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Riga Facts and History

Updated on April 8, 2014
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Riga (also spelled Rīga) is the capital of Latvia. It is situated near the mouth of the Daugava (Western Dvina) River and the Gulf of Riga, an arm of the Baltic Sea. Riga is a major port, a road and rail junction, and an industrial and cultural center.

Among its leading industries are shipbuilding and repair, food processing, and the manufacture of textiles, transportation and communications equipment, and chemicals. Riga also has an important printing and publishing industry; a state university; an academy of sciences; theaters of opera, ballet, and drama; and many museums. The city is dotted with parks. The coastal resort of Jurmala is on the gulf.

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Although the site was earlier settled by Livonians and German merchants, Riga is considered to date from 1201, when Bishop Albert made it the headquarters of the Knights of the Sword, a military-religious order that later (1237) merged with the Teutonic Knights. The city grew rapidly and became a center for the expansion of Christianity—and German influence—throughout the Baltic region. Although the surrounding area of Livonia came under the suzerainty of the Holy Roman Empire in 1207, Riga was ruled by its bishop (later, archbishop) until 1282, when it joined the Hanseatic League. The archbishops subsequently regained control, only to lose it in the Reformation, when Riga became Lutheran.

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The city maintained its independence for some time after the rest of Livonia came under Polish-Lithuanian rule, but in 1581 it too passed to Poland. In the following century the area became a battleground in the struggle between Poland and Gustavus Adolphus (King Gustav II of Sweden), who captured Riga in 1621. Swedish control, however, was shortly succeeded by Russian: Peter the Great took the city in 1710, and in 1721 the whole of Livonia was formally ceded to Russia.

Russian rule lasted until 1918, when Riga became the capital of the newly proclaimed independent republic of Latvia, which was recognized internationally in 1920. Thereafter the city shared the fate of Latvia, being occupied by the Russians (1940), the Nazis (June 1941), and again the Russians (1944), who incorporated Latvia into the USSR. When Latvia proclaimed independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, Riga became the nation's capital.

Riga's history is reflected in its architecture, which exhibits all styles from medieval Gothic through Soviet monumental. Considerable damage was done to some of the city's historical structures during World War II, but many of them have been restored. The oldest buildings are found in the Old Town, on the right bank of the Daugava. Examples of secular architecture include Hanseatic warehouses and the houses known as the Three Brothers (15th–17th century). A number of the Old Town's buildings have their origins in the Middle Ages, yet they have experienced so much reconstruction and conversion that multiple styles can be found in individual buildings. The Castle of the Knights, which overlooks the river and houses a museum, was originally built in the 13th century, destroyed and rebuilt in the 15th century, and added on to in the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries. Although founded in 1211, the Dome Cathedral shows traces of Romanesque, Gothic, Renaissance, and baroque architecture. Saint Peter's Church, which also dates from 1211, was reconstructed in the 15th century and again after World War II.

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    • raymondphilippe profile image

      Raymond Philippe 3 years ago from The Netherlands

      Like to visit Riga. Seems, judging to your pictures and text, to be a lovely city. Maybe on a trip through the Baltic states that is long overdue. :-(

    • Bk42author profile image

      Brenda Thornlow 3 years ago from New York

      Before reading your hub I had never heard of Riga. Very interesting facts and great pics. Voted up!