Geneva History

From border town to ambitious fence sitter, the life and times of Geneva might sound like the type of historical bedtime reading that heavies the eyelids, but examine a little closer and there are tales of authors being burnt at the stake and a landlocked city ravaged by a tsunami.

The earliest evidence of occupation around the vast Lake Geneva comes from the Paleolithic period. It wasn’t until the Neolithic era that large communities set up settlements around its shores, though, building houses on stilts.

Both the Helvetians and the Romans saw the city as a good base for exploring the vast sprawl of modern-day Europe, even if the latter eventually chose Avenches, 120km (76 miles) to the northeast, as the Helvetic capital.

Geneva had to wait until 443 to get its first shot as a capital city when, following the Germanic Wars, it served as the principal camp of the Kingdom of Burgundy. However, its moment in the sun lasted less than a century when its ruler, King Godomar, was killed by the Franks in 534.

By 563, a huge tsunami had wrecked and razed the city. It was thought to be caused by an extremely large landslide near the fortress of Tauredunum, to the east of Lake Geneva. The wave was said to have measured up to 16m (52ft), leaving a wake of destruction that swallowed up churches, houses and bridges, and killed many of Geneva’s inhabitants.

After becoming an imperial city in 1032 and achieving independence in 1530, Geneva joined the Swiss Confederation in 1814. Its reputation for religious tolerance during the Reformation proved to be a major influence on its subsequent development - for centuries, exiles from religious or political persecution chose the city as their refuge.

John Calvin, the Protestant theologian, made his home here in the 1530s, from where he led the Reformation in Switzerland. It was his power and influence that meant his Spanish contemporary, Michael Servetus, was burned alive in the city. Placed on the stake as a heretic, for sections of his translated interpretation of Claudius Ptolemy's Geographia, Servetus was killed with his manuscripts tied around his waist, including what were thought to be the remaining copies of his book, Christianismi Restitutio. Three copies, however, survived.

After defecting from the Léman department of the First French Empire in 1815, Geneva chose to become part of the Swiss Confederation. The city went on to prosper in the worlds of banking and watchmaking – something that has helped the city grow into one of the most expensive cities on the planet.

The spirit of acceptance in Geneva, along with Switzerland's much-vaunted neutrality, has meant that many international organisations have located their headquarters here. The Red Cross was founded in the city in 1864 and The League of Nations, predecessor of the United Nations, was established here in 1920. Although the UN moved to New York in 1945, Geneva is still home to its European office.

Both the World Trade Organisation and the World Health Organisation currently reside in the city, and they are just two of the 200 global corporations in Geneva, raising the foreign community to nearly half the population. This number looks like it will remain high, despite the Swiss People's Party passing a bill in 2014 that reinstated a quota on the number of immigrants allowed from European Union countries.