Kranj history

The ancient town of Kranj, in older texts called also Carnium, Creina, Chreina, Krainbourg, Krainburg, is a historic town that stands on a rock between the rivers Sava and Kokra. The area of the city centre was inhabited already in the Late Stone Age or the Neolithic, more than 6000 years ago. This means that Kranj is one of the oldest inhabited locations in this country, one of the oldest Slovenian cities. Kranj is also the only settlement in Slovenia that has been inhabited continuously since antiquity, which is why some people actually define it as the oldest city in Slovenia.


The historical land of Carniola was named after the city of Kranj, its first centre. Kranj was the first capital of the Slovenes, since from the 8th century onwards it was the centre of the Slavic principality of Carniola. The Lombard chronicler Paulus Diaconus described it with the words “Carniola, patria Sclavorum” (Carniola, the homeland of the Slavs). The city was named after the Celtic tribe called Carni that are mentioned in written sources of antiquity (Livy, Pliny, Strabo).

The oldest known depiction of Kranj – hand-painted copperplate engraving by Matthäus Merian from 1649. The picture clearly shows the bridge that connects both banks of the Sava River. On the right bank, the church of St. Martin is clearly visible. It was demolished because the river was frequently flooding it, and a new one was built at Stražišče. Photo archive of the Gorenjska Museum


The oldest settlement from the Late Stone Age was located the tip of the conglomerate rock above the Kokra River, a square that is today called Trubarjev trg or Pungert. Many pieces of ceramic vessels, bones and stone tools from the period from 4900 to 4300 BC have been found here in several archaeological excavations since 1990. The site is comparable to the nearby Drulovka across the Sava River, where Neolithic remains were discovered in 1955 and 1956 and are now kept in the Gorenjska Museum. This settlement on Drulovka is considered a key site, next to the mounds in the Ljubljana Marshes, and on the basis of these sites, archaeologists defined the culture of the Late Stone Age in Slovenia.


There are no traces from the Bronze Age left in Kranj, but at its end (at the end of the so-called Urnfield culture and the beginning of the Early Iron Age or the so-called Hallstatt period, in the 8th century BC) an extremely large settlement grew here, surpassing in size the later medieval town centre. It included the entire area between the Sava and Kokra rivers, from the slope on the left bank of the Sava to where currently Hotel Creina is located. The remains of many residential buildings, ceramic pottery and traces of metallurgical activity were found. The cemetery of this settlement stretched from today’s Prešeren grove to the main bus station. In the Late Iron Age (3rd to 1st century BC), people did not seem to settle down as intensively in this location but graves from that time were found the vicinity of the Stošič Monument on Koroška road.


The first traces of the Roman occupation can be seen in numerous remains of high quality vessels imported from northern Italy, first finds of coins and pieces of Roman military equipment. The settlement flourished between the 1st century BC and the 1st century AD and was a trading post on the route between Emona and the Celtic kingdom of Noricum in the north. The first city wall with towers was built at that time. After the rise of Emona, this settlement declined but was revived in the late Roman period (4th century) when the natural protection on the elevated rock between two rivers became important due to dangerous conditions.


In the 5th and especially the 6th century, Kranj became the most important town in the area of ​​today’s Slovenia, a new defence wall was built, as well as an early Christian church with baptistery. The name of the settlement – Carnium – is known from this time. Small finds from the settlement and its extensive cemetery on today’s Sejmišče and Savska cesta indicate that a distinctly ethnically mixed population lived here during the barbarian migration. In addition to the Roman population, many Germanic tribes (Lombards, Eastern Goths, Alemanni, Franks) left their traces here. Extremely rich jewellery and military equipment were owned by the social elite of Late Antiquity. Remains of pit dwellings that were half underground (tuguriums) have been found throughout the city centre.

Round gold-plated flat clasps found in the grave of an Alemanni woman, site: Kranj, Lajh (photo: Tomaž Lauko)

S-shaped clasp, site: Kranj, Lajh (photo: Tomaž Lauko)

Kranj was the only settlement in Slovenia for which it has been proven that its Roman population lived there even at the time when the Slavic tribes arrived. The town had its central significance also in the Early Middle Ages (8th to 11th centuries). The Old Slavic cemetery around the parish church is the largest of its kind in the south-eastern Alpine area. At the same time, there was also a cemetery of almost the same size on the right bank of the Sava, near to where the railway station is today. Kranj was the capital of the Slavic principality of Carniola, which included the central part of later medieval land of Carniola, called Kranjska in Slovenian.


In 828, after the unsuccessful revolt of Ljudevit Posavski against the Franks, which the Slavs living in the upper reaches of the Sava River were also part of, the Franks established a county along the river with its seat in Kranj and thus set up a new administrative system in the Carniolan part of the Friulian march. Kranjska krajina (or the Carniolan march) was one of the border provinces subordinated to the Duchy of Carinthia since 973 (according to other sources since 976). After its separation from Carinthia in 1002, it became an independent province or margraviate ruled by a count called margravate. When the Counts of Andechs came to power in this province at the turn of the 12th and 13th centuries, they moved their seat from Kranj to Kamnik, and after the extinction of the Andechs family line, the capital was moved from there to Ljubljana.


The Counts of Andechs granted Kranj its city rights, so the citizens of Kranj were mentioned in textual sources as early as in 1221 and Kranj as a city (civitas) was mentioned for the first time in 1256. This new status resulted in a number of benefits for trade and crafts, especially for the trade in agricultural products and for ironworks activities. The Counts of Andechs gave Kranj also its coat of arms (eagle) and flag (burgundy-silver).


The urban outline of the medieval town developed along the central street that started at the north entrance tower and connected today’s Maister Square (created after the fire of 1811), Main Square and Trubar Square. The houses of merchants and craftsmen were lined up along this axis. The original passages between the buildings were gradually filled with new buildings, so the parallel streets lined with houses that have a view of the Kokra or the Sava became increasingly important for economic activities. The defence wall was based directly on the one from late Antiquity, then during the Turkish raids at the end of the 15th century, new towers were built in this wall and its north side was additionally fortified.


In the 17th century, after the city walls were no longer required, the houses on today’s Tomšič Street were built in the form in which they now stand. Craft workshops of leatherworkers, millers and blacksmiths grew in the suburbs by the Sava River, today’s Vodopivec Street, where the lower city gates were located. The skyline of the city was also extremely thoughtfully designed, as the height dominants of the bell towers and defence towers are combined into a triangular composition which is emphasized by the mountains in the background.


In the middle of the 15th century, the town got its exceptional late Gothic architectural masterpiece, the parish church of Sts. Cantius, Cantianus, Cantianilla, and Protus and it became a model for many new churches in Carniola. The Khislstein Castle developed from the former Ortenburg tower rising above the most favourable place to cross the Sava River. In its current image it was built by the Khisl family in the middle of the 16th century and parts of it were added in the 18th and 19th centuries.


The town has many bourgeois houses built in the Renaissance style, with arcaded courtyards, and across the street from the parish church, there is a series of houses with a jettied first floor. Also on the main square stands the town hall, the northern part of which was built in the late Gothic period and the Renaissance part with a hall was added later. This hall represents the most beautiful Renaissance interior in the Gorenjska region. The former palace of the Turjak counts, later owned by the Egkh family, stood between the town hall and the church. In the 15th century, the two additional churches were built as well – Our Lady of the Rosary at the top of the Vodopivec Street and the church dedicated to Saints Rocco, Fabian and Sebastian on Pungert.

Air photo of Kranj, taken by Primož Hieng

The most important economic activities in the Middle Ages were milling on the Sava and Kokra rivers, the butchery trade, tanning, leatherworking and various metal processing trades. Having fair privileges, Kranj tried to have a monopoly over trade and some crafts. Large revenues were generated by the weekly grain fair, which was the largest in Inner Austria and determined the price of grain in a significant way.

Stagnation in economic development was brought about by the peasant uprisings and the Reformation in the 16th century, but also in the 17th century, when the city lost its monopoly over crafts and long-distance trade. Plagues and many fires added to this (in 1668, a third of the houses burned down; in 1749 almost the whole town burned down and in 1811 its northern part). It was only due to the reforms of Maria Theresa that the city’s economy was strengthened again. During Napoleon’s occupation in 1810 the city got its first general secondary school for a short time.

Kranj, fair day, postcard from the end of the 19th century

The cultural and national awakening in the 19th century was marked by the poets France Prešeren and Simon Jenko living in Kranj, and by the writers Janez Mencinger and Ivan Tavčar. In 1897, the general secondary school was revived. The arrival of the railway in 1870 provided a strong economic stimulus. With the development of manufactures and industry at the end of the 19th century, Kranj increasingly became an industrial city. After the First World War, the textile industry experienced a special boom, factories were constructed along the Sava River and in the fields of Stražišče and Primskovo.

Kranj, Main Square, market, before the First World War

During the Second World War, housing construction for the first time expanded over the old borders on the left bank of the Kokra River. After the war, Kranj maintained its position as the administrative centre of the Gorenjska region, and the successful development of the rubber, textile, electro-technical and footwear industries greatly accelerated the growth of the population. This was followed by the expansion of non-economic activities – education, health, culture and the explosion of urban development in the form of new residential areas in Zlate polje and Planina.


Slovenia’s independence initially brought about the collapse of many labour-intensive industries (textile and footwear industries), but this was soon replaced by the private retail sector, trade, services, the electronic industry and the tire industry.