The Canal Belt
Ask a random person to say what comes to mind when thinking about Amsterdam and many will answer "The Canals". The city indeed owes a lot of its typical charm to the presence of lots of canals. During the history of Amsterdam the canals have fulfilled many functions, ranging from defensive structures to transportation canals and even as sewage system. The historical importance of the canal belt is underlined by the fact that it has been designated as UNESCO World Heritage on the 1st of August 2010. In 2013 we celebrated 400 years of existence of the canal belt. The outer canals of the city center were indeed constructed during the 17th century, but Amsterdams' connection with its popular waterways goes back to the early days of the city.
The origins of Amsterdam go back to a small settlement at the estuary of the river Amstel in the IJ. At the location of present-day Damrak used to be the city harbor. We find the oldest constructed canal at the Oudezijds Voorburgwal next to Oude Kerk, which continued in the Nieuwezijds Voorburgwal. This canal used to be the defensive moat at the outside of the city walls. When the population of Amsterdam increased quickly during the 14th century, the city constructed new walls at the outer side of this canal, making the old moat part of the inner city. Along the same principle, the city expanded to construct, and subsequently include, the Oude- en Nieuwe-zijds Achterburgwal and the Singel.
During the Golden Age Amsterdam underwent a phase of explosive growth and in the 17th century it was decided to construct the famous canal belt. From 1600 onwards, the Herengracht, Keizersgracht and Prinsengracht canals were dug, starting from the Brouwersgracht. Initially, these canals ended at present-day Leidsegracht, but during the 1660's they were elongated until the Amstel. In 1680 the canals were further elongated until the Oostelijke Eilanden (Eastern Islands), thereby completing the current shape of the canal belt. Amsterdam didn't expand much further beyond this until the start of the industrial revolution.
During a time when many other large European cities decided to thoroughly renovate their historic center, Amsterdam also had pretentious plans to join in the construction of large squares and boulevards. However, these plans could not be implemented as the city was running low on money, saving most of the historic center of Amsterdam. During later years, a lot of the original canals (about 50%) were still filled in to make place for roads, buildings and parking spots, but the city maintained its characteristic canals.
To finish today's blog I would like to share this beautiful animation, made by the Stadsarchief (City Archives) of Amsterdam. It clearly illustrates the different phases during the construction of the 17th century canal belt. This surely helps to bring the history of Amsterdam a bit to life.
- "Een kleine geschiedenis van Amsterdam" by Geert Mak
Terug naar Spotlight
Below you can leave a comment or share this page