The origin of the name Berlin is unknown, but it may have its roots in the language of West Slavic inhabitants of the area of today's Berlin, and be related to the Old Polabian stem berl-/birl- ("swamp"). Folk etymology connects it to the German Bär, a bear, and a bear appears in the coat of arms of the city.
The earliest evidence of settlements in the area of today's Berlin are a wooden beam dated from approximately 1192 and leftovers of wooden houseparts dated to 1174 found in a 2012 digging in Berlin Mitte. The first written records of towns in the area of present-day Berlin date from the late 12th century. Spandau is first mentioned in 1197 and Köpenick in 1209, although these areas did not join Berlin until 1920. The central part of Berlin can be traced back to two towns. Cölln on the Fischerinsel is first mentioned in a 1237 document, and Berlin, across the Spree in what is now called the Nikolaiviertel, is referenced in a document from 1244. The former (1237) is considered to be the founding date of the city. The two towns over time formed close economic and social ties and eventually merged in 1307 and came to be known as Berlin.
In 1435, Frederick I became the elector of the Margraviate of Brandenburg, which he ruled until 1440. His successor, Frederick II Irontooth, established Berlin as capital of the margraviate, and subsequent members of the Hohenzollern family ruled until 1918 in Berlin, first as electors of Brandenburg, then as kings of Prussia, and eventually as German emperors. In 1448, citizens rebelled in the "Berlin Indignation" against the construction of a new royal palace by Frederick II Irontooth. This protest was not successful, however, and the citizenry lost many of its political and economic privileges. In 1451 Berlin became the royal residence of the Brandenburg electors, and Berlin had to give up its status as a free Hanseatic city. In 1539, the electors and the city officially became Lutheran.
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