Kraków is the second-largest and one of the oldest cities in Poland. Situated on the Vistula River in Lesser Poland Province, the city dates back to the 7th century. Kraków was the official capital of Poland until 1596 and has traditionally been one of the leading centres of Polish academic, economic, cultural and artistic life. Cited as one of Europe’s most beautiful cities, its Old Town was declared the first UNESCO World Heritage Site in the world.
The city has grown from a Stone Age settlement to Poland’s second-most-important city. It began as a hamlet on Wawel Hill and was reported as a busy trading centre of Central Europe in 965. With the establishment of new universities and cultural venues at the emergence of the Second Polish Republic in 1918 and throughout the 20th century, Kraków reaffirmed its role as a major national academic and artistic centre. The city has a population of about 780,000, with approximately 8 million additional people living within a 100 km (62 mi) radius of its main square. Kraków is home to Jagiellonian University, one of the oldest universities in the world and traditionally Poland’s most reputable institution of higher learning.
The city rose to prominence in 1364, when Casimir III of Poland founded the University of Kraków, the second oldest university in central Europe after the Charles University in Prague. King Casimir also began work on a campus for the Academy in Kazimierz, but he died in 1370 and the campus was never completed. The city continued to grow under the joint Lithuanian-Polish Jagiellon dynasty. As the capital of the Kingdom of Poland and a member of the Hanseatic League, the city attracted many craftsmen from abroad, businesses, and guilds as science and the arts began to flourish. The royal chancery and the University ensured a first flourishing of Polish literary culture in the city.
With the emergence of the Second Polish Republic, Kraków resumed its role as a major academic and cultural centre, with the establishment of new universities such as the AGH University of Science and Technology and the Jan Matejko Academy of Fine Arts, including a number of new and essential vocational schools. It became an important cultural centre for the Polish Jews, including both Zionist and Bundist groups. Kraków was also an influential centre of Jewish spiritual life, with all its manifestations of religious observance from Orthodox, to Hasidic and Reform Judaism flourishing side by side.
After the war, under the Polish People’s Republic, the intellectual and academic community of Kraków was put under complete political control. The universities were soon deprived of printing rights and autonomy. The Stalinist government ordered the construction of the country’s largest steel mill in the newly created suburb of Nowa Huta. The creation of the giant Lenin Steelworks (now Sendzimir Steelworks owned by Mittal) sealed Kraków’s transformation from a university city, into an industrial centre. The new working-class, drawn by the industrialization of Kraków, contributed to rapid population growth.
Kraków is a major centre of education. Twenty-four institutions of higher education offer courses in the city, with more than 200,000 students. Jagiellonian University, the oldest university in Poland and ranked by the Times Higher Education Supplement as the second-best university in the country, was founded in 1364 as Studium Generale and renamed in 1817 to commemorate the royal Jagiellonian dynasty of Poland and Lithuania. Its principal academic asset is the Jagiellonian Library, with more than 4 million volumes, including a large collection of medieval manuscripts like Copernicus’ De Revolutionibus and the Balthasar Behem Codex. With 42,325 students (2005) and 3,605 academic staff, the Jagiellonian University is also one of the leading research centres in Poland. Famous historical figures connected with the University include Saint John Cantius, Jan Długosz, Nicolaus Copernicus, Andrzej Frycz Modrzewski, Jan Kochanowski, King John III Sobieski, Pope John Paul II and Nobel laureates Ivo Andrić and Wisława Szymborska.
AGH University of Science and Technology, established in 1919, is the largest technical university in Poland, with more than 15 faculties and student enrollment exceeding 30,000. It was ranked by the Polish edition of Newsweek as the best technical university in the country in 2004. During its 80-year history, more than 73,000 students graduated from AGH with master’s or bachelor’s degrees. Some 3,600 persons were granted the degree of Doctor of Science, and about 900 obtained the qualification of Habilitated Doctor.
Other institutions of higher learning include Academy of Music in Kraków first conceived as conservatory in 1888, one of the oldest and most prestigious conservatories in Central Europe and a major concert venue; Kraków University of Economics, established in 1925; Pedagogical University, in operation since 1946; Agricultural University of Kraków, offering courses since 1890 (initially as a part of Jagiellonian University); Academy of Fine Arts, the oldest Fine Arts Academy in Poland, founded by the Polish painter Jan Matejko; Ludwik Solski Academy for the Dramatic Arts; The Pontifical Academy of Theology; and Krakow University of Technology, which has more than 37,000 graduates.
Scientific societies and their branches in Kraków conduct scientific and educational work in local and countrywide scale. The Academy of Learning, Krakow Scientific Society, Association of Law Students’ Library of the Jagiellonian University, Polish Copernicus Society of Naturalists, Polish Geological Society, Polish Theological Society in Kraków, Polish Section of Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers and Polish Society for Synchrotron Radiation all have their main seats in Kraków.