Erected over the top of the Vistula river, consisting of a complex of spires, minarets and fortifications Wawel Hill overlooks the old town of Krakow like a mother overlooks a child. It is a fitting analogy because it was from this hill that the Polish people derive their history, the story begins with the myth of the three brothers, Czech, Lech and Rus – the mythical forebears of the people of the Slavic people. One day, the three brothers were out hunting and disagreed on which prey to hunt for. This led to them splitting up. Czech moved the most westwards on the European continent, while Rus moved the most eastward. Lech went in between them (modern day Poland).
Lech settled in what is today Wawel Hill and set up a tribe with a family, historically called the Lechite Tribe after him. He has many sons of whom one was to become legendary, Krakus. Krakus, was the legendary individual who lent his name to the city that was to be formed (Krakow). Precisely because of this foundation story however, Wawel Hill was imbued with a sense of power and legitimacy.
To strengthen their claim sovereignty over all the Poles, Miezsko I (930-992 AD), established his Royal Seat on this hill, and ruled over the Kingdom of Poland from here. Krakow was ruled from Wawel, and as Poland grew in importance during the middle ages, and Krakow’s influence as a city expanded, so too did the metaphorical reach of Wawel’s influence extend.
The complex on the hill has been added to by practically every ruler since the start of Poland. First came the establishment of a cathedral on the hill gave birth to the Diocese of Krakow.
Then came fortifications and the Wawel Castle – an avant garde creation built in the Italian Renaissance fashion.
The temporal power of the hill continued until the 17th century, when King Sigismund moved the capital of Poland, from Krakow to Warsaw, the end of the actual governance on Wawel, saw the hill complex fall into a state of ruin.
But the loss of temporal prominence, gave Wawel a more power spiritual one. Poland’s history in the 18th and 19th century was one of being torn apart by its neighbours and its identity wiped off the map in three partitions of Poland.
These invading forces added to the building, to serve their mostly military purposes. But despite the introduction of more soldiers, Wawel’s power become more that of inspiration. Although Poland the nation did not exist in the 18th century, because its territory was subsumed by neighbouring powers (Austria, Prussia, Russia), the flame of Polish independence was kept alive by powerful physical symbols such as Wawel Hill and the castle complex.
To add power to the national foundation story, kings and national heroes (such as Tadeusz Kosciuszko) were buried in the cathedral crypt. Making the hill a repository of Polish national identity.
And the place to catch a great view of the city.
ON THE MAP