History of Vilnius

The earliest settlements in the area of present day Vilnius appear to be of mesolithic origin. Numerous archaeological findings in different parts of the city prove that the area has been inhabited by peoples of various cultures since the early Middle Ages. Initially a Baltic settlement, later it was also inhabited by Slavs, Jews and Germans. Some historians identify the city with Voruta, a forgotten capital of King Mindaugas.

The city was first mentioned in written sources in 1323 as the capital city of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania in the letters of Gediminas. Gediminas built his wooden castle on a hill in the city. The city became more widely known after he wrote a circular letter of invitation to Germans and Jews to the principal Hansa towns in 1325, offering free access into his domains to men of every order and profession. Vilnius was granted city rights by Jogaila in 1387, following the Christianization of Lithuania and the construction of the Vilnius Cathedral. The town was initially populated by local Lithuanians, but soon the population began to grow as craftsmen and merchants of other nationalities settled in the city.

Tale of Vilnius

According to a tale, tired after a busy hunting day, Gediminas had a prophetic dream about an iron wolf howling on a top of the hill. When he asked a krivis (a pagan priest) Lizdeika for an explanation of the dream, he was told that he must build a castle on the top of that hill, which is strategically surrounded by three rivers (Neris, Vilnia, and Vingria (now underground)) and a grand city around that hill, so that “the iron-wolf-like sound about this great city would spread around the world”. Some versions of this tale state, that for his advice, Lizdeika was given a name of Radziwiłł. The derivative of a Lithuanian name Radvila has also been interpreted as derived from the Belarusian word “радзіць” or Polish “radzi” (meaning “advises”). (The Lithuanian word for “vilkas” is a wolf.)