The oldest evidence of human habitation in the Prague valley dates from around 6000 BC. Permanent farming communities were established in the area by Germanic and
Celtic tribes around 4000 BC. Slavs came into the picture around the turn of the millennium, and by the 600 AD had settled opposite sides of a particularly appealing stretch
of the Vltava River. They successfully defended the land now known as Bohemia for generations, but by the 9th century it had been conquered by the Great Moravian Empire.
The short-lived empire introduced the locals to Christianity, but it was 'Good King Wenceslas' of Christmas-carol fame (he was actually a duke) who made it the state religion of Bohemia in the 930s. He remains the patron saint of the Czech Republic. It was under the rule of Charles IV (ruled 1346-78) that Prague truly came into its own, becoming one of the continent's largest and most prosperous cities, acquiring its fine Gothic face and landmark buildings like Charles University, Charles Bridge and St Vitus Cathedral.
Jan Hus, who attended Charles University in the late 1380s, rallied popular support for the Church-reform movement; when he was burned at the stake in 1415, the rabble was roused enough to hurl various Catholic officials from the upper stories of Prague's New Town Hall, introducing the word 'defenestration' (literally, to toss someone out a window) into the popular political lexicon. While the 1526 ascent of the Catholic Hapsburg family to power in the region cooled things off briefly, a second round of defenestrations in 1618 made it clear that the matter was not quite settled.
In fact, the insurrection catalyzed the Thirty Years War, which devastated much of Europe; a quarter of Bohemia perished. Their defeat slammed the door on Czech independence for almost three centuries. The Czech national spirit was not so easily crushed, however, and by the 19th century, Prague - which had been unified in 1784 by imperial decree - had become the centre of the so-called Czech National Revival. Czech literature, architecture and journalism were celebrated, even as Czechs were denied participation in the political process.
Nationalist sentiment was growing as waves of pro-democracy protests swept the continent. An 1848 uprising was summarily squelched, but in 1861 the Czech majority defeated German candidates in the Prague council elections. It was a watershed event for Czech independence.
The 20th century solidified the Czech nationalist movement. Czechs had no interest in fighting for their Austrian masters in WWI, and neighbouring Slovakia was equally reluctant to take up arms for their German occupiers. Leaders from both independence movements approached US President Wilson, who was actively trying to build the League of Nations, asking for his help in achieving their dream. With Allied support, Czechoslovakia became an independent nation in 1918; Prague became its first capital.
The young country weathered the Great Depression only to be occupied by Nazi Germany in 1939 - Bohemia and Moravia were labelled a 'protectorate' and Slovakia an 'independent' (puppet) state. Prague's community of some 120,000 Jews was all but wiped out; almost three-quarters of them either starved or were murdered in concentration camps.
On May 5, 1945, the population of Prague rose up against German occupation forces as the Red Army approached from the east. Most of Prague was liberated before the Soviets arrived. Liberation Day is now celebrated on May 8; under communism it was May 9. In the 1946 elections, the communists became the young republic's dominant party, and in 1948 did away with the inefficiencies of a multi-party system with a Soviet-backed coup d'état.
In 1968, after years of gradual liberalisation under General Secretary Dubcek, the 'Prague Spring' came into full bloom. Full democracy, an end to censorship, and 'socialism with a human face' were the goals of this popular movement. Moscow was miffed and sent tanks into Prague. Fifty-eight people died, almost 300,000 sympathisers lost their jobs and, in something of a step down, Dubcek was forced to find employment with the Slovak Forestry Department.
The newly stringent communist leadership maintained control until the breaching of the Berlin Wall in 1989. A series of peaceful demonstrations beginning on November 17 became confrontational, though the essentially nonviolent character of the uprising earned it the name 'Velvet Revolution'. Free elections were held in 1990, and the Czech and Slovakian separatist movements subsequently inspired the smooth 1993 split into the Czech and Slovak Republics, remembered as the 'Velvet Divorce'. Prague quickly became one of the top tourist destinations in the world during the 1990s, and the ringing of cash registers combined with a solid industrial base has left its citizens in better economic shape than those in the rest of the country. Much of this spare change has been reinvested in the city itself, making for an even more pleasant visit.
The Czech Republic has become a member state of the EU, and Prague will preside gracefully as the country finds a new place in the world.
In August 2002 Prague experienced the worst floods in almost two centuries, with the river Vltava sweeping the city.
Sixteen people died, hundreds of thousands of people were forced to evacuate their homes and businesses, the historic city centre was closed off and there were fears - not realised - that the 14th-century Charles Bridge would be washed away. The final damage was calculated in the billions of US dollars, with the city's low-lying Jewish Quarter suffering considerable damage, as well as the Karlin and Troja districts, the metro system and numerous cultural and tourist attractions. Despite the disastrous damage, Prague and its citizens managed to bounce back, demonstrating once again that the spirit of the city really is indomitable.