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Krakow is one of the largest and oldest cities in Poland, with a population of 756,336 in 2007 (1,403,247 in the Kraków-Tarnów sub-region). Situated on the Vistula river (Polish: Wisła) in the Lesser Poland region, the city dates back to the 7th century. It was the capital of Poland from 1038 to 1596, the capital of the Grand Duchy of Kraków from 1846 to 1918, and the capital of Kraków Voivodeship from the 14th century to 1999. It is now the capital of the Lesser Poland Voivodeship.

Kraków has traditionally been one of the leading centres of Polish scientific, cultural and artistic life. As the former national capital with a history encompassing more than a thousand years, the city remains the spiritual heart of Poland. It is a major attraction for local and international tourists, attracting seven million visitors annually. Famous landmarks include the Main Market Square with St. Mary's Basilica and the Sukiennice Cloth Hall, the Wawel Castle, the National Art Museum, the Zygmunt Bell at the Wawel Cathedral, and the medieval St Florian's Gate with the Barbican along the Royal Coronation Route. In 1978, UNESCO added Kraków's historic centre, which includes the Old Town, Kazimierz and the Wawel Castle to the list of World Heritage Sites.

Archaeological evidence suggests that a settlement had been established in the Stone Age on the present site of the Wawel Hill. A legend attributes its founding to the mythical ruler Krakus, who built it above a cave occupied by a ravenous dragon, Smok Wawelski. Many knights unsuccessfully attempted to oust the dragon by fighting it, but Krakus fed it a poisoned breakfast, which killed the dragon. He then was able to build the city on top of the hill. The bones are displayed at the entrance of the Wawel Cathedral. The first written record of the city's name dates back to 966, when a Sephardi Jewish traveller, Abraham ben Jacob, described Kraków as a notable commercial centre.

By the end of the 10th century, the city was a leading trading centre, incorporated into the holdings of the Piast dynasty. Brick buildings were constructed, including the Wawel Castle, Romanesque churches such as St. Adalbert's, a cathedral, and a basilica. The city was almost entirely destroyed during the Tatar invasions of 1241, 1259 and 1287. It was rebuilt and incorporated in 1257, based on the Magdeburg law, with tax benefits and trade privileges for its citizens. The city again rose to prominence in 1364, when Casimir III of Poland founded the University of Kraków, the second oldest university in central Europe after the University of Prague. The city continued to grow under the joint Lithuanian-Polish Jagiellon dynasty (1386–1572). As the capital of a powerful state and a member of the Hanseatic League, the city attracted many craftsmen, businesses, and guilds as science and the arts began to flourish.

The 15th and 16th centuries were known as Poland's Złoty Wiek, the Golden Age. Many works of Polish Renaissance art and architecture were created there during that time, including ancient synagogues in Kraków's Jewish quarter of Kazimierz, such as the renown Old Synagogue. During the reign of Casimir IV, crowned King of Poland in 1447, numerous artists, from as far as Nuremberg and Italy, came to work and live in Kraków. The king's children were taught by an Italian humanist, Filip Callimachus. In 1488, the Holy Roman Emperor's Poet Laureate Conrad Celtes founded the Sodalitas Litterarum Vistulana (Vistula Literary Society), which was based on Roman Academies. In 1489, sculptor Veit Stoss finished his work on the High Altar of the St. Mary's Church, followed by a marble sarcophagus for King Casimir IV. Johann Haller established a printing press in the city after Kasper Straube had printed the Calendarium Cracoviense, the first work printed in Poland, in 1473.

In 1520, the most famous church bell in Poland, named Zygmunt after Sigismund I of Poland, was cast by Hans Behem. At that time, Hans Dürer, a younger brother of Albrecht Dürer, was Sigismund's court painter. Hans von Kulmbach made altarpieces for several churches. In 1572, King Sigismund II, the last of the Jagiellons, died childless. The Polish throne passed to Henry III of France and then to other foreign-based rulers in rapid succession, causing a decline in the city's importance that was worsened by pillaging during the Swedish invasion and by an outbreak of plague that left 20,000 of the city's residents dead. In 1596, Sigismund III, of the Swedish House of Vasa, moved the capital of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth from Kraków to Warsaw.

Already weakened during the 18th century, by mid-1790 the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth had been twice partitioned by its neighbors: Russia, the Habsburg empire, and Prussia. In 1794, Tadeusz Kościuszko initiated an unsuccessful insurrection in the town's Main Square that resulted in the third partition of Poland. Kraków became part of the Austrian province of Galicia.

In 1809, Napoleon Bonaparte captured former Polish territories from Austria and made the town part of the Duchy of Warsaw, an independent, though subordinate, Polish state ruled by the King of Saxony, Frederick Augustus I. Following Napoleon's defeat in Russia, the Congress of Vienna in 1815 mostly restored earlier structures, although it also created the partially independent Free City of Kraków.

As in 1794, the city again became the center of an insurrection, the Kraków Uprising of 1846, which failed to spread outside the city and was put down. Again, it resulted in an annexation by Austria, on 16 November 1846. The former Free City region became the Grand Duchy of Cracow (German: Großherzogtum Krakau, Polish: Wielkie Księstwo Krakowskie).

In 1866, Austria granted a degree of autonomy to Galicia after the Austro-Prussian War. As this form of Austrian rule was more benevolent than that exercised either by the Russian Empire in Congress Poland or by Prussia, Kraków became a Polish national symbol and a center of culture and art, sometimes known in Polish as Polskie Ateny ("Polish Athens"), to which Poles would flock to revere the symbols and monuments of Poland's past. Several important celebrations took place in Galicia during the period from 1866 to 1914, including the 500th anniversary of the Battle of Grunwald in 1910. Many leading Polish artists of that period resided in Kraków, among them the seminal painter Jan Matejko, and the founder of modern Polish drama, Stanisław Wyspiański.

Fin de siècle Kraków evolved into a modern metropolis; running water and electric streetcars were introduced in 1901, and between 1910 and 1915, Kraków and surrounding suburban communities were gradually combined into a single administrative unit called Greater Kraków (Wielki Kraków).

At the outbreak of World War I on August 3, 1914, Józef Piłsudski formed a small cadre military unit, the First Cadre Company—the predecessor of the Polish Legions—which set out from Kraków to fight for the liberation of Poland. The city was briefly besieged by Russian troops in November 1914, but they were pushed back afterwards. The Austrian rule in Kraków ended on 31 October 1918, when the Polish Liquidation Committee assumed power.

With the emergence of the Second Polish Republic, Kraków restored its role as a major academic and cultural centre with the establishment of new universities such as the AGH University of Science and Technology and the Jan Matejko Academy of Fine Arts, including a number of new and essential vocational schools. It became an important cultural centre for Polish Jews and had a Zionist youth movement that was relatively strong among the city's Jewish population. However, after invading Poland in September 1939, the Nazi German forces turned the town into the capital of the General Government, a colonial authority headed by Hans Frank and seated in Wawel Castle.

In an operation called "Sonderaktion Krakau", more than 180 university professors and academics were arrested and sent to Sachsenhausen and Dachau concentration camps, though the survivors were later released on the request of prominent Italians. The Jewish population was first confined to a ghetto and later murdered or sent to concentration camps, including Płaszów and Auschwitz in Oświęcim.

Kraków remained relatively undamaged at the end of World War II. Allegedly Germans planned to destroy it with massive amounts of explosives,but according to the most popular of several versions of the story, Soviet Marshal Ivan Konev, after being informed by the Polish patriots of the German plan, tried to preserve Kraków from destruction by ordering a lightning attack on the city. The credibility of these accounts has been recently questioned by Polish historian Andrzej Chwalba, who in his recent works finds no evidence for any German plan of massive destruction and portrays Konev's strategy as ordinary, only accidentally resulting in reduced damage to Kraków, a fact that was later exaggerated into the myth of "Konev, savior of Kraków" by Soviet propaganda.

After the war, under the Stalinist regime the intellectual and academic community of Kraków was put under total political control. The universities were soon deprived of their printing rights as well as their autonomy. The communist government of the People's Republic of Poland ordered construction of the country's largest steel mill in the newly-created suburb of Nowa Huta. The creation of the giant Lenin Steelworks (now Sendzimir Steelworks owned by Mittal) sealed Kraków's transformation from a university city to an industrial centre.

The new working class, drawn by the industrialization of the city, contributed to its rapid population growth. Also, in an effort that spanned two decades, Karol Wojtyła, cardinal archbishop of Kraków, successfully lobbied for permission to build the first churches in the new industrial suburbs.

November 2006

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