Amsterdam is the capital city of The Netherlands, although the country’s parliament is at The Hague (in Dutch, Den Haag, or ‘s Gravenhage). Amsterdam is a charming old city with tall spires like pepper-pots and tree-lined canals crossed by curved bridges. It is also an important port and business center.
Amsterdam is a city of islands, built in a swamp and joined together by canals. Much of it lies below sea-level. South of the harbour is the older part of the city, which is divided by four canals shaped like the letter C, one inside the other; the outer canal enclosed the town until the end of the 16th century, and is called the Singel (in Dutch this means “gridle”). Smaller canals link the main ones, which explains why Amsterdam is sometimes known as the Venice of the North. The tall houses, dating back to the 17th and 18th centuries, have stone steps leading up to decorated doorways, high, narrow windows, and ornamental gables. Rich merchants once owned these houses, but today many are used as offices.
Main roads lead out over many bridges to the more recent parts of Amsterdam. Plans to extend the city date back to 1610, when pressure for more space led to proposal to build three new semicircular canals. This extension, carried out over the next half century, was a marvelous feat of town planning and engineering. Canals were dug by hand, and the mud, slit, and sand were piled on to banks. Bridges, city walls, and dikes (walls to keep out the sea) were then constructed. Huge quantities of Scandinavian timber were brought in by sea for use as piles, which were driven into the swampy ground to provide firm foundations for the new buildings; 13651 piles were needed for the foundation of the new Town Hall, built in 1746 by the architect Van Campen. (It is now the Royal Palace in the centre of the city).
Amsterdam, originally called Amsteldam, grew out of a medieval fishing village on the banks of River Amstel. It expanded in the 14th century when Dutch merchants began to trade with Baltic ports. Amsterdam’s great trade rival in the 16th century was the Belgian port of Antwerp, which was destroyed by Spanish invaders in 1585. Antwerp’s river was later closed to shipping. Amsterdam, in contrast, was able to withstand the Spanish attack by opening up the dikes and flooding the city. The city profited from Antwerp’s decline, and, between the middle of the 17th and 18th centuries, it became one of the wealthiest cities in Europe and the chief centre for northern European trade in many goods, especially grain. Its ships brought in riches from the East and West Indies, and its diamond industry, introduced to the city by Jewish refugees from Spain via Antwerp, was world famous. The slave trade also contributed to its wealth. Religious refugees from Spain, France, and Belgium, mostly merchants and professional people, were welcomed in Amsterdam. It is estimated that in 1685 the city’s population was about 150,000. art flourished in this period. The Rijksmuseum, the main art museum built in the 19th century, has a large collection of paintings by the great masters of the 17th century, the most famous of whom is Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-69).
In the 18th century, Amsterdam entered a period of decline in fortune, partly due to the silting of the Zuiderzee (now called the IJsselmeer), thus making it inaccessible to larger ships. The city did not become prosperous again until 1876, when a canal was dug between Amsterdam and the North Sea. Sea trade became possible once more. During World War II, the occupying German forces largely destroyed Amsterdam’s port. It was rebuilt after the war, and a new canal, constructed in 1952, now links Amsterdam with the River Rhine. Nevertheless, as a port, Amsterdam today lags far behind Rotterdam, which is one of the world’s busiest. Amsterdam is still am important business centre, and a major tourist attraction. The city has a population of about 10,00,000.