The Old Port in Gdansk

Already I have posted many photos on this beautiful spot, but actually never recalling its history. In fact, this place is one of my favorites to spend leisure time in Poland, just to walk around, enjoy good food and make many beautiful photos. It is indeed very photogenic, no matter the season or time of the day. But the Old Port in Gdansk, known as the Main City, is also about its history. It has been an important center of maritime trade and commerce since the Middle Ages.

Motława river or channel is the main water artery of the Old Port of Gdańsk. On the right hand side the Granary Island that you can see on one of the photos below.

The earliest written records of the port date back to the Xth century, when it was known as Gedanum. At that time, it was a small fishing village located at the mouth of the Motława River, which flows into the Baltic Sea. At that time, Gdańsk was incorporated into the Piast-ruled Polish state, as part of the Pomeranian region. Under Piast rule till XIVth century, Gdańsk was granted a series of charters and privileges that helped to promote its growth and development. These included the right to self-government, the establishment of a merchant guild, and the ability to levy taxes and duties on goods passing through the port.

One of the most significant periods in Gdańsk history was its time under the rule of the Teutonic Knights, who took control of the city in the XIVth century. The Teutonic Knights were a Germanic religious order, who played a major role in the Christianization and colonization of Eastern Europe. The Knights constructed numerous fortifications, and they established a network of warehouses, docks, and markets to support the city’s growing trade. The relationship between Gdańsk and the Teutonic Order was often contentious, with the city asserting its independence and autonomy.

In the same time, around the year 1361 Gdańsk joined the Hanseatic League. The Hanseatic League was a commercial and defensive confederation of merchant guilds and market towns in Northern Europe. The league was formed in the late XIIth and early XIIIth centuries. Its member cities, known as Hanseatic cities were located along the coast of the Baltic Sea and North Sea (port cities) and also in the hinterland (merchant cities). The Hanseatic League was established to protect the interests of its member cities and promote trade and commerce between them. The League’s center of power was the German city of Lübeck, which served as the Hansa headquarters and hosted the meetings of the Hanseatic Diet, the League’s central governing body.

During the Hanseatic era, the port of Gdańsk was a major center of trade and commerce in Northern Europe. The most important commodity traded in Gdańsk was grain, which was exported from Poland and other parts of the region to markets throughout Europe. Other important goods included timber, which was harvested from the vast forests of Poland and transported down the Vistula River to the port of Gdańsk, where it was processed and shipped to markets throughout Europe. Another important commodity was salt, which was produced in mines in southern Poland. The city also traded in other goods such as furs, honey, wax, fish, and amber, which was mined from the Baltic Sea.

Yet another view on Motława river closer to the gateway leading to the current inner port of Gdańsk. You can however reach the open sea navigating in both directions.

Goods were transported to the port of Gdańsk via land and waterways, including the Vistula River, which was an important transport artery in Poland. In the Middle Ages, transport on the Vistula River was primarily done by boat, either by sail or by oar. The boats were often flat-bottomed and shallow-drafted, in order to navigate the relatively shallow waters of the river. The Vistula River was also navigable by rafts and barges. These were large, also flat-bottomed vessels that were used to transport bulk goods such as timber or grain. They were typically towed by horses or oxen, which would walk along the river bank and pull the vessel along the waterway.

As other merchant cities, Gdańsk has a tradition of merchant guilds. One of the earliest merchant guilds in Gdańsk was the Brotherhood of St. George, which was established in the XIVth century. This guild was primarily made up of German merchants, and it played an important role in the city’s trade with other Hanseatic cities and beyond. Other important guilds in Gdańsk included the Brotherhood of St. Mary, which was founded in the early 15th century and was composed mainly of local merchants and craftsmen, and the Guild of Newcomers, which was established in the late 16th century and was open to merchants who were not originally from Gdańsk. Membership in these guilds was highly sought after, as it conferred a number of benefits and privileges, including access to the city’s markets, the ability to participate in the governance of the city, and protection from competition and other economic threats.

Arthus Court (Dwór Artusa) is a historic building located in the heart of the Old Town. It was constructed in the late 14th century and served as a meeting place for wealthy merchants, who would gather to socialize, negotiate business deals, and hold lavish banquets. It, among others, was a meeting place for the Brotherhood of St. George

In the early XVth century, Gdańsk and other cities in the region rose up against the Teutonic Order in a series of wars known as the Thirteen Years’ War. The conflict ended in 1466 with the Second Peace of Thorn, which saw Gdańsk and other territories come under the control of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. The treaty also had wider implications for the balance of power, as it shifted the center of gravity in the Baltic region from the Teutonic Order to Poland and Lithuania.

Gradually, also Hanseatic league lost its significance. Nation-states began to emerge and expand their power and influence. European nations became more centralized and began to establish their own trade networks and overseas colonies. Additionally, the increasing competition and conflict between European nations often made it difficult for the league’s member cities to maintain the cooperative relationships that had been the foundation of their success. The league was also affected by internal divisions and conflicts among its member cities. As the league expanded and grew more complex, disagreements over trade policy and other issues sometimes led to rifts and tensions between different member cities, which made it more difficult for the league to function effectively. Gdańsk left the Hanseatic League in 1603, although it continued to maintain close economic ties with other Hanseatic cities such as Lübeck, Hamburg, and Bremen. The formal dissolution of the Hanseatic League is generally considered to have taken place in the mid-XVIIth century, when the league’s last trading post in England was closed.

Motława river in the other direction. On the left hand side you can see the Baltic Philharmonic and other contemporary buildings located on Ołowianka, another island located at the Motława river. In the past, Ołowianka Island was an important center for the production of lead, which gave the island its name (Ołowianka means “lead island” in Polish). The island was also used for the storage of goods, including grain and spices. Today, Ołowianka is home to a number of cultural institutions, including besides the philharmonic the Museum of the Second World War and the Museum of the History of Gdańsk. Behind Ołowianka you can see the Granary Island.

Under Polish-Lithuanian rule, Gdańsk retained a degree of autonomy and self-government, but was also subject to Polish royal authority. However, deep-seated tensions and rivalries existed between the city and the Polish state. During the so-called Gdańsk Rebellion of 1576-1577 the city’s burghers rebelled against Polish royal authority and attempted to establish their own independent republic. The rebellion was ultimately suppressed.

The city’s German and Polish populations coexisted and interacted in complex and often uneasy ways, with tensions often arising over issues such as trade policy, language, and religion. During the 16th and 17th centuries, Gdańsk also played an important role in the Protestant Reformation, with many of the city’s residents adopting Lutheran beliefs and practices. The city’s Catholic population, which included Polish and other non-German speakers, often found themselves marginalized and excluded from positions of power and influence within the city’s government and institutions. Tensions between Protestants and Catholics in Gdańsk occasionally boiled over into violence and conflict, with one notable example being the Bloody Christmas of 1577, when a dispute between Catholic and Protestant students at the city’s academic gymnasium led to a violent clash in the streets.

In the XVIIth century, the port of Gdańsk was one of the busiest and most important ports in Europe. Gdańsk provided a vital gateway to the rich markets of the Baltic region, and was a major hub for trade in goods such as grain, timber, furs, and amber. The city’s port facilities underwent significant expansion and modernization, with new wharves, warehouses, and storage facilities constructed to handle the growing volume of trade. The construction of the Vistula bar, a massive artificial sandbar built at the mouth of the river, also helped to improve navigation and protect the port from storms and flooding. Gdańsk economic and commercial importance during this period was reflected in its political and diplomatic status. The city was granted the title of Royal Prussian City by the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, and enjoyed a degree of autonomy and self-government under the king’s protection. However, Gdańsk’s position as a major commercial center also made it vulnerable to political and economic pressures from neighboring powers. The city was frequently caught in the middle of conflicts between Poland-Lithuania, Sweden, and other powers, and its status as a free city and commercial hub was often threatened by shifting political alliances and economic rivalries.

During the early part of XVIII century, Gdańsk’s economic importance was somewhat diminished by the rise of other ports in the region, such as St. Petersburg and Riga. The partitions of Poland-Lithuania, threw Gdańsk into the newly-formed Province of West Prussia, and later in the XIXth century it became part of the German Empire. The partitions of Poland were a series of three partitions in the late 18th century, where the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was divided and annexed by neighboring powers, including Russia, Prussia, and Austria. These partitions ultimately led to the collapse of the Commonwealth and Poland’s disappearance from the map of Europe for over a century.

One of the most prominent landmarks of the Old Port is the Crane, a massive medieval structure that was once used for loading and unloading cargo from ships. Built in the late XIVth century, the Crane is one of the oldest port cranes in Europe.

One notable development in the XVIIIth century was the growth of the city’s shipbuilding industry. Gdańsk had a long tradition of shipbuilding, dating back to the Middle Ages, but that time the industry underwent a period of significant expansion and modernization. Shipyards such as those operated by the Dutch-born shipbuilder Anthony van Hoboken became important employers in the city, and helped to establish Gdańsk as a major center of shipbuilding in Northern Europe.

During the first half of the XIXth century, Gdańsk economy still was dominated by the grain trade, with the city serving as a major center for the export of Polish and Lithuanian wheat and rye to Western Europe. However, the construction of new rail links and the opening of other ports in the region gradually eroded Gdańsk dominance. The Old Port had been an important center of maritime trade and commerce for centuries, but on the edge of XiXth and XXth century, its narrow and winding waterways were no longer suitable for modern shipping. Instead, new port facilities were built in the northern part of the city, including the Westerplatte and Oliwa docks, which had deeper water and more space to handle larger ships. These new facilities allowed the port of Gdańsk to continue to grow and develop, and to remain an important center of trade and commerce in the region. The Old Port in Gdańsk was closed to maritime trade in the early XXth century.

Gdańsk has a long history of trading in grains. One of the most famous clusters of granaries in Gdańsk is located on Granary Island (Wyspa Spichrzów) you can see on the right in the photo. The granaries on Wyspa Spichrzów were built in the 16th and 17th centuries. Unfortunately they had been destroyed in the World War II. Today, many of the granaries on Wyspa Spichrzów have been restored and converted into apartment blocks, hotels with restaurants at lower floors.

The Old Port in Gdansk