The first traces of human settlement found in Tallinn’s city center by archeologists are about 5,000 years old. The comb ceramic pottery found on the site dates to about 3000 BC and corded ware pottery c. 2500 BC.
In 1050, the first fortress was built on Tallinn Toompea.
As an important port for trade between Russia and Scandinavia, it became a target for the expansion of the Teutonic Knights and the Kingdom of Denmark during the period of Northern Crusades in the beginning of the 13th century when Christianity was forcibly imposed on the local population. Danish rule of Tallinn and Northern Estonia started in 1219.
In 1285, the city, then known as Reval, became the northernmost member of the Hanseatic League – a mercantile and military alliance of German-dominated cities in Northern Europe. The Danes sold Reval along with their other land possessions in northern Estonia to the Teutonic Knights in 1346. Medieval Reval enjoyed a strategic position at the crossroads of trade between Western and Northern Europe and Russia. The city, with a population of 8,000, was very well fortified with city walls and 66 defence towers.
A weather vane, the figure of an old warrior called Old Thomas, was put on top of the spire of the Tallinn Town Hall in 1530 that became the symbol for the city.
With the start of the Protestant Reformation the German influence became even stronger as the city was converted to Lutheranism. In 1561, Reval politically became a dominion of Sweden.
During the Great Northern War, plague stricken Tallinn along with Swedish Estonia and Livonia capitulated to Imperial Russia in 1710, but the local self-government institutions (Magistracy of Reval and Chivalry of Estonia) retained their cultural and economical autonomy within Imperial Russia as the Governorate of Estonia. The Magistracy of Reval was abolished in 1889. The 19th century brought industrialization of the city and the port kept its importance. During the last decades of the century Russification measures became stronger.
On 24 February 1918, the Independence Manifesto was proclaimed in Reval, soon to be Tallinn, followed by Imperial German occupation and a war of independence with Russia. On 2 February 1920, the Tartu Peace Treaty was signed with Soviet Russia, wherein Russia acknowledged the independence of the Estonian Republic. Tallinn became the capital of an independent Estonia. After World War II started, Estonia was annexed by the Soviet Union (USSR) in 1940, and later occupied by Nazi Germany from 1941 to 1944. After the Nazi retreat in 1944, it was again annexed by the USSR. After annexation into the Soviet Union, Tallinn became the capital of the Estonian SSR.
During the 1980 Summer Olympics, the sailing (then known as yachting) events were held at Pirita, north-east of central Tallinn. Many buildings, such as the “Olümpia” hotel, the new Main Post Office building, and the Regatta Centre, were built for the Olympics.
In August 1991, an independent democratic Estonian state was re-established and a period of quick development to a modern European capital ensued. Tallinn became the capital of a de facto independent country once again on 20 August 1991.
Tallinn has historically consisted of three parts:
The Toompea (Domberg) or “Cathedral Hill”, which was the seat of the central authority: first the Danish captains, then the komturs of the Teutonic Order, and Swedish and Russian governors. It was until 1877 a separate town (Dom zu Reval), the residence of the aristocracy; it is today the seat of the Estonian parliament, government and some embassies and residencies.
The Old Town, which is the old Hanseatic town, the “city of the citizens”, was not administratively united with Cathedral Hill until the late 19th century. It was the centre of the medieval trade on which it grew prosperous.
The Estonian town forms a crescent to the south of the Old Town, where the Estonians came to settle. It was not until the mid-19th century that ethnic Estonians replaced the local Baltic Germans as the majority among the residents of Tallinn.
The city of Tallinn has never been razed and pillaged, that was the fate of Tartu, the university town 200km south, which was pillaged in 1397 by the Teutonic Order. Around 1524 Catholic churches in many towns in Estonia, including Tallinn, were pillaged as part of the Reformational fervor: this occurred throughout Europe. Although extensively bombed by Soviet air forces during the later stages of World War II, much of the medieval Old Town still retains its charm. The Tallinn Old Town (including Toompea) became a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage site in 1997.
At the end of the 15th century a new 159m high Gothic spire was built for St. Olaf’s Church. Between 1549 and 1625 it may have been the tallest building in the world. After several fires and following rebuilding, its overall height is now 123m.