Tartu History Facts and Timeline

(Tartu, Tartumaa, Estonia)

Tartu is considered the home of Estonia's artists, intelligentsia and cultural elite. It is also the country's second-largest city, connecting Estonia's two largest lakes via the Emajogi River that runs through the city.

Although this is the country's southern urban hub, the history of Tartu was subjected to the same foreign occupations that swept over Northern Estonia. Today, this is a great little city to explore, with a charming Old Town core boasting a notable historic vein of nationalism.

The Knights of the Sword

The history of Tartu is said to begin with the fortress built in the year of 1030 by Yaroslav the Wise, a king from Kyiv (Kiev, Ukraine). The Estonians eventually wrested control of the fort and its surrounding village from Yaroslav, but by the middle of the 1220s, German crusaders known as the Knights of the Sword had waltzed in and conquered the town.

They liked the place enough to build a castle and cathedral on top of the Toomemägi, the hill of the town. Renamed Dorpat, the town enjoyed a period of prosperity throughout the Middle Ages, functioning as an important centre of trade and industry.

A City Worth Fighting Over

The 16th and 17th centuries were a tough period in the history of Tartu, as the Baltic region was the focus of power struggles between Sweden, Russia and also Poland-Lithuania. Being a major city in the southern region of Estonia, Tartu was naturally a focal point for control.

During these two centuries, the most peaceful and productive period came when the Swedes ran the show during the 1600s. Among the many useful institutions they implemented in Tartu was the city's great university, which was founded by the Swedes in 1632.

This pleasant era came crashing to a halt when Peter the Great conquered the city in 1704. It was the time of the Great Northern War, when the Baltic region was carved up once again into the shapes that endured through the modern era. Russian Tsar, Peter the Great (Peter I), deported most of Tartu's population to Russia in 1708 and razed the city.

An Estonian National Movement

The mid-1800s saw an amazing wave of Estonian nationalism sweep over the region and Tartu was at its centre. The nation's very first newspaper was started in Tartu, and the first Estonian Song Festival took place in this very city in the year of 1869. Estonia's first national theatre, the Vanemuine, was opened here in 1870, while the Society of Estonian Writers set up shop in the city just two years later. This relentless wave of national pride sparked the movement that ultimately led to the Estonian War of Independence.

A Free Estonia

At the beginning of February 1920, the Russians signed a peace treaty with Estonian revolutionaries, relinquishing claims on Estonia forever. Nazi Germany didn't see things quite so clearly in WWII, occupying Estonia and Tartu from 1940 until the end of the war. As the Germans and Russians battled it out on this frontline, Tartu suffered major destruction and casualties. The memorial on Valga Road commemorates the spot where the Nazis murdered more than 10,000 citizens.

Unfortunately, much of the architectural history of Tartu was also lost during WWII. After getting its autonomy back from the Soviets in 1991, the city has steadily restored as much of its historic Old Town as possible. This is still a charming city with plenty to offer visitors, and tourism now makes up a large part of its economy.