Geneva : some history
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Cathédrale St-Pierre (©_OTC / Maydell)

Pile dwellings have been unearthed on the lakeshore dating back to 3000 BC, but Geneva’s high ground wasn’t inhabited until 500 BC, when the Celtic Allobroges tribe settled. By 58 BC, Rome had taken over: the first recorded use of the name Genua was by Julius Caesar. The town grew rapidly, and was a bishopric by 400 AD but, located on the turbulent mid-line of Europe, Geneva was continually conquered and reconquered, by Burgundians, Franks, Merovingians, Carolingians and more, until the fifteenth century, when the famous Geneva Fairs gave the city a reputation as a trading capital. The dukes of Savoy retained their grip on the town’s affairs up until 1530, when citizens took matters into their own hands and formed a pact with Bern and Fribourg. The Savoyards granted Geneva independence shortly after.

In 1535, the Genevois accepted the Reformation; the following year, the preacher Jean Calvin visited the city for the first time. Born in Picardy in 1509, Calvin was expelled from the University of Paris in 1533 for his heterodox views, and arrived by chance in Geneva three years later, where he was called upon by the leader of the religious community in the city, Guillaume Farel, to help consolidate the Reformation. After two years of opposition from city politicians, both were expelled, only to return in 1541 with Calvin at the helm. From a position of authority, Calvin was able to institute sweeping social and political reforms within a strict, uncompromising Protestant theocracy. Geneva became a beacon of refuge for the persecuted of Europe, and French Huguenots and Italian Protestants in particular flooded to the city, which also rapidly became a centre of academic excellence. The Geneva Bible of 1560 was the first English translation to be organized methodically, with numbered verses, and the city’s printing presses turned out hundreds of radical texts, unprintable elsewhere.

In 1602, forces of the Duke of Savoy tried to retake Geneva, but were repulsed in an event that is still commemorated today, in a celebration of the city’s independent, patriotic spirit, as L’Escalade. Wave after wave of refugees flowed into the city, shaping a cosmopolitanism and religious liberality which continue today. Commerce, banking and watchmaking all flourished, and in 1792 the aristocratic rulers of the city were overthrown and a Republic was declared with political equality for all. Geneva was annexed by France in 1798, and following the defeat of Napoleon in 1813, threw in its lot with the Swiss Confederation in 1815. A Genevan businessman, Henri Dunant, shaped the Geneva Convention of 1864, setting down for the first time rules for soldiers’ conduct in war. This led to the creation of the International Red Cross, designed to help soldiers or civilians caught up in war or natural disasters. After World War I, Geneva was chosen as seat of the League of Nations and later as the European headquarters of the United Nations. Since then, the city has looked outwards for inspiration, away from the rest of Switzerland and towards the international community. Only in the last few years, with the ongoing proposals to join the cantons of Geneva and neighbouring Vaud into a single Canton Léman, have the Genevois begun to look to their Swiss partners.

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