Tallinn's Old Town is located on a limestone hill in the central part of the city. The hill is an oblong plateau, measuring about 400 by 250 meters, has about 7 hectares, and is about 20-30 meters higher than the surrounding areas. In folklore, the hill is known as 'the mound above Kalev's tomb', erected in his memory by his mourning wife.
Today it is the center of Estonia's government, which resides in the Stenbock House, and of the Riigikogu (parliament), often referred to as Toompea. The Riigikogu is based in Toompea Castle, located in the southwestern corner of the hill and topped by the Pikk Hermann tower. The flag on the top of the tower is one of the best-known symbols in Estonia of the Estonian parliament's power and independence.
Toompea is part of the ancient city of Tallinn which was listed as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO.
The first stronghold is thought to have been built on the hill around the 10th or 11th century by residents of the ancient Estonian county of Revala. In the late Iron Age, the fortified settlement probably had no permanent inhabitants but was used seasonally to protect the harbor and the adjacent market. The stronghold's exact location is not known, but it is assumed that it occupied only a small portion of Toompea, i.e., the highest point, a little southeast of today's Toom Kirik Cathedral or the north end of the hill. The first archaeological evidence on the hill's shape dates back mainly to the second half of the 12th century and the first half of the 13th century. Small amounts of ancient artifacts suggest that the fortress would have been built already during the Viking Age.
The fort is mentioned in the Chronicles of Henry of Livonia, of the Livonian Crusade, with the name of Lindanise. As part of the crusade, in 1219, the King of Denmark, Valdemar II of Denmark, launched an attack on Tallinn. His crusade conquered the deserted fortress and, in the same summer, began the construction of a new castle, later named Castrum Danorum. After the Battle of Lyndanisse, which was fought near the castle and led to the Danish victory over the Estonians, a cathedral was built on the hill, although it was probably not located in the same place today.
In the summer of 1227, the castle of Toompea was conquered by the Brothers of the Sword, who immediately after the conquest began to fortify the hill. The plateau was divided into three parts: the small castle, the large castle, and the exteriors (the southernmost part of the plateau in front of the two castles). The first stone of the Order's Castle (Small Castle) was placed in the plateau's southwestern corner around 1227-1229. The original castle was roughly the same shape as the later castle expansions but was slightly smaller. The castle was returned to Denmark after the Treaty of Stensby in 1238 and remained in its possession (along with the rest of northern Estonia - see Danish Estonia) for the next 138 years. In 1240 the construction of the cathedral was completed in the place where it stands today. In the second half of the 13th-century, Toompea (Great Castle) was surrounded by a hill's perimeter wall, built mainly by the vassal who owned the manor.
Early 19th-century map showing the boundary between the territories of Toompea and the Lower Town.
From that time on, Toompea began to develop as a provincial center of authority, clergy, and nobility in northern Estonia. Most of Toompea's vassals chose it as their residence - that living on their properties in the conquered countryside was deemed too dangerous. Thus by the end of the 13th century, the Castello Grande was densely populated. The distinction between Toompea and the Lower Town (Tallinn) was forming as Tallinn gained its own administration, at least in 1248, when the King of Denmark Eric IV granted the city the right of Lübeck perhaps even earlier. In 1265 the Lower Town was freed from the power of the castellan, and in 1288, the commanders of the castle also lost the judicial power over its citizens.
Construction and expansion work on the two castles continued in the following centuries. In the first half of the 14th century, the south wall of the Great Castle was renovated, and its moat was joined with the eastern moat of the Small Castle. In this way, the castles' outer courtyard was formed after their south, and a wall had surrounded south-east sides. The castle had two exits: the most important was the southern gate of the outer courtyard, through which one entered the road leading to the Tõnismägi. The second was the gateway to the east, which connected Toompea with the Lower Town with the Lunga gamba (the road connecting the lower town and the Castle).
In the aftermath of the St George's Night Rising in 1346, Denmark sold its possessions in northern Estonia, which passed under the Livonian Order rule for the next 215 years. Tallinn (lower city), which was still subject to Lübeck rights and only nominally depended on the feudal system, was transformed into a thriving Hanseatic city. At the same time, Toompea remained politically and socially antithetical to the Lower City. The delimitation of Toompea and Tallinn's territories was fixed by an agreement of 1348 when 220 hectares of the city's territory were assigned to Toompea. That area, located southwest of the hill and where the suburbs of Vorstadt) of Toompea, Tõnismäe, Kassisaba, and Kelmiküla were later built called 'Dome territory' until the 20th century.
Shortly after returning to Toompea, the Order began expanding the castle - the entire Castle of the Order (in German Ordensburg) was enlarged and transformed into the most important center of its northern kingdoms, a symbol of their military might and politics. New, higher outer walls were built, and the moats were widened and made deeper. The first part of the Pikk Hermann tower, located on top of Toompea Castle, was completed in 1371. Pikk Hermann was Tallinn's first tower for defending the city in the era of firearms. Later, in the 16th century, the tower was rebuilt higher than its original height of 35m. The Great castle wall was fortified with new towers: in all 14 defense towers (including an entrance tower named Torre dell Orologio - the only entrance and exit gate) that had been built along the walls already at the end of the 14th century.
Swedish and Russian rule
The Swedish Empire conquered northern Estonia during the Livonian War in 1561 and held it until the Great Northern War, when Russia conquered Tallinn in 1710. When Tallinn capitulated to Eric XIV of Sweden in 1561, the king decided not to change the status quo of relations between Toompea and the Lower City. Toompea, as a separate entity (Dom zu Reval) under direct administration, retained an important number of rights and privileges, the last of which remained until 1889. Toompea was grouped in Tallinn (Lower Town) in late 1878 when Russian ones replaced the laws governing the two cities during the period of Russification. The two parts of the city had been reunited in a short period in 1785-1796. and then definitively, in a single district, in 1805. However, special laws were kept in place for Toompea until 1944.
Toompea, in 1684, suffered the most devastating fire in its history. It had been affected by previous fires in 1288, 1433, 1553, and 1581, but the fire of 1684 was much wider, destroying most of the buildings in the Great Castle, including the ancient Cathedral or Dome of Toompea. The Small Castle managed to escape the fire and remained almost intact. Fires are one reason why Toompea has a different and more recent architectural appearance than the Lower Town.
At the end of the 17th century, several projects were carried out to strengthen Toompea and Tallinn's fortifications with earthworks and the construction of ramparts. Although a design by Erik Dahlbergh was approved in 1686, construction was slow due to financial difficulties and the start of the Great Northern War. Only two bastions were completed around Toompea as planned - the Swedish bastion and Ingermanland, protecting the south side.
After the Great Northern War and the conquest of Estonia by the Russian Empire, the first half of the 18th century was a period of the general abandonment of Toompea and the castle, which fell into disuse several decades. The situation changed in the second half of the 18th century: in 1767-1773, the east wing of the castle was completely rebuilt, becoming an administrative building of the Governorate of Reval under the orders of Catherine II. To build the building, the south tower of the castle (Stür den Kerl) was demolished, the moats were filled, and a square was built on the outside of the castle (Castle Square, in Estonian language Lossi plats). The building looked like a noble palace, which gave the castle its name: Palazzo Toompea. Stenbock House, one of the most important buildings on the north side of Toompea, was also built during this period, while the court apartments were probably completed in 1792.
Tallinn was removed from the list of fortified cities of the Russian Empire in 1857. This allowed for the construction of three new roads at the southern end of Toompea, on the previous defense structures: the Falgi road, built in 1856-1857, which runs west of the Paldiski motorway, the Toompea road (1860-1861), which runs in Tõnismägi and Komandandi Street which leads east, near the Harju Gate, where the Victory Column of the War of Independence is now located.
The general appearance of Toompea changed considerably with the construction of the Russian Revival and Orthodox-style Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, built in 1894-1900. The cathedral, located on the Castle Square in front of the Toompea Palace, was erected during the Russification period and imposed as a symbol of the Tsarist state and Russian rule. Due to its very prominent position and the immediately recognizable Russian style, the cathedral was opposed by most of the Estonian-Finnish citizens, and already towards the end of the 1920s and 1930s, in the independent Republic of Estonia, there were also proposals to demolish it.
In 1903, when the Patkuli Stairs were built near the northern end of the hill, Toompea gained new access to Tallinn Central Station.
The Old Tallinn Town Today
The many times rebuilt Toompea Castle - consisting of the Tsarist-era governor's palace, the walls and towers of the medieval fortress, the Estonian Expressionist parliament building dating from 1922, and a couple of other buildings - is now home to the Estonian Parliament. The governor's palace's classical facade dominates Lossi plats ('castle square'), opposite the Orthodox Alexander Nevsky Cathedral accompanies it. Today, the cathedral of the Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate has become a tourist destination due to its exotic appearance. At the same time, Estonians' opinion about it is rather ambiguous and does not appear to be much loved by them. The ancient Lutheran Cathedral (Toomkirik), from which the name Toompea originated, is the Estonian Evangelical Lutheran Church's seat and has maintained a medieval aspect among the buildings of Toompea. Most of Toompea's buildings date from the 18th to the 19th century. While the Small Castle has generally kept its shape, nothing or only a few Great Castle fragments remain.
Other sites of considerable importance in Toompea are the seat of the government of Estonia (also known as 'Stenbock House') and the building of the Estonian Knighthood, which from the early 1990s until 2005 housed the Estonian Museum of Art and since 2009 has temporarily used as the seat of the Estonian Academy of Arts. The Estonian Academy of Sciences is also based in Toompea, in the Ungern-Sternberg building (home to the local German interwar cultural center).
Toompea is also the location of several foreign embassies in Estonia, particularly those of Finland, the Netherlands, Portugal, and Canadian embassy offices.