Gdansk - Millennial

Michael Leech commemorates the 1,000th birthday of Gdansk.

'May you live a thousand years', spits a vengeful harpy at a rival in an eighteenth century comedy. The problem with birthdays is that as one gets uglier and older they become more painful and less easy to celebrate. Human life is but short when compared to that: of cities, and unlike humans they can resurface themselves with new beauty.

Not often does a really big birthday occur, however, such as this year's at Canterbury, and in 1997 that city must share glory with a venerable Polish port on the Baltic Sea For 1997 is also a star date for Gdansk. The city of shipyards, of the Teutonic knights, of the black towers of granaries, of the birth of Solidarity in 1980, is 1000 years old this month.

As a settlement at a focus of trade routes and cultures, Gdansk was presumably even then a well established infant settlement, yet the first time we hear of it is 997 Then a bishop voyaging in the train of Prince Boleslaw the Brave conducted a mass baptism in the port town, or urbs, without realising he was marking an official birth too. The date appears in the writings of the scribe Johannis Cannaparius, a Benedicte monk, who dutifully recorded Gdansk as having been visited by Bishop Adalbert.

As a part the city has always attracted foreign visitors and settlers – Germans, Slavs and Scandinavians were among its earliest residents. It figures in old maps as Dansicum, or Danzig, threaded through by rivers and defended with a star burst of Vauban-like fortifying walls. Its old centre is still a place of high, spires and wide squares, tall gabled houses and impressive towers.

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