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History of the City of Zürich

Zürich in prehistoric times

Prehistoric settlements were discovered long ago in Zürich on the banks of the lower part of the lake basin, such as the «Kleiner Hafner» peninsula, the Bauschänzli and the Opera House. The settlements are not uniform and go back as far as the fifth century BC. Only recently, late celtic settlements (from the first century BC) were discovered in the old town. The age of old Celtic Zürich is however cannot be said with any certainty.

The Roman Turicum

After the Romans had conquered the Alps, a military base was built at Lindenhof in 15 BC, marking the beginning of the Roman era in Zürich. An inscription on a grave which dates from the late second century indirectly mentions «Turicum» as the name of the Roman «vicus». It indicates that it was a customs point. Towards the end of the Roman era, shortly after 400 AD, a castle was built on the Lindenhof (in 370 AD, possibly earlier).

Church influence during early Middle Ages

From the early Middle Ages until the middle of the ninth century, almost nothing is known of Zürich's history. The Alemanni, who had already infiltrated the settlement process during what was known as the Barbarian migration, reached the Zürich area in the middle of the sixth century. About the same time that the city came under Frankish Merovingian rule. In the eighth century, the Zürich area was under the aegis of the Carolingians. Ludwig the German, grandson of Charles the Great, built a convent with a great deal of surrounding land at the graves of Felix and Regula (the patron saints of Zürich) in 853. This convent on the left bank of the Limmat was finally finished in 874 – at about the same time that the congregation of Canons was formed in the Grossmünster cathedral. The oldest church in the city is St Peter's, which was thought to have been originally home to a Roman place of worship. Since Carolingian times, there has been a palace on the Lindenhof. Since the middle of the 13th century, the history of the city has been greatly influenced by religious writers.

Zürich becomes a free city

In the 12th century, the city grew due to the good economic situation at the time, with Otto von Freising naming Zürich «nobilissimum Sueviae oppidum». When the house of Zähringen died out in 1218, Zürich became a free city and a parliament is mentioned for the first time in sources. In the 13th century, Zürich's famous city walls were constructed (with building starting in the 1220s), as is illustrated in the city veduta of Jos Murer in 1576. In the 13th century, mendicant orders (the preachers', barefoot, Augustine and Ötenbach cloisters) were formed.

The formal head of the city was the abbess of the cathedral. But her powers, along with those of the city nobility, faded as the city absorbed property rights from the abbey and the provost.

«Guild revolution» and membership of the confederation

During the «guild revolution» of 1336, Rudolf Brun (died in 1360) brought down the ruling merchants' patriciate with the support of the dwindling nobility and the craftsmen. Brun introduced an autocratic regime, and from 1383, two mayors, alternating every six months, governed the city, with the guilds taking over power in the 15th century.

Zürich linked with Uri and Schwyz in autumn 1291, and Brun then concluded the alliance of 1 May 1351 with Lucerne and the states around Lake Lucerne, which with time gradually took on more significance. In the 14th and 15th centuries Zürich established a territory which was virtually the equivalent of the current canton of Zürich, almost exclusively by trade and money-lending. Until the end of the Old Zürich War (1436-1450), the city swayed politically between Austria and the Confederation. During the short guild regime, trade continued to decline with the silk industry completely disappearing and the linen and wool industries also suffering. Zürich became an economically humble city of artisans, although there was still significant grain, salt and iron trading to places beyond the region. The local economy was basically reliant on the surrounding rural hinterland which provides commercial produce. Under the aegis of Hans Waldmann (hung in 1489), Zürich was given the appellation of federal suburb.

Zürich and the Reformation

With Ulrich Zwingli leading the Reformation in Switzerland, 1519 marked a new era in Zürich's history as the efforts of Zwingli and Heinrich Bullinger gave the city European significance. The secular authorities of the city were in total agreement with the ideas behind the Reformation which led to a religious civil war that brought an end to Zürich's status as a suburb. Although the city remained at the head of Protestant Switzerland. In the 16th century, Zürich was a guild city with no tendency towards economic expansion. It was only when refugees such as Protestants from Locarno (1555) and the Huguenots (1685) breathed fresh life into trade and industry (textiles in general and in particular the silk industry).

Cultural heyday in the 18th century

The 17th century saw Zürich move away from being a rural area. The new fortification (begun in 1642) dominated the city until as late as the 1830s. While a new form of textile industry – rural workers in cottage industries – provided a comfortable level of affluence. In the 18th century, Zürich enjoyed a cultural surge through the likes of Johann Jakob Bodmer, Johann Jakob Breitinger, Salomon Gessner and Johann Caspar Lavater. The constitutional status – more or less governed by what was known as the «sworn briefs» – changed little until the Helvetic Revolution of 1798. With the fall of the Ancien Régime, Zürich lost control of the land and its economic privileges, and the city and the canton separated their possessions between 1803 - 1805.

Economic upturn and growth

Until 1869, the 19th century was marked by opposition between the politically privileged city and the rural areas. The liberal representative constitution of 1831 promoted industry, trade and transport for almost four decades. The Alfred Escher era brought with it not only an economic upturn (until the mid-1860s) but also saw Zürich's influence grow in the new federal state. The democratic movement mobilised large swathes of the population from rural Zürich and Winterthur. Escher's system of authoritarian free-market policies collapsed, leading Zürich into a direct democracy. 1833 was the founding of the University of Zürich. Since 1855, Zürich has also been home to the Federal Institute of Technology (ETH). While the 19th century also saw new life breathed into theatre and music scenes, with poet Gottfried Keller writer-in-residence from 1861-1876. Industrialisation led to migration into the cities and to rapid population growth, particularly in the suburbs of Zürich.

The City of Zürich

19 municipalities were politically incorporated in 1893 and 1934. Zürich's population reached its highest in 1962 with a little over 445,000 inhabitants. Since then there has been a shift towards the outlying areas of the agglomeration. In 1989, Zürich still had some 356,000 inhabitants, and a period of stagnation was followed by moderate growth which took the population up to 380,000 by 2008.

Zürich as an economic, scientific and cultural centre

The primary economic significance of Zürich – namely the service sector (banks and insurance, communications, television and tourism) – is increasing due to the close proximity of Zürich Airport. The construction of the S-Bahn suburb train favours the expansion of the agglomeration which has now spread into other cantons. The Üetliberg Tunnel was opened in 2009, which enables the city to be bypassed by motorway to the West and the North. Zürich has also taken on a leading role in terms of science and culture thanks to its broad spectrum of activities. For example Zürich University and ETH, theatre, opera house, concert hall, Swiss museum, art gallery, Rietberg Museum, archives and libraries).

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