Seventeenth-Century Canal Ring Area of Amsterdam inside the Singelgracht

In the 13th century Amsterdam was a small fishing village on the banks of the Amstel River and its mouth on the IJ, an arm of the Zuiderzee inlet. The name comes from the combination of Amstel and Dam, the latter word indicating a dyke or dam built to hold back the sea. This earth levee was also used to carry traffic and was extended by a bridge over the Amstel, made toll-free by a decision of the Count of Holland, Floris V. Amsterdam was proclaimed a city in 1306, and by the end of the Middle Ages it had become an important centre for maritime trade in northern Holland as its port developed on the river mouth. It mainly traded with the Hanseatic League, which it joined in 1369; but it was Antwerp that still dominated the maritime trade of The Netherlands and the North Sea.

Protected behind its dyke, the city grew around the port and Damplein, but the marshy soil had first to be drained and many houses built on piles. At that time it was restricted inside an initial semi-circular canal, the Singel, designed both for drainage and for military defence. In 1452 a fire destroyed almost all the city’s timber-framed buildings, and brick became the most common material for rebuilding the city. The city built fortifications along the Singel at the end of the 15th century.

This was a long-term programme that involved extending the city by draining the swampland, using a system of canals in concentric arcs and filling in the intermediate spaces. These spaces allowed the development of a homogeneous urban ensemble including gabled houses and numerous monuments. This urban extension was the largest and most homogeneous of its time. It was a model of large-scale town planning, and served as a reference throughout the world until the 19th century.

Since 2010 it is a Unesco site.

Thanks to Luca for this postcard.

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Thanks to Giuseppe for the postcard.

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