Explore tourist attractions of Tallinn Old Town
Tallinn Before Written Sources
It is not easy to determine the beginning of Tallinn history. The location probably attracted attention as a suitable port area long before first written sources mention a settlement there, but all historians have is archaeological data.
The first traces of settlement in the territory of today’s Tallinn come from the Härjapea river basin at Keldrimäe but those cannot be directly linked to the city. The early history of Tallinn begins from suburban Iru, where a castle together with a nearby settlement was built in the end of the first millennium. The castle was abandoned for unknown reasons in the end of the 11th century and Lindanise (Kolyvan in Russian sources) castle was built some time later on the today’s Toompea hill—this was basically the centre of the ancient Rävala county (hence the German name for Tallinn: Reval). The castle was most probably only to offer refuge in case of enemy attacks and included no permanent settlement in the 13th century.
The trade route in the Gulf of Finland became more widely used during the 9th and 10th century and thereby increased the importance of the Tallinn port site. There might have been seasonal settlements of Scandinavian and Russian merchants at the location of today’s lower town in the beginning of the 2nd millennium but there is no clear evidence neither form archaeological nor written sources.
Tallinn under King of Denmark and German Order
First reliable data about Tallinn date back to the Chronicle of Latvian Henrik. The Chronicle describes the Danish fleet led by King Valdemar II land near Lindanise castle in June 1219. The Danish landing was part of German-Scandinavian colonisation of Livonia and Estonia in the course of which the German crusaders invaded Latvian and Southern and Central Estonian territories, as well as Saaremaa, and the King of Denmark invaded Northern Estonia. According to the Chronicle there was a battle at the location of future Tallinn on June 15, 1219 where the Danes got a difficult victory. The legend says that the battle luck turned its face to the Danes after a red flag with a white cross fell from the sky—the Danneborg, the state flag of Denmark today. The Danes established their stone castle on Toompea, and Lund head bishop Andreas Sunesen became the first regent of Denmark in Tallinn.
From 1227 to 1238 Tallinn and Northern Estonia were governed by the Order of the Brotherhood of the Swords who had temporarily gained power from the Danes. There must have already been a small settlement at the bottom of the castle at that time. Around 1230 German merchants invited by the Brotherhood of the Swords arrived to Tallinn from Gothland. This arrival is considered an important event in the making of the body of residents in Tallinn. Tallinn together with the Northern part of Estonia was returned to the Danish crown by the Stensby Treaty, the deal being mediated by the legate of the Pope Guillelmus of Modena. Ten years later, on May 15, 1248, King of Denmark Erik IV Adraraha gave Tallinn the Lübeck Rights that bound Tallinn to common legal space with medieval German merchant towns. The letter of rights also mentions representatives of Town Council which proves that the lower town must have had some kind of a local government at that time. Tallinn joined the Hanseatic League at the end of the 13th century, and during the next couple of hundred years performed an important role in relations of the Hanseates with the merchants of Russia, especially Novgorod.
Tallinn land master changed in the middle of the 14th century. Forced by difficulties in internal policy and lack of money, King of Denmark decided to sell his Northern Estonian lands together with Tallinn to the German Order. After years of preparation the deal was finalised in 1346. The next year, in 1347, the Order granted the right of government of these territories to its Livonian branch. Tallinn became an Order town that primarily meant a change of power at Toompea. Instead of the regent of Denmark Tallinn was now governed by a comptoir of the German Order. Master Goswin von Herike of the Livonian Branch of the German Order adopted the early privileges of Tallinn already on November 4, 1346, and life in town continued the way it had always been. The town was governed by the Town Council elected from the most influential and richest residents, mostly merchants (Town Council chose its members). At first only half of the representatives in the Town Council dealt with town matters, they were called the sitting Town Council (sitzender Rat), the other half was called the old Town Council (alter Rat). After a year the roles changed. As being a representative in the Town Council was a position of honour, then they needed a year off to deal with their businesses. From the middle of the 15th century till the end of its existence, the Town Council usually comprised of 4 burgermeisters, 14 representatives of the Town Council and 1 town lawyer. The members of the Town Council were now working on permanent basis, not in shifts.
Merchants and representatives of the most profitable crafts were mostly Germans, generally from Westfahl and Rheinland, and at least half of the townsfolk were Estonian, who are sometimes mentioned as town residents in the 14-15th century (there is no data about the 13th century). In the end of the middle ages town residency was restricted for Estonians, mainly because of the high resident fee. As the town needed working hands, then country folks migrated to town which in turn lead to conflicts between landowners in town and of the nearby areas. The number of inhabitants grew as trade grew and the town developed. As the estimated number of inhabitants in Tallinn in the middle of the 14th century was less than 1000 people, then in late middle ages the population of Tallinn was already 6000-7000.
Buildings-wise, the town of the 13th century cannot be compared to the town in the late middle ages. The initial fortifications only comprised a small area around the today’s Town Hall Square. The zone at that time did not include either the Dominican Convent between the today’s Vene and Müürivahe Streets or the Cisterian Convent near today’s Kloostri Street. The town wall circle in its later form was established in the 14th century and the major boom of town construction (that gave the main buildings their medieval exteriors that are partly preserved even today) spread in Tallinn only in the 15th century. The new Town Hall was completed in 1404, the Great Guild building in 1410 and the Olavi Guild building in 1422. The Great Fire burst out in the lower town in 1433, and this meant a new wave of construction. The establishment of hill fortifications in front of the town wall was began in the 16th century.
Trade in Tallinn was based on privileges received already during the 13th century. Tallinn got the coining right in 1265 and the warehousing right in 1346, this meant that no merchandise could be transited through the town without using the local merchants as intermediators. Hence, the residents of Tallinn got a significant portion of the trade between Western Europe and Novgorod. The role of Tallinn in the trade and politics of the Eastern Baltic grew even more after the town of Visby was destroyed by Denmark in 1361. The high time of Tallinn as a medieval Hanseatic town was the 15th century. The closing of the Novgorod Hanseatic office in 1494 affected trade in Tallinn negatively but the town managed to liven trade up in the middle and end of the 16th century.
The biggest merchants in Tallinn were members of the Great Guild, younger single merchants belonged to the Brotherhood of the Blackheads, representatives of more honourable handicraft skills to the Kanuti Guild, representatives of simpler handicraft skills to the Olavi Guild. Additionally there were several religious-social associations in Tallinn. Sources mention the brotherhoods of Holy Flesh, Gertrud, Hiob, 10 000 Knights, Antonius, Victor, Rochus, Michael. Mary Guild and Anna Brotherhood were active at Toompea.
All the most significant clerical establishments were founded in the 13th century: Niguliste Church was established in 1230, Oleviste Church is mentioned for the first time in 1267, the Dominicans moved to lower town from Toompea in the end of 1240-s and started to build out St. Cathrine Convent, the Cisterian Mihkli Nunnery was established in the middle of the century. Tallinn Bishop residing at Toompea governed the whole Northern Estonia, clerically he was under the reign of Lund Head Bishop.
Dome School was active at Toompea probably already during the 13th century, first written records of the school date back to the beginning of the 14th century. There was a school at the Dominican Convent at the same time, from the beginning of the 15th century also at Oleviste Church.
The near to town leprosorium or Jaani hospital is first mentioned in 1237. It is probable that the Holy Ghost hospital together with a chapel existed in some form already in the 13th century, although written sources mention the Holy Ghost hospital only in the beginning of the 14th century.
In the beginning of the 15th century St. Brigit Nunnery was established East of the town (Pirita Nunnery); today its ruins are known as a magnificent sample of Tallinn medieval architecture.
First Lutheran preachers came to Tallinn in the beginning of 1520-s and in the autumn of 1524 plebs ransacked Oleviste and Holy Ghost Churches and Dominican St. Cathrine Church. The Town Council tried to constrain the spontaneous spoliation and obtain control over money matters of churches. The Dominican Convent was dissolved in January 1525. Little by little church life was reorganized according to ideas carried by reformation. The Town Council had already before a good overview of the finances of churches through its secular wardens but now it was decided to form a so-called common treasury (Gemeine Kasten)—to function as a centralized fund for social welfare and source of pay for churchwardens. Lutheran church was step by step introduced starting from the second quarter of the 16th century. A library was founded at Oleviste Church in 1552 that became the first public library in Tallinn.
Tallinn Under Swedish Crown
Russia, Sweden, Poland and Denmark battled for superiority in the Northern part of the Baltic Sea in the Livonian War of 1558-1583. Territory of Estonia was one of the main battle grounds. Scared of the Russian troops Tallinn town and Harju-Viru knighthood retreated to the Swedish Crown in 1561; this subordinance lasted for the following century and a half. Russian troops tried to siege Tallinn twice—1570-1571 and 1577—but were forced to retreat without conquering the town.
It was during the Swedish era that Tallinn became the centre of a new administrative unit—the Estonian government. The crown validated the historic privileges of Tallinn, which first and foremost meant that the town maintained its local government (at least formally) and continued to use the Lübeck Rights. Compared to the middle ages the importance of Tallinn was decreasing. The general decline of Hansa trade decreased the wealth and independence of the town, the centralized power in Sweden tried to curtail the independence of the Town Council.
The part of the town surrounded by the Town Wall was not significantly damaged in the war, it was mostly the outskirts that were destroyed, and even that under the orders of the Town Council to defend the town.
The big plague epidemic ravaged the town in 1602-1603, the Great Fire of 1684 destroyed most of the buildings at Toompea. Only Dome Church and a small stone house nearby were more or less unharmed.
The development of education generally characteristic to the Swedish era influenced Tallinn as well: a gymnasium was established at the Cisterian nunnery that had finally been dismissed some years earlier—today it is known as Gustav Adolf Gymnasium (Tallinn Secondary School No. 1 in the Soviet times)—and a printing house in 1633. The gymnasium printing house played a significant role in publishing the work of local literates and books in Estonian language. The gymnasium also had a rich library but most of its funds have been lost.
Tallinn under Russian State
The Northern War devastated the Baltic Sea area from 1700 to 1721. The main adversaries were Sweden and Russia who battled for superiority in the territory. In 1710 Tallinn capitulated without fight to the Russian troops. The town suffered from shortage of everything, most of the garrison and many town people had died of plague. If there were 10 000 residents in Tallinn in 1708 then after the events of 1710 only about 2000 had survived. Tallinn population exceeded 10 000 again only in the 1780-s.
According to the capitulation agreement of 1710 Tallinn maintained most of its earlier privileges. The Town Council remained in power, the Lübeck Rights remained in force and the administrative language continued to be German. The 1783 ukase of Cathrine II established new governing order in Estonia and Livonia (the so-called regency) that extended the Russian system of government establishments also to Tallinn. The Town Council maintained only its court function, the town government of six members was elected by the general town duma. The old order of governing was restated with the 1796 restitution ukase by Paul I.
In the 19th century the Russian emperor little by little limited the mandate of the Town Council. For instance, starting from 1819 the Town Council did not control the town police any more. An Alexander II ukase established the 1870 General Russian Town Law in the Baltic towns on March 26, 1877. The City Council (duma) that was elected for four years became the local government who elected the city government (uprava) that comprised of four advisers. The city council elected a mayor who was approved by the central government. The legality of the city government decisions was controlled by the governor. The term “town resident” lost its former meaning, all the subordinates to the Russian state were allowed to vote.
The new town law also abolished the administrative separation of Toompea and the lower town. For now the Town Council continued to operate as a court institution, after a while even that function was cancelled, and it was dismissed once and for all in 1889.
After integrating Tallinn to the Russian empire Peter the Great ordered a port to be built in Tallinn. The first bigger industrial company in Tallinn was the Admiralty manufactory at the Old City Harbour built in 1714-1722. A paper factory, a match factory and a machinery manufacturing plant were established in the second half of the 19th century. The Baltic rail road opened in 1870 connected Tallinn to St. Petersburg and other parts of the Czarist Russia, this livened trade relations considerably. Machinery manufacturing and the pulp and paper industry developed. Production of the Luther Plywood and Furniture Factory established in 1877 was valued even in the Western Europe, especially in England. In 1877 tram traffic began in Tallinn. Military industry boomed directly before WW I, the Bekkeri, Russian-Baltic and Peter military ship yards were established.
Additionally, other public buildings were built: Tallinn German Theatre (Estonian Drama Theatre today) was finished in 1910, “Estonia” association building (later Estonia Theatre) in 1913. In the second half of the 19th century and in the beginning of the 20th century suburban Nõmme and Merivälja started to shape up.
Tallinn Develops into Estonian Town. Tallinn as Capital of the Republic of Estonia in 1918-1940
The valuation of Estonian ethnicity started in the turn of the 19th and the 20th centuries. The level of education and the economic standing of Estonians had improved. Estonian literates participated in the fight for local power mainly with the help of the newspaper “Teataja”. The 1904 elections were won by an Estonian-Russian block of 5 Russians and 38 Estonians. The first Estonian mayor—Voldemar Lender—was elected in 1906. Several changes took place in governing of Tallinn in the end of WW I. In 1917 the city council and city government elected in accordance with the Temporary Government town laws were in power for a short period, and were in essence Bolshevist. The city council was dismissed by the Tallinn Workers and Military Deputies Soviet resolution of January 31, 1918, and the Soviet assumed the functions of the council. On February 24, 1918 Estonia took advantage of the weakening Bolsheviks and proclaimed independence; already the next day German troops occupied Estonia.
Local town government was restored after Germany capitulated in the WW I. The first city council elected during the Republic of Estonia assembled on June 16, 1919.
As said before, Tallinn population began to grow hand in hand with the development of industry in the 2nd half of the 19th century. If in 1881 Tallinn had almost 44 000 inhabitants, then in 1917 the population was almost 160 000. The population decreased by about a third due to the WW I and the events concurring with it. There were 145 000 inhabitants in Tallinn in 1939.
Compared to the industrial boom prior to WW I caused by mainly the increase of military industry and the large Russian market, the industrial output of Tallinn decreased considerably after Estonia’s independence, and grew only by the end of 1930-s.
Tallinn Teachers Seminar (Tallinn Pedagogical Institute from 1952 to 1992, since 1992 Tallinn Pedagogical University) was established in 1919 and Tallinn Conservatoire that first operated under the name Tallinn Higher Music School (since 1993 Tallinn Music Academy). Tallinn Technical School (Tallinn Polytechnical Institute from 1944 to 1989, since 1989 Tallinn Technical University) grew out of an Estonian Technical Association special course. Tallinn Applied Art School founded in 1914 continued to operate as State Applied Art School (Estonian SSR State Art Institute in the Soviet times, now Estonian Academy of Arts).
Tallinn from Soviet Occupation till Estonia Regains Independence
The Soviet occupation in the summer of 1940 interrupted the activities of the then Tallinn local government; according to the new laws the local authorities were workers soviets and executive committees. In the course of the WW II on August 28, 1941 German troops occupied Tallinn. The occupational power imposed a new administrative order that defined Tallinn as a separate territory governed by a German commissioner in the area. The city government structure remained mostly the same as during the time of independence. In the night of March 9th to March 10th Tallinn was bombed by the Soviet army—more than 500 civilians were killed and 5073 buildings destroyed or damaged. Damages and victims were also brought upon by the war activities of 1941-1943. Yet, most of the valuable Old Town of Tallinn was preserved, only Harju Street and Niguliste Church were seriously damaged.
The Soviet army occupied Tallinn again on September 23, 1944, and the Tallinn Workers Soviets Executive Committee started its work again.
In the first sitting the Soviet elected on December 10, 1989 renamed itself Tallinn City Council, and the Executive Committee became City Government.
The first local elections after Estonia’s regained independence in 1991 were hold on October 17, 1993.
In the Soviet times Tallinn was divided into Mere, Lenin, October and Kalinin districts that were renamed, after regaining the independence, into East, South, West and North districts correspondingly. Since 1993 Tallinn is divided into Haabersti, City Centre, Kristiine, Lasnamäe, Mustamäe, Nõmme, Pirita and North Tallinn city districts.
The population of Tallinn decreased in the first half of 1940-s mainly due to the events of the WW II (war losses, emigration to West). By 1939 the city population had decreased from 145 000 to 127 000. The number of residents began to rise quickly mostly due to increase of unemployment on account of foreign workers brought in from other parts of the Soviet Union. There were 267 000 inhabitants in Tallinn in 1956 and 408 500 in 1976.
Due to the increase in population and the industrial boom the town desperately needed new dwellings. The construction of Mustamäe living area was started in the beginning of 1960-s followed by õismäe and Lasnamäe. Tallinn hosted the Olympic Regatta in 1980. For this event new beach facilities and the Olympic Yachting Centre were built, as well as hotel Olympia, the TV-tower, the new airport building and Linnahall. The National Library of Estonia at Tõnismäe was finished in 1992.
Industry boomed significantly in Tallinn during the Soviet times—machinery construction and electro-technical companies were established and most of their production went to the Soviet military industry. Consumer goods and food industry boomed as well (clothing factories “Baltika”, “Marat”, “Klementi”, plastic production factory “Norma”, footwear factory “Kommunaar”, sweet factory “Kalev” etc.).
Estonia regaining its independence brought upon significant changes in most of the important sectors of city life. Tallinn became the capital of the newly independent Republic of Estonia. The population of Tallinn decreased during the first years of independence, mostly due to non-Estonians leaving. If the population of Tallinn in the end of 1980-s was c 480 000, then in 1995 it was only 434 800.
Some of the Soviet times industrial enterprises have reorganised and continued to operate, at a lesser volume, as private companies also after Estonia regained independence. New secondary schools and universities have emerged, especially private schools of law and economics.