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  • Writer's pictureBen West

A Brief History of Dam Square in Amsterdam

What is Dam Square?

Dam Square is a public square where Amsterdam was founded in the 13th century, which contains the National Monument.

Dam Square from above

Dam Square History

To get your bearings in Amsterdam, Dam Square is a good place to start. Not only is it drenched in history, but numerous other key sights are within walking distance.

One folk tale has it that Amsterdam was founded by two fishermen looking to escape a storm in the Zuiderzee (or South Sea). According to tradition, their dog jumped ashore here and it was around this spot that the city grew up.

Whether that’s true or not, Dam Square’s name derives from its original function. A dam was built to protect the low-lying land against the floodwaters of the Zuiderzee. Traders, craftspeople, farmers and fishermen settled here, and as the dam enlarged it was possible to create a couple of town squares, which in time merged into one. A fish market, Vissersdam, developed, along with another market, Vijgendam, named after the large supplies of spoiled figs that were used to reinforce the surrounding quays.

For several centuries, the square was the site of executions – of murderers, political dissidents, people accused of witchcraft and the like – and it’s still possible to see holes on the façade of the Royal Palace where the wooden gallows were fixed.

At the east end of the square, you’ll see the National Monument, a striking stone pillar designed by renowned Dutch architect J. J. P. Oud and built in the 1950s to commemorate those who fell in the Second World War. The memorial features a number of symbolic figures, such as four chained men, representing the suffering of war; a woman with a child, representing peace; and two men with dogs, signifying the Dutch resistance. Behind the soaring pillar is a wall that holds urns containing earth taken from war cemeteries of the eleven provinces of the Netherlands (that existed at the time) as well as the Dutch East Indies (modern-day Indonesia). Every 4th of May there’s a remembrance ceremony on Dam Square to honour those who died during the conflict.

Aside from the memorial, there are some important buildings and popular tourist attractions on the square. To the west side is the Neoclassical Royal Palace, which was the town hall from 1655 until being converted into a royal residence in 1808. Also on the square are the famous department store De Bijenkorf and the Grand Hotel Krasnapolsky.

Today, the Dam is a bustling meeting place, full of tourists and locals, buskers and pigeons. Funfairs sometimes take up temporary residence, and important demonstrations, events and public meetings are held here.

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