The old town of Kuldīga is located in the west of Latvia at the confluence of the Venta and Alekšupīte rivers in the central part of Kurzeme, approximately 150 kilometers west of Riga. First mentioned in historical documents in 1242, Kuldīga has been part of the Hanseatic League since 1368. The town has been at the crossroads of trade routes for centuries and today has a population of over 10,000.
The historic center of Kuldīga, which has been preserved in an exceptionally good condition, is a wonderful reminder of the prosperity and commercial development of Courland in the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries, when the town was known as Goldingen. The Duchy of Courland and Semigallia was an autonomous vassal state under the rule of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, which in the form of a triangle stretched 500 km eastward from the coast of the Baltic Sea to the Daugava, bordering the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, Polish Livonia, the Kingdom of Sweden and later the Russian Empire. Courland ruled this important part of the Baltic from 1561 to 1795 and left its legacy in the wider geopolitical area.
Kuldiga (Goldingen) was the main residence and administrative center of the first ruler of Courland, Duke Gotthard Ketler, since 1561. During the co-rule of Gotthard Kettler's heirs, Goldingen was the residence and administrative center of Duke Wilhelm Kettler, who was granted power over Courland in 1596 and ruled until 1616. In the census of 1613, it was documented that there were 175 buildings in Kuldīga. In addition to the traditional log buildings, Kuldīga also had brick buildings, wooden construction buildings, which were often decoratively plastered and painted, as well as buildings covered with wooden panels - both residential and shed buildings. Kuldīga's architecture flourished due to the rich exchange of traveling artisans from other Hanseatic towns and centers around the Baltic Sea, as well as from Russia, which is still evident in the town's architectural style, crafts, and decorations.
Justification of Outstanding Universal Value: (preliminary identification of site values justifying inscription on the World Heritage List)
The old town of Kuldīga (Goldingen) is the best-preserved and last remaining evidence of the urban environment, which is reflected in the layout of the streets and plots of land with essential preserved elements of the architectural character and infrastructure from the times of the Duchy of Courland and Semigallia.
As one of the smallest European countries that participated in the colonization of overseas territories, Courland, and its most important urban center Kuldīga (Goldingen) bear witness to trade routes in the Baltics and beyond from the end of the 16th century to the 18th century. In addition, Kuldīga is the last surviving urban evidence of duchy architecture, thus providing unique information about the duchy's towns, industries, crafts, traditions, and people.
Criteria under which inscription is proposed:
Kuldīga (Goldingen) provides a unique testimony of the Duchy of Courland and Semigallia and its era of prosperity, international trade relations and cultural exchange, both as the residence of the first ruler and the administrative center. With the fact that up to three-quarters of the masonry architecture built up to the 19th century has been partially or fully preserved in the town, Kuldīga is the best and last remaining evidence of the urban environment of the Courland era.
The historical center of Kuldīga is a tangible proof of the life of a small country that defended its rights among other much larger powers on the international scale of that time. Considering this special role, Kuldīga bears vivid evidence of Courland's trade and craft exchanges, cross-cultural contacts, and the traditions of tangible and intangible cultural heritage, which the inhabitants of Kuldīga still know and honor today.
The old town of Kuldīga includes the medieval mound plateau and the medieval village of Kalnamiests, combining them into a wider urban environment that was formed between the 16th and 18th centuries and later expanded, mostly outside the historical center, in the 19th and further into the 20th centuries. The proposed area covers the expansion of the town until the 19th century and its important location in nature. The place is currently mostly preserved according to the condition of the 18th and 19th centuries. Therefore, it includes the complete historical heritage of Courland, which has been preserved until today and is especially visible in the unchanged urban planning, architectural evidence, and landscape.
Although extensive fires in 1615 and 1669 destroyed certain parts of Kuldīga, residential houses were rebuilt, and most of Kuldīga's architectural heritage, which still bears witness to the importance of Kuldīga as a prominent town in the Duchy of Courland and Semigallia, was created during these active periods. In later years, the abandonment of houses after the Great Plague and individual fires made it necessary to build several houses of the late 18th and 19th centuries, which preserved the shape, size, style, and decorative lines of the previous houses. Unlike other Courland towns, Kuldīga survived the great wars of the 20th century, largely unscathed, and modern urban construction trends have been brought to life far outside its historical center.
Although it could be considered that the urban area has not been completely preserved, because the residence of the Courland rulers, the Kuldiga Castle, was destroyed by the Swedes during the Great Northern War (1700-1721) and only ruins have survived from it as archaeological remains, the documents of its destruction actually show difficulties, which the rulers of Courland faced. In addition, the rulers of Courland only used a previously built medieval castle of the Livonian Order, which never symbolized Courland and its architectural language.
Due to the strict legal prohibition in the historic town and the well-maintained urban conservation area, the area does not face any major threats that could negatively affect the old town in the future.
The urban environment and architectural heritage of Kuldīga has been well preserved both in terms of materials, design and execution and continues to function in the local community for both housing, shed buildings and commercial space. The old town has also preserved its authenticity in terms of the surrounding environment and location, as not only the layout and size of the town has been preserved, but also the overall landscape of the urban environment, especially when viewed from the other side of the Venta River.
Continuous state support since 1978, together with a strictly managed urban conservation area protected by an urban conservation plan, integrating a programmatic approach to conservation and maintenance works, has helped preserve the historical image and create an exquisite conservation result according to the highest international standards. Officially established in 2010, the Restoration Center has become a strong community supporter for the proper preservation of private properties.
The inhabitants of Kuldīga are well aware and proud of their history and heritage from the Duchy of Courland and other time periods and want to pass this heritage on to future generations. Residents actively continue to practice certain craft traditions, the origins of which can be traced back to the times of the Duchy, and are involved in the maintenance of both architectural and intangible cultural traditions, including trying to achieve recognition of Kuldīga's heritage at various international levels. The European Cultural Heritage Label, awarded to Kuldīga in 2008, especially praises the high standards of authenticity of the old town of Kuldīga and the surrounding environment. Therefore, it can be confirmed that Kuldīga maintains its authenticity according to the highest standards.
Comparison with other similar sites:
Kuldīga (Goldingen) has a rich mix of architectural attributes, bearing witness to the unique role of the Duchy of Courland and Semigallia in international (trade) relations and cultural exchange from the 16th to the 18th century. Despite being a vassal state of the Polish-Lithuanian Union, it managed to gain relative political independence, exercising sovereignty far beyond that of other regional powers and establishing diplomatic and trade relations with many major European countries and Russia. Located in the middle between the opposing powers of Sweden, Poland-Lithuania and Russia, it stood out for its political neutrality and early liberal policies, acting both as a buffer zone and as a mediator and refuge.
Internationally, the only duchy comparable in its degree of political and economic independence, as well as international recognition, is the Duchy of Prussia, whose excellence has been repeatedly recognized by its architectural evidence on the World Heritage List. The Museum Island in Berlin, the palaces and parks of Potsdam and Berlin, and the palaces of Augustusburg and Falkenlust an der Briele all attest to Prussia's great achievements in architecture, science, and intellect. Muzeju sala Berlīnē, Potsdamas un Berlīnes pilis un parki un Augustusburgas un Falkenlustas pie Brīles pilis visas apliecina Prūsijas lielos sasniegumus gan arhitektūras, gan zinātnes un intelektuālajā līmenī.
However, in terms of trade relations, diplomacy, and colonies, Courland was much more advanced than Prussia. Likewise, the duchy's policy of religious and ethnic tolerance, as well as economic and political neutrality between opposing powers, was far-sighted at the time. However, Courland and its physical evidence have not yet been recognized in the World Heritage List. Although the former colony of Courland in The Gambia is inscribed as part of the Kunta Kinteh Island and Associated Area World Heritage Site, its Outstanding Universal Value does not derive from its role in relation to Courland. Neither The Gambia nor the duchy's other former colonial territory, Tobago, both of which reflect Courland's imperial activities, would be able to comprehensively represent Courland's heritage. Therefore, only the territory of modern Latvia can testify to this amazing period, which refers to world history and which requires a comparative analysis mainly at the national level.
In general, very little historical urban material from this time period has been preserved as a result of the devastating effects of the various conflicts and wars that took place in the territory of Courland for centuries. Due to its geopolitical location as a buffer zone between opposing powers, Courland became the scene of many wars, such as the Polish-Swedish War (1655-1660) and the Great Northern War (1700-1721). Finally, the Second World War destroyed most of what was left, when in 1944 the front line of German and Soviet troops was located in the Jelgava region for three months. Traces of various wars, in addition to other conflicts and looting, greatly reduce the ability of many Latvian towns to authentically demonstrate the Outstanding Universal Value of the Duchy.
Throughout the country, the most important surviving evidence of the period between the 16th and 18th centuries is the respective churches, many of which have since been remodeled. As for the castles, those that have remained are either greatly altered or in ruins, including Ventspils, Bauska and Aizpute castles. Since the Courland castles were castles of the time of the Livonian Order and therefore do not represent the architecture of Kurz Courland, several palaces were built in the 18th century by order of the dukes. Unfortunately, Jelgava Palace had to be completely reconstructed in the fifties of the 20th century after it burned down. Rundāle Palace, the best remaining evidence of ducal palaces, documents the transformations during the exile of Duke Ernst Johann Biron in the mid-18th century, and unfortunately was also affected by the First World War. With the exception of Kuldiga, there are a few – usually smaller – towns where authentic urban structures from the Duchy period can still be seen (e.g., Kandava, Talsi and Bauska). In the port cities of Liepāja and Ventspils there are remains of commercial and storage buildings, which sometimes lack authenticity due to later changes. The remains of residential buildings can be found in towns such as Bauska, Jelgava, Liepāja, Kandava, Talsi and Ventspils, the best-preserved ones are in Bauska, where the building inspection carried out in 2012/2013 showed that 23 buildings from the duchy period still exist; about 15 of them are quite authentic. In Kuldīga, you can still find more than 70% of the masonry constructions of buildings built before the 19th century.
Finally, Kuldīga is not always distinguished by the fact that it was historically more important than other towns and cities of Courland, but by its exemplary degree of conservation and completeness, which reflects the times when the small Duchy of Courland and Semigallia participated in international trade with the most powerful European nations. Kuldīga is the last and only large administrative center and the residence of the ruler of Courland that has survived to this day and therefore bears witness to this era in a way that no other town or city can. Given the intense war history of the area described, it is surprising that the town can retain such a significant amount of its historic urban character. The authenticity and integrity seen in Kuldīga is unmatched in the region. Therefore, it was established that Kuldīga (Goldingen) is the only place that can represent the formulated Outstanding Universal Value as evidence of the historical period of the Duchy of Courland and Semigallia.