Wherever you are in Amsterdam, look around and try to imagine the scene a thousand years ago. What would there be in place of the meticulously lain cobbles and postcard-perfect ridges? Chances are, there would be little more than a boggy wasteland. One of the city’s many famous landmarks would be recognisable, however: namely, the Amstel River. Nothing much of note happened here until around the 12th century, when intrepid people from the North came floating down the river in hollowed-out logs. The ground being too soggy to build on, they dug a structure of dykes and ditches – the very first of which is commemorated by Dam square. These enterprising ‘Aemstelledammers’, as they became known, began levying toll money from passing beer and herring traders, and quickly became expert boat builders themselves, attracting yet more attention to the emerging town.
In 1275, Count Floris of Holland formalised these activities by granting special toll privileges to the merchant town, and in 1300 Amsterdam got its first charter. It was also around this time that the first church – the core of today’s Oude Kerk – was consecrated.
As the historian Fred Feddes notes in the introduction to his book A Millennium of Amsterdam, the Amstel was never going to be a body of water to rival the Thames or the Danube. It wasn’t even the most impressive waterway in this land, and yet the rights and privileges awarded to the city of Amsterdam ensured that it would become by far the most important. The spirit of commerce has always played a crucial role in shaping Amsterdam, which is a city built on trade like no other. What’s more, the importance of trade ensured a certain degree of religious freedom, nurturing the pragmatic tolerance for which Amsterdam is still famed. By accepting differences where other societies tried to quash them, Amsterdam turned diversity to its advantage, fuelling an economic miracle that would make it the envy of Europe.
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