For thousands of years, settlers were attracted by the fertile San Valley, where the Sandomierz Basin meets the Carpathians. The Lendian Tribe, who belonged to the Western Slavs, erected a fortified town at the meeting point of important trade routes.
In his chronicles, Jan Długosz quotes a legend concerning the establishment of Przemyśl in the 7th century, by the head of the tribe, Przemysław, from whom the town was to take its name. After seizure of Lesser Poland by Great Moravia, Przemyśl also fell within its rule. The Hungarian army stayed there during the eventful 10th century.
Officially, Przemyśl entered history in 981, thanks to a note made in Nestor’s chronicle:
“In the year of our Lord 6489 (981), Włodzimierz approached the Lendians and occupied their towns in Przemyśl, Czerwień and others.” Przemyśl, then occupied by the Ruthenians, was regained again for Poland in 1018 by Bolesław I the Brave. Unique relics of stone buildings, dating back to the time of the first Piasts, exposed in the castle court yard, have been preserved. The town, situated in the strategic “Przemyśl Gate,” was a valuable conquest for rulers and dukes in this part of Europe. The frequently invaded Przemyśl passed from hand to hand, conquered, among others, by the Ruthenians and Hungarians. It was even once a capital of a separate Russian Duchy for several dozen years.
Jan Długosz wrote in his chronicles:
“It was then a huge town, settled by a great number of local inhabitants and newcomers, supplied with various weapons, fortified with deep ditches and high trenches, as well as the San River, flowing from the north side of the town.” Finally, Przemyśl was incorporated in 1340 into Poland by King Casimir III the Great, who ordered the erection of a Gothic castle on a hill overlooking the town. Since that day, Przemyśl remained faithfully within Polish borders until the partitions of Poland, with a short break of about a dozen years, during the rule of the Hungarian and Polish King, Louis of Anjou.
In a document from 1389, King Władysław Jagiełło decided as follows:
“Desiring with our consideration, to bring our town, Przemyśl, to a better condition and standard, in order that it might happily flourish under our rule, we change the law upon which the town was established into a German law, called Magdeburg Law.”
As early as in the 14th century, the town’s coat of arms was visible on the town seal: a walking bear with a cross above it. In the Middle Ages, a bear, the ruler of European forests and woods, symbolized power, bravery and tenacity towards enemies.
Przemyśl during the Golden Age
The founder of the Jagiellonian dynasty erected a Gothic Cathedral at the foot of the Castle Hill. The town was the seat of two dioceses. The subsequent Polish kings cared for the development of Przemyśl. New secular and sacral buildings were built, new settlers from within the country and abroad settled there, numerous religious congregations and guilds were established. Inhabitants of Przemyśl made use of the location of their town, growing wealthy through trade. Merchants erected magnificent tenement buildings with warehouses that can still be seen on three frontages of the unique, sloping market square.
The sixteenth century was the Golden Age of both Poland and Przemyśl. Huge fortifications with towers and three gates began to be erected at that time. Evidence of the wealth of Przemyśl and its inhabitants (Poles, Ruthenians, Germans and Jews) is an impressive town hall and a water supply system. The power of Przemyśl can still be seen, among others, in its churches: Carmelites, Jesuits, Order of the Reformati and the Franciscans.
The capital of the Przemyśl Land was counted among the biggest and richest Polish towns. The most eminent and famous families had their seats in lands rich in woods and game, arable fields, and salt, the local treasure, such as the Herburt, Kmita, Krasicki, Wapowski, Korniaktowie, Fredro, Drohojowski, Orzechowski and Tarnowski families.
Inhabitants of the Przemyśl Land were also familiar with the problems that all of Poland had to face in the 17th century. Hordes of plunderers came, like the Wallachians, Tatars, and Cossacks, and the pillaging campaigns of foreign armies. Przemyśl’s townspeople were also affected by fires, floods and epidemics. As did all of Poland, Przemyśl declined during the 18th century, though even in those uneasy times, its townsmen managed to either erect or reconstruct some historical buildings.
The First Partition of Poland in 1772 deprived Przemyśl’s townspeople of their Polish nationality for 146 years. The Przemyśl Land fell to the Austrians, who created a new province, Galicia, on the seized lands. The invaders quickly established their order in the town. They had almost all town walls, a town hall and some churches demolished. The town was even sold to private hands, but following the interventions of the townspeople, Emperor Joseph II returned the status of free town to Przemyśl in 1789.
Przemyśl – a big fortress
The strategic location of Przemyśl was appreciated by the Austrians, who decided to build a fortress here. The first fortification works were conducted in 1854. The construction and modernisation of forts and field fortifications were continued until 1878, practically up to the outbreak of WWI. The Austrians erected one of the most important fortresses of the old continent in the hills around Przemyśl. Its aim was to stop the Russian army that was approaching from the east. The town, surrounded by two rings of fortifications, experienced a second splendour. Przemyśl got railway connections with Cracow, Lviv and Budapest. New, representative buildings, barracks and hospitals, hotels, magnificent tenement houses and villas, industrial plants and field airports were built there. The number of Przemyśl citizens surged.
Soon after the outbreak of WWI, on 26 September, 1914, the Fortress of Przemyśl, defended by over 120 thousand soldiers from the Austro-Hungarian Army, was completely surrounded by the Russian Army, which was twice as large. In spite of shellfire and fierce storming by the Russian infantry, they did not manage to capture any of the forts, losing dozens of thousands of soldiers to death, injury, or captivity. The second siege of the Przemyśl Fortress lasted from 8 November, 1914 until 22 March, 1915. This time the Russians surrounded the Fortress, waiting for its supplies to run out. Supply deficits and the deteriorating morale of the soldiers forced the commanders of the Fortress to surrender it. Before the Russian were let in, all the forts, bridges and cannons were blown up. Having lost the “Hungarian Gate,” as Przemyśl was called upon the Danube, the Austrians decided to recapture it. As a result of the third siege, combined Austro-Hungarian and German forces conquered the ruins of the forts at the beginning of June 1915.
Przemyśl played an important role in the struggle between the contemporary European superpowers. Fights for the Przemyśl Fortress are perceived by historians as the greatest battles of the 20th century in Europe. The ruins of the huge forts and cemeteries attract many domestic and foreign tourists and fortification lovers to Przemyśl. Thanks to the novel by Jarosław Haszek, “Adventures of the Good Soldier Švejk,” Przemyśl was included into global literature. Joseph Švejk lived his adventures here in 1915.
Przemyśl in contemporary history
When the foundations of the Habsburg Dynasty were shaking, Przemyśl citizens began to struggle for the Polish identity, based on the example of the inhabitants of Lviv. On 11 November, 1918, following short Polish and Ukrainian fights in the streets, Przemyśl became free again.
The youngest fighters, killed in November and December 1918, were called the Eaglets of Przemyśl. During the interwar period, Przemyśl was the third biggest town in this part of the country, after Cracow and Lviv. A big garrison of the Polish Army was stationed here. Its soldiers had an active role in the defence of their homeland in September 1939.
WWII was a tragic chapter in the history of Przemyśl. At the end of September 1939, the San became a border for two invaders. Przemyśl shared the fate of the whole country, occupied by invaders: the Germans stayed behind in the San region, and the Soviets seized the Old Town and the Centre, from where they deported many Polish families to forced-labour camps. The invaders built numerous shelters of the so-called Molotov Line in the town. In June 1941, during German attacks of the USSR, the former allies fought regularly in the streets. Shellfire destroyed entire districts of tenement houses, including historical buildings, and many townspeople were killed. Having captured the whole town, the Nazis almost entirely exterminated the Jewish community, either through mass executions or in extermination camps.
The end of German occupation in 1944 did not bring the town and its surroundings their long-awaited peace. The Przemyśl Land was artificially divided by a new “border of friendship” with the USSR. Battles with Ukrainian nationalists took place in the immediate vicinity of Przemyśl. The majority of Ukrainian citizens were displaced to the USSR or to Regained Territories. Poles who had been expelled from their houses in the former Borderlands settled in Przemyśl. In turn, the Soviet Ukraine took over the Borderlands.
Communistic authorities limited the role of Przemyśl to an unimportant district town, whose development was hindered by its border location. The situation of Przemyśl improved slightly upon its appointment in 1975 to the rank of a provincial town. Following the last administrative reform and the liquidation of the Przemyśl Voivodeship, it became a district town.