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Daneel Bouden

If you ask a foreigner what Amsterdam is famous about, he’ll most likely mention de coffeeshops or the red light district. Ask dutchmen the same question, and it’s just as likely he’ll come up the city’s canals.

Amsterdamse grachtenThe Amsterdam canals originated in the eleventh century when farmers and fishers created an Island in the middle of the Amstel river to stay dry during the wet seasons. Later they extended the island in northern and southern directions, and now they’re called Damrak and Rokin, the major streets leading from central station to the Munt tower with Dam square in the middle.

Amsterdam obtained city status in 1275
Count Floris the fifth declared Amsterdam a toll-free area in October 1275. As this is the first recorded written date that mentions Amsterdam by name, some think this is the city’s date. This is, of course, rubbish; the city had been around in some form or another for at least 250 years before this date if you look at the development of the land the city was founded on, maybe even earlier.

What was to become Amsterdam (Aemestelle and Aemstelredaman) arose at the end of the ninth century. The ground of what is now the province of North Holland and which Amsterdam is a part of, was made up of wetlands and peat. Little by little, the inhabitants reclaimed more and more land. Aemestelle and Aemstelredaman are previous names given to the city that was later to become the capital of the Royal Kingdom of the Netherlands. Still, we just call it Nederland or Holland.

Amsterdam uses to have many more canals than it does now. Quite a few were filled up again as there became more of a need for wider roads. All in all, about seventy canals had to go. Examples of this are the Elandsgracht, Palmgracht, Lindengracht, Nieuwezijds Voorburgwal and Rozengracht.

The Damrak was once the harbour of Amsterdam; it was crossed by at least 3 bridges; it was the river’s mouth, the place where ships set sail to distant shores. There’s not a lot left of that anymore; a few touring boats are all that anchor there these days.

De main canals of the city are now het Singel, Herengracht, Keizersgracht and Prinsengracht; the Nieuwezijds Voorburgwal was also part of them but was filled up the second half of the 19th century.

The canals are laid out in the shape of horseshoes around the city centre. An aerial photo like the one depicted on the right proves a fine point. It’s easy to see that there’s a nucleus with houses build around it, and at the back of these houses, a new canal was dug.
This way, freshwater run in the city on one side and out of it on the other. It also made it possible that all the houses, warehouses, and companies were easily stocked and supplied by way of these waterways.

The motor car adores, the water retreats
The rise of the car has killed off several canals. Some said that hygiene was also a factor, but I find that hard to believe; one canal more or less wouldn’t make that much of a difference, although there were somehow some canals that missed out on the flow of water one way in the other way out system and were in fact stagnant and stank.

The function of the canals has changed; now, it’s their beauty and architecture that’s the main attraction. We, natives, love our canals; I love walking down them, up to one bridge and down another, checking out the tourists and student girls riding their many-coloured and be basket bicycles (bicycles with baskets on them.) Tourists love taking tours on the many tourist boats Amsterdam owns, sailing down the canals, under bridges, passing the girls in the red light district and finally into the harbour and back. We are proud of our city. Once more, freight barges like the DHL boat use the canals to deliver their wares as traffic on the roads next to them is usually congested. There are water taxis as well.