The fortified town of Bardejov provides exceptionally well-preserved evidence of the economic and social structure of trading towns in medieval Central Europe. The plan, buildings and fortifications of the town illustrate the typical urban complex that developed in Central Europe in the Middle Ages at major points along the great trade routes of the period.

There is evidence of human settlement there as early as the Palaeolithic period, but there was certainly Iron Age settlement in the area, in contact with the Roman Empire. Information is emerging of early medieval occupation, to be expected in view of its location of Bardejov on a major trade route across the Carpathians. The importance of this position on the main trade route into Poland from Hungary led to its being made the site of a customs office, to levy tolls on materials being exported.

In the mid-14th century Ludovit I ordered the citizens to fortify the town. The entire defensive circuit was completed, with three gates on the main routes and bastions at strategic points. There was a second phase of fortification between 1420 and 1474. On the western side is the Moat Gate, one of the three entrances through the fortifications, which was demolished in 1906. The stretch of walls between here and the Upper Gate (built on the site of the fortified medieval customs station) has three strong medieval forts, the four-storey School Bastion, the three-storey Monastery Bastion, and the four-storey Powder Bastion; its wooden bridge was replaced by the present stone structure in 1770.

The layout of the town is an irregular chequerboard, based on three parallel streets, intersected by four narrower ones; there are also roads encircling the defences on the interior and exterior. In the town centre is the rectangular main square, closed on three sides by 46 burgher houses with typical narrow frontages. On the fourth side is the parish church of St Egidius, together with the town school.The church was reconstructed and expanded progressively, a system for water distribution was installed, and large houses were built by the increasingly prosperous merchants. Among the churches pride of place goes to the parish church of St Egidius, originally a Gothic three-aisled basilica with a polygonal sanctuary, sacristy and tower. The monastery Church of St John the Baptist was built by the Augustinians around 1380 and the monastery buildings from the early 15th century onwards. Bardejov also has a Protestant church in classical style, built when part of the walls in the northern part of the town was removed, and an Orthodox church in eclectic style outside the line of the fortifications.

The Town Hall was built in 1505-1509, the first building in Slovakia with Renaissance stone moulding. The public buildings include the late Gothic Humanistic Grammar School, built on the site of a medieval school, modified in Renaissance style and again in classical style. The municipal wine house of the early 15th century was a storehouse for wines from the vicinity of the town and from the Tokai region. The burghers' houses on their deep narrow plots have undergone many modifications as the result of repeated fires. This type of building was introduced by German traders from Silesia in the early 13th century. The Renaissance saw the addition of ornate facades to the two-storey merchants' houses, converting them into luxurious houses. The most significant Jewish element in Bardejov is the Great Synagogue, built in 1725-47. The complex also contains ritual baths, a kosher slaughterhouse and a meeting building, now a school.

From the first quarter of the 18th century, Slovaks and Hassidic Jews came into Bardejov in large numbers. The burghers' houses were rebuilt or modified in keeping with current architectural fashion, a Jewish quarter with a synagogue, slaughterhouse, and ritual baths developed in the north-western suburbs, and new churches and bridges were built.Following the establishment of the first Czechoslovak Republic the town became a backward farming region. The Second World War saw a worsening in the economic situation. However, since that time it has benefited from its designation as a town conservation reserve in 1950.

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