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The Warsaw Voice » Culture » April 8, 2009
Book Review
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Cracow and What Makes It Tick
April 8, 2009   
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Why was Poland's former capital Cracow once known as "the Polish Rome"? Is it true that one of the biggest fires in Cracow's history was put out using watering cans? What is the secret behind the huge bones hanging outside the entrance to the city's Wawel Cathedral?

The answers to these questions and more can be found in A History of Kraków for Everyone, a new book in English by Polish historian Jan Marian Małecki, an expert on the history of Polish cities. A history professor, Małecki has written and co-authored more than 200 scientific works-including the monumental history of Cracow in Polish, entitled Dzieje Krakowa-and won a string of awards and prizes.

A History of Kraków for Everyone traces the city's history from prehistoric times to the fall of communism in 1989, making for a fine piece of reading, peppered with curiosities, anecdotes and quotes from various sources. The book recounts the most important events in Cracow's history, profiles its most colorful characters, and outlines key circumstances that have shaped the city's development.

Mentioned for the first time in historical sources in 965/966 by Arab merchant Ibrahim ibn Yaqub, Cracow was the capital of Poland from 1038 to 1791. In the 11th century Cracow's Wawel Royal Castle was the residence of the first Polish kings of the Piast dynasty. The city began gradually losing its political importance in favor of the centrally located Warsaw after Poland united with Lithuania in 1569. Cracow found itself on the periphery of the Commonwealth of Two Nations. From 1609 onward, when King Sigismund III (1587-1632), the first Polish king of the Vasa dynasty, decided to transfer his seat to Warsaw, successive kings, after their coronation in Cracow, chose to reside in Warsaw, where the country's political center moved with them.

Cracow's heyday was in the late 15th century and early 16th century when it was the key metropolis of a vast and prosperous kingdom stretching from the Black Sea to the Baltic Sea. The Jagiellon family forged a powerful Central European dynasty, and Cracow became the leading city in this part of Europe. The Renaissance, inspired by Italian, German and Dutch centers of culture, was in full bloom at the time. After the death of King Sigismund Augustus (1520-1572), the last ruler of the Jagiellon family, Cracow's golden age came to an end.

Throughout the 18th century the city suffered a series of sieges, foreign occupations and plunders. After Russia, Prussia and Austria invaded and divided Poland between themselves in the second half the century, the latter empire took over Cracow. The city remained part of the Austrian empire until 1918, when Poland regained its independence.

Unlike Warsaw, Cracow survived World War II almost intact, and retained its status as Poland's second most important city, vying with Warsaw for cultural supremacy throughout the remainder of the century. In 1978, Cracow's Old Town district was added to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) list of World Heritage Sites as a monument of world culture. Today Cracow, with a population of more than 700,000, is the third largest city in the country, after Warsaw and ŁódĽ.

As the author writes in the foreword, A History of Kraków for Everyone is not a scientific treatise, though it aims to offer information reflecting the most up-to-date knowledge about the city. The emphasis is on the events, people and places that proved decisive to the evolution of the city and its residents.

To give a clear picture of the issues and events described, Małecki points to their links with surviving historical relics, both those widely known and those of which visitors are often unaware as they go about the city. The book also describes legends related to the city's history, yet the author is careful in establishing their relationship with historical truth.

This angle on the city's history is designed to stimulate greater interest and enable those who come to Cracow from outside Poland and are won over by the city's beauty to learn a little more about its past. As the publisher puts it, the book is a must-read for all tourists and lovers of Cracow who want to learn more about what makes the city tick.

G.S.

A History of Kraków for Everyone, in English; with a chronicle of major events and an index of names; written by Jan Marian Małecki; translated by Jessica Taylor-Kucia; illustrated by Ignacy Czwartos; published by Wydawnictwo Literackie, Cracow 2008; 297 pp.
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