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Dam, which is the name of this square and the city’s nerve centre, means dyke and comes from the function it had in 1270 when it was built.
It was a containment dyke along the course of the Amstel canal, built to bring relief from the floods that were often caused by violent storms from the north. You may therefore have deduced that the name Amsterdam is derived from “dam over the Amstel”.
The Dam is a permanent meeting place and the landmarks in the centre of the city are arranged around it: the Nieuwe Kerk, or New Church, the Royal Palace and, a little further away, the Stock Exchange.
In this square, crowded with pigeons, you will therefore encounter hundreds of tourists posing before the city’s most significant monuments, while others unfurl their maps, trying to find their bearings with reference to one of the many streets that open out onto the Dam, cross or start from it. For this very reason, the square is not only full of foreign visitors, but also of locals, who cross it carrying their shopping bags or their briefcases or who occasionally stop helpfully to give those people who are lost a hand.
In the Middle Ages, this rectangular square was the first point of connection between the settlements on both sides of the Amstel, and was the site of the central market where all kinds of business took place.
The square gradually became the city’s key nucleus, not only because of its trading activity, but also because over the years it became the site of the City Hall, which later became the Royal Palace.
As the true heart of the city, it was also necessarily the focal point of several revolts and political events. Although book fairs or the peaceful Liberation Day fete have been held in the Dam in recent years, in the nineteen-seventies it was the stage for anti-Vietnam War activists, and a site where young people who spent the night in the square, known as Damslapers, confronted the police.
This period also saw confrontation between the police and the so-called Provos. This was the first radical movement in Dutch society and had emerged in the nineteen-sixties. They were modern agitators, young rebels, and resistors who were determined to put an end to the established order.
The Dam was also the backdrop to the popular revolts of early 1918 and of 1934, which arose because of the high cost of potatoes and of the reduction in unemployment subsidies. The square was also the setting in 1628 for the revolt by the crews of the “Silver Fleet”, which had plundered Spanish ships and wanted their part of the booty.
If you have not had enough with the church, the palace, the atmosphere, the pigeons and the whole history of the square, there are a couple more sites you may like to visit in the Dam. Very nearby, on the Nieuwe Kerk side, is Madame Tussauds Wax Museum, and right opposite the Royal Palace, is a National Monument.
This is a 22 metre-high marble obelisk, which was built in honour of the soldiers who were killed in the Second World War. If, what is more, you are interested in odd details, there are some urns inside with soil from different Dutch provinces.
The Dam is therefore extremely significant in Amsterdam, and not only because it has occasionally saved the city from terrible floods. On innumerable occasions, Dutch painting has immortalised this spectacular square, which is the centre of city life, and even today a witness to Holland’s magnificent past. However, there is no point of telling you “not to miss it” because you are sure to encounter the Dam on your way.
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