For centuries Riga has been a strategic centre linking eastern and western countries. Always coveted by stronger neighbours, the city’s history forms a rich tapestry of wars, sieges, blockades and armistices.
The city’s birth in the 11th and 12th centuries is a chronicle of intrigue, and a brief chronology highlights some notable periods in the city’s evolution since the 13th century, when the Daugava became an important trading route. Riga’s first permanent settlements appeared on the banks of the small Riga River.
The Letts, who were Indo-European Balts, arrived around BC 2500 and gradually assimilated the Finno-Ugric Livs who had settled since 6000 BC. In ancient times, trade links (involving amber) existed with the Mediterranean world. By the 9th Century AD, trade routes and trade centres had developed with the river Daugava as an important link in the route from the Baltic Sea Region to the Black Sea.
In 1201, German crusaders brought Christianity and were followed by traders, and a land owning class. Folklore has it that in the Spring of 1200, the then Pope declared a crusade against the Livonia peoples.
Bishop Albert, a representative, arrived with knights and a battalion of 23 ships, negotiating with the local elders and chiefs throughout the Summer. how in the Autumn, chiefs from other regions arrived as guests of the bishop. When the feast was at its peak, the bishop secretly ordered all outer walls and windows to be closed.
He then declared to all those invited that they were his captives and unless they yielded to his will would be shackled and exiled. The bishop demanded that all land near the Riga settlements be given to him and his people. On receiving a promise from all chiefs, he set them free, but took with him thirty of their sons as hostages back to Germany.
Riga began to expand soon after. Ports, cities and agriculture were developed. In 1282, Riga joined the Hanseatic League; and in the decades that followed, seven more Latvian towns joined the League. In the following centuries, Swedes, Poles and Russians have been present in Latvia or in parts of its territory. With the Great Northern War of 1700-1721 between Sweden and Russia, Tsar Peter gained control of the Eastern Baltic.
Throughout these centuries, agriculture, trade and as of the 19th century also industry developed, making Latvia, and especially Riga, at times a prosperous territory.
Nature and culture – especially music and songs – are very important in the life of Latvians. The country has had several composers who took their inspiration from folk music. Also literature has been flourishing. Works of painters and sculptors, including contemporary artists, can be admired and bought in the many galleries of Riga. In the early Nineteen hundreds, many Art-Nouveau buildings were erected in Riga. Today most of them can still be admired, some of them beautifully restored.
A Chronology of Riga