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  • Writer's pictureErik Sadao

The Aura of Freedom in Amsterdam: A History of Achievements and Respect

Updated: Jun 27

Damrak around 1275 (illustration by Paul Maas).

As it must have looked 25 years later in 1300. Top left is the windmill after which the blacksmith's neighborhood was named.

United Tribes Fighting Against the Force of Water...

The first peoples who migrated to the northern bank of the Rhine were the true pioneers of the region that would become Amsterdam, initially known by the indigenous name Mokum. Germanic tribes, Normans, and other peoples, constantly at war below the river, found a new home in the swampy and challenging region.

This inhospitable territory, far from the Roman domains, became a refuge for these groups. Instead of fighting among themselves, they learned to cooperate and coexist to face the constant threats of water and harsh climate. This spirit of collaboration and mutual respect shaped the character of the first inhabitants of Mokum, laying the foundations of a society that values community care, which would later be reflected in modern Amsterdam.

Freedom of Conscience and the Effects of the Reformation

For centuries, Amsterdam stood out as one of the first cities to practice religious freedom, welcoming Sephardic Jews, Ashkenazim, and French Huguenots fleeing religious persecution in their homelands. This ethos of freedom gained strength during the Eighty Years' War against the Spanish, when the Dutch fought for independence and freedom of belief. With victory and the subsequent signing of the Union of Utrecht in 1579, which can be seen as the first Dutch constitution, freedom of conscience was guaranteed. This influx of diversity not only enriched the city culturally but also laid the foundations for an ethos of inclusion and respect that persists in Amsterdam to this day, reflecting a historical commitment to individual freedom and religious tolerance.

The Hidden Church, inside the Ons Lieve Heer Op Solder Museum

The 16th century brought significant changes to Amsterdam with the Protestant Reformation. The city, initially Catholic, underwent a significant religious transformation. During the Reformation, many Protestants fled Catholic persecution in other parts of Europe and found a safe haven in Amsterdam. However, this was not without conflict. Catholic churches were closed or converted into Protestant churches, and Catholics were forced to practice their faith in secret.

One of our favorite attractions in the city bears witness to this moment. The "Ons' Lieve Heer op Solder" (Our Lord in the Attic), a clandestine Catholic church hidden in the attic of a canal house, is a must-visit to understand Amsterdam's Freedom and Tolerance. These secret churches are a testament to the resilience and adaptability of Amsterdam's inhabitants in keeping their individual faith alive even in the face of adversity.

Acceleration of Science in the Most Vibrant Center of the 17th Century

The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp, by Rembrandt in 1632 (Mauritshuis)

In the early 17th century, this atmosphere of freedom also extended to the field of science. In 1632, Rembrandt painted "The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Tulp," where, for the first time in art history, the deceased portrayed was not Jesus in the Pietà, but a thief whose body was being scientifically studied. This work not only highlighted Dutch society's openness to science and knowledge but also symbolized a break from the rigid religious traditions that prevailed in other parts of Europe.

The Dutch Golden Age was marked by a remarkable degree of freedom and tolerance that reflected in many aspects of social and intellectual life. Women began to attend universities, a revolutionary fact for the time, and the high literacy rate among the urban population fostered an environment of learning and idea exchange. Amsterdam and its surroundings became centers of printing and publishing, where books and pamphlets could be produced and distributed freely.

Additionally, glass production in the Netherlands, especially in the 17th century, accelerated the development of lens technology, leading to revolutionary inventions such as the telescope and the microscope. Antonie van Leeuwenhoek, a merchant from Delft, used advanced lenses to develop the microscope and became the first to observe and describe microorganisms. Hans Lippershey, another Dutchman, is often credited with the invention of the telescope. These innovations not only transformed science but also symbolized the intellectual openness and curiosity that characterized Dutch society at the time. Still-life painters, genre painting immortalized in the region, used the various lenses available to create paintings that, even today, are more real than the real image.

Intellectual Freedom and the Fathers of Modern Philosophy

This fertile environment attracted philosophers and writers from all over Europe. Baruch Spinoza, René Descartes, and Thomas Hobbes were some of the intellectuals who found a safe place in Amsterdam to live and publish their ideas. Spinoza, with his critique of religious dogmatism, Descartes, with his foundations of modern thought, and Hobbes, with his political theories, benefited from the atmosphere of freedom of expression that the city offered. Their works, often controversial and revolutionary, could be published without fear of censorship or persecution.

This combination of religious tolerance, freedom of thought, and scientific openness shaped Amsterdam into a true center of progress and innovation. The high literacy rate facilitated the dissemination of knowledge, while the printing presses spread throughout the city and its surroundings ensured that new ideas could reach a broad audience. The city became a symbol of how diversity and freedom can coexist and thrive, creating a society that values inclusion, mutual respect, and intellectual development.

Amsterdam, the Global Beacon of Individual Rights

Wedding of the first same-sex marriage in the World, celebrated in Amsterdam on April 1st, 2001 (Source: Wikipedia)

In the 20th century, Amsterdam consolidated its reputation as a vanguard of civil and human rights. In 2001, it became the first city in the world to legalize same-sex marriage, a milestone that reflected its long tradition of individual freedom and equality. The city also led progressive initiatives in terms of drug policies, establishing a regulatory model that prioritizes harm reduction and respects the rights of users.

Amsterdam is equally famous for its social housing policies and urban planning, which ensure a healthy balance between historical preservation and modern development. The city is a brilliant example of how urbanization can be conducted sustainably, with an emphasis on efficient public transport and the use of bicycles, thus promoting a high quality of life and a clean urban environment.


From Swamp to the Most Progressive City on the Planet

The history of Amsterdam is a narrative of resilience and adaptation, of how a small swampy village transformed into a global metropolis through its openness to the world and its commitment to freedom. This heritage is visible not only in its historical landmarks and progressive policies but also in the mentality of its inhabitants, who continue to value mutual respect, collaboration, and individual freedom.

As you stroll through its cobblestone streets, cross its canals, and observe the harmonious coexistence of people from all backgrounds, you feel the living presence of this aura of freedom that makes Amsterdam a beacon of hope and progress in the modern world.

As a company based in Amsterdam, Sapiens Travel draws inspiration from its rich tapestry of history and modernity, a vibrant testament that the new always comes, bringing with it the potential for a freer and more inclusive future.


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