the Old Town was razed to the ground as a result of combat during Warsaw Uprising, followed by a deliberate action by the German occupiers. The decision to rebuild Warsaw was taken as early as January 1945; a month later Warsaw Reconstruction Office (BOS) was established, including the Department of Historic Architecture. The reconstruction of Warsaw lasted until 1953. The magnitude of the work proved unparalleled on the world scale. Both the Old Town and Warsaw at large owe their current urban landscape to two decrees: one – on reconstruction of the city, the other – on municipalisation of real property in Warsaw. The Old Town was marked out as a residential area, a role it performs to this day. Reconstruction uncovered Gothic and Renaissance architectural features hidden under the late Baroque elements. Ultimately it was decided that the Old Town would be restored to its splendour of the second half of the 18th century. At the same time, the historical division of the frontage, dating back to Medieval times, was retained. The doctrine of reconstruction precludes large-scale restoration, whether full or partial. However, an exception was made for Warsaw’s Old Town, as its reconstruction followed so closely from the nation’s urge to restore the heart of the city, and, more broadly, the magnificence of the Polish capital.

The Old Town along with the Royal Castle and St. John’s Cathedral are witnesses to the history of the city and the country. What is today St. John’s Cathedral was the venue of the lawsuit against the Order of the Teutonic Knights at the turn of 1338 and 1339, while St. Martin’s Church held Mazovian Diets until 1529. In the same year, the first General Diet to be held in Warsaw was convened by King Sigismund the Old at the Royal Castle, initiating the General Diets of the Kingdom of Poland and Grand Duchy of Lithuania, the two constituent countries of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. It was the Royal Castle again that hosted the Polish Diet (called the Sejm) which passed the Compact of Warsaw of 1573 – the world’s first law whereby freedom and equality of all religions was guaranteed. And in 1791, the first democratic constitution in Europe – the Constitution of 3 May – was sworn in there. Finally, the Commission for National Education, considered the first ministry of education in Europe, had its seat in the nearby Jesuit street.

The Royal Castle, although reduced to ruins by the Nazis in 1939 and eventually blown up in 1944, was not rebuilt for many years for political reasons, and until 1989 the word “Warsaw” featured in its official name instead of “Royal”. The castle was rebuilt, with great piety and commitment, only in the years 1975–1984. Currently, the Castle serves as museum; it also acts as “the salon of the Republic”. At its fourth session in Paris in September 1980, the World Committee of UNESCO decided that the historic centre of Warsaw be inscribed onto the UNESCO world cultural heritage list. Warsaw’s Old Town was registered onto the list as only the 30th entry. The decision was adopted in recognition of the inner strength and determination of the nation who successfully accomplished a near-holistic reconstruction – on a scale unique in the history of the world – of the city, deliberately and completely wiped out by the Nazis. In September 2010 Warsaw will celebrate the 30th anniversary of the entry of the Old Town onto the UNESCO world cultural heritage list.

Urszula Zielińska-Meissner
Heritage Protection Department