Iconic Churches, Temples and Mosques Reveal a Turbulent Past
Amsterdam’s reputation as a party city fueled by sex, drugs ‘n’ rock & roll might lead the casual observer to believe its inhabitants worship the devil. Yet the Dutch capital’s iconic churches, temples and mosques tell a different story—one that reveals a long history of religious conviction, strife and pragmatic tolerance.
For centuries, the Netherlands has been a haven for rebels and free thinkers, many fleeing religious persecution. Dutchies who rose up against the Catholic Church in the Eighty Years’ War (1568–1648) were part of a revolt led by William of Orange that won the Netherlands independence from Spain. In the new Dutch Republic, most of the north and west of the country allied with Calvinism (a branch of Protestantism), while the southeast remained predominantly Catholic.
Dutch Pragmatic Tolerance
The religious split posed a challenge for the new Protestant monarch. In a move that laid a foundation for pragmatic tolerance in the Netherlands, William of Orange embraced the spirit of “live and let live.” He granted the Catholic minority freedom to practice their faith as they saw fit—no mean feat given the hatred between Catholics and Protestants at the end of the Eighty Years’ War.
Despite the King’s mandate, the Protestant majority in the Netherlands continued to perceive Catholics as enemies after the war against Spain and the Reformation. Yet they joined their monarch in tolerating their Catholic neighbors, turning a blind eye to the practice of Catholicism in hidden churches throughout cities like Amsterdam.
After the Reformation, Protestant Dutchies tolerated the practice of Catholicism in hidden churches like Ons’ Lieve Heer op Solder in Amsterdam.
Guided by pragmatism as much as high principles, Dutchies recognized that peaceful coexistence was preferable to conflict given that foreigners, regardless of their religion, were a boon for the economy.
In the 17th century, the Netherlands was the only country that guaranteed religious freedom under the law, resulting in an influx of refugees from many backgrounds. To manage the diversity, politicians applied negotiation lessons introduced by Dutch merchants. They embraced the principles of pragmatic tolerance: nobody owns the truth and what is true must be agreed upon by all. When people can’t agree, they can still “live and let live” in peaceful coexistence. Thus began a long legacy of pragmatic tolerance in a nation that has led the way in legalizing gay marriage, marijuana and prostitution.
Immigration After World War II
After World War II, numerous waves of immigration continued to bring new faiths to the Netherlands. Drawn by the promise of religious tolerance, thousands of refugees from other parts of Europe, as well as former colonies like Indonesia and Suriname, found new homes in Amsterdam in the mid-20th century. To rebuild the country and augment a labor force depleted by war, both private companies and the Dutch government began hiring workers from Spain, Italy, Turkey and Morocco.
Turkish bakeries like Bakkerij Dunya in Amsterdam’s Oud-West are evidence of post-war immigration that has changed the fabric of Dutch life.
By the mid-1960s, the Dutch economy was booming again, but the cultural landscape had changed. As guest workers brought their families to the Netherlands, their diverse faiths became woven into the fabric of Dutch life. Well into the 21st century, asylum seekers from Iraq, Somalia, Afghanistan, Yemen, and other troubled parts of the world have contributed to Amsterdam’s continually changing spiritual landscape and multicultural makeup.
Despite the diversity of its people, the Netherlands has become one of the most non-religious countries in the western world. While echoes of Calvinism still reverberate in daily life, more Dutchies now identify as non-religious than as Christians—which may be one reason many places of worship have been transformed into concert venues, museums, and nightclubs like Amsterdam’s world-renowned Paradiso.
Eight Iconic Places of Worship
Those churches, temples and mosques that are still intact are reminders of Amsterdam’s turbulent past, as well as its contemporary patchwork of faiths. The most iconic include these eight historic venues where locals, as well as visitors, can still worship.
1. The Old Church (De Oude Kerk). Amsterdam’s oldest church towers over the city’s infamous De Wallen neighborhood. Ringed by bars, coffeeshops, red-lit windows, and the Princess Juliana Nursery School, the massive stone edifice served local Catholics until the Reformation, when Dutch Calvinists overthrew Papal control and ransacked its interior.
Surrounded by brothels, bars, coffeeshops, and a nursery school, Amsterdam’s oldest church towers over the infamous Red Light District. Originally built in the 13th century as a Catholic church, de Oude Kerk became one of the buildings expressing the national character of Dutch Protestantism after the Reformation.
Originally constructed in 1213, de Oude Kerk has been renovated several times over its long history. While still a place of worship, it’s also used for organ concerts, award ceremonies and exhibitions. Despite the turmoil it’s witnessed over the years, the church has remained mostly intact since the 17th century. Beyond its simple facade, a somber interior still features many age-old elements, including a vaulted wooden ceiling dating back to the Middle Ages.
2. The New Church (De Nieuwe Kerk). By the 14th century, Amsterdam had outgrown the Old Church. To serve the spiritual needs of the city’s growing population, the bishop of Utrecht granted permission for a new church on Dam Square, adjacent to the Royal Palace—an ideal setting for coronations and other state ceremonies.
The 16th-century Nieuwe Kerk is the Netherlands’ most important church. In 2002, it was the stage for the wedding of King Willem Alexander and Queen Maxima.
Consecrated in 1409, de Nieuwe Kerk was originally built in early Renaissance style, with an elaborate altar, arched nave and impressive pipe organ. While it escaped major damage in two 15th-century fires, it was reduced to ashes when plumbers accidentally started a blaze in 1654.
Rebuilt in a style inspired by French Gothic churches, de Nieuwe Kerk now features an ornate pulpit, the Netherlands’ largest organ, a grand brass choir screen, and magnificent stained glass windows. Hundreds of grave slabs on its floor mark the final resting place of some 10,000 souls, including distinguished Dutch admiral Michiel De Ruyter, who managed to free 26 Hungarian slaves in the 17th century.
Since 1814, the New Church has hosted all Dutch coronations, including the crowning of reigning King Willem Alexander in 2013. Today, it’s also used for organ concerts and exhibitions like World Press Photo’s yearly expo.
3. The English Reformed Church. Tucked on the serene grounds of the Begijnhof off bustling Spuiplein, this small chapel was built in the 14th century for the Begijntjes, a Catholic sisterhood of women who lived like nuns although they took no monastic vows. It’s now one of the oldest buildings in Amsterdam.
Amsterdam’s English Reformed Church is affiliated with the Church of Scotland and the Dutch Protestant Church. Sunday services are conducted in English at 10.30am.
When Catholicism was banned in the Netherlands in the 16th century, the Dutch government confiscated the humble English Reformed Church and gave it to Amsterdam’s English-speaking Protestants as a place of worship. Its weekly rituals continue to this day for Amsterdam’s English-speaking congregation.
In 2007, Queen Elizabeth II visited the little English Reformed Church on the grounds of the Begijnhof to honor its 400th anniversary.
4. The Western Church (De Westerkerk). The Netherlands’ largest Protestant church opened its doors on the Prinsengracht in 1631. Built in Dutch Renaissance style in the form of two interconnected Greek crosses, its 85-meter bell tower dominates the skyline of the neighboring Jordaan. From April–October, you can climb a spiral staircase and steep steps for a jaw-dropping view of modern Amsterdam.
Visitors can worship with locals every Sunday at 10am at de Westerkerk. Year-end holiday services (in Dutch) are especially popular.
Rembrandt is buried in de Westerkerk, as are several other famous Dutch artists. In 1966, former Queen Beatrix married German diplomat Claus von Amsberg in its spectacular chapel. Today, it’s still used for religious services, as well as a summer concert series.
During World War II, the chimes of the Westertoren (Western Tower) soothed Amsterdam’s most famous diarist in her nearby attic hideout.
5. The Portuguese Synagogue. During the 16th and 17th centuries, thousands of Jews fled Spain and Portugal to escape the Inquisition. In Amsterdam, they found religious tolerance unheard of elsewhere in Europe. Since the Dutch government allowed them to practice their religion openly, these Sephardic Jews vowed to construct an enormous temple in Amsterdam.
Like most 17th-century structures, the Portuguese Synagogue has no electricity or central heating. Dress accordingly if you attend candlelit services in winter.
Inspired by Jerusalem’s Temple of Solomon, the Portuguese Synagogue welcomed its first congregants in 1675. Miraculously spared during World War II, it now houses the world’s oldest functioning Jewish library, recognized on UNESCO’s World Heritage List. During religious services and candlelight concerts, hundreds of candles and numerous enormous brass chandeliers illuminate a perfectly intact 17th-century interior.
6. Our Lord in The Attic (Ons’ Lieve Heer op Solder). After the newly converted Protestant Dutch government outlawed Catholicism in the 17th century, believers were forced to worship in secret. As a result, hidden Catholic churches popped up throughout Amsterdam, including this gorgeous chapel on the outskirts of the Red Light District, just north of the Old Church.
Steep stairs lead to the apex of a massive, 17th-century canal house, where Ons’ Lieve Heer op Solder still exists as the best example of a hidden Catholic church in post-Reformation Amsterdam.
Tucked in the attic of a restored 17th-century canal mansion, Ons’ Lieve Heer op Solder has miraculously survived the ages and is now one of Amsterdam’s oldest museums. Originally converted into a secret church by a wealthy merchant whose son was studying to enter the priesthood, it was used for worship from 1663 to 1887. Today it serves as a window into Amsterdam’s turbulent past, as well as a site for weddings and special receptions.
7. The Western Mosque (De Westermoskee). In 1977, nearly four centuries after the Reformation converted Roman Catholic Amsterdam to Protestantism, the city’s first mosque opened in a shuttered Catholic chapel on Nieuwezijds Voorburgwal. Since then, mosques have sprung up in former churches throughout Amsterdam.
Designed by French traditional architects Marc and Nada Breitman, de Westermoskee in De Baarsjes looks like it might belong in Istanbul.
To accommodate the city’s growing Muslim population, de Westermoskee opened in 2016 near the canalized Schinkel River in the De Baarsjes neighborhood. Built in classical Ottoman style, it’s Amsterdam’s first purpose-built mosque and the largest in the Netherlands, with a capacity for 1,700 worshippers.
8. Temple Fo Guang Shan. Opened in 2000, this Buddhist temple looks like it might have been plucked from the streets of Taiwan and set down on Zeedijk, in the heart of Amsterdam’s Chinatown. The building’s traditional Taiwanese design incorporates parts flown in from China and a roof adorned with figures from the Chinese Zodiac.
Protected by rooftop dragons, Temple Fo Guang Shan is sandwiched between traditional Dutch townhouses in the heart of Amsterdam’s Chinatown.
As the first genuine Buddhist temple in Western Europe, Temple Fo Guang Shan offers stark contrast to the typical Dutch townhouses that surround it. Today it serves as a meditation center, with space for working monks and nuns, a library and classrooms. Organized services, guided tours and courses are offered.
Always fascinating to read about a country generally as progressive socially and politically and yet rather conservative financially as The Netherlands. There seems to be an overall sanity within the culture. Here in the US things seem so utterly awry — very conservative religion seems to have an expanding stranglehold on social issues such as abortion, immigration, integration and women’s rights after years of a modernist retreat, allowing for civil rights, etc. … It is rather alarming how profound the influence of Evangelical Christianity is on American politics and “morals” (I put that in quotes — even the gun lobby uses religion to increase its power.) … This is a society that has politicized COVID (if you wear a mask, you are a liberal weenie afraid of freedom) and a survey indicates that even loosing medical insurance if one has lost a job recently due to the pandemic lock-down (to have linked work and medical insurance is so stupid!) has not increased Americans’ desire for a universal healthcare revolution. I don’t get it.
I don’t get America either, Georgia, which is one reason I moved abroad and am now a long-term resident of the Netherlands. What’s happened in the US in the last 3+ years is a tragedy, but even before that, healthcare was a mess for Americans. Add a racist, amoral moron at the top, surrounded by spineless sycophants, and you have a true American horror show sure to devolve into fascism if Trump gets re-elected. Can you imagine that as a deadly closer for 2020??
I seriously worry about his being re-elected. The last election and the behavior of Republicans in general has really lowered my estimation of voters in this country, of the kind of culture embraced — love guns but not education, love religion that keeps women in their place, distrust foreigners, eat fatty, fried food, value your “freedom” (whatever that is) to not wear a mask if helps your neighbor. … I am glad to be in the mountainous part of NM, low population, ancient civilization, an increasingly blue area pretty much — educated artistic and scientific demographic, native peoples, cultural, a place very different from the rest of “America” –rich cultural roots in writing, dance, music, painting, sculpture etc. –harking back to Native America, Spain, Mexico, and of course more recently, that foreign country, America …. wildlife, forests. It is a sane place to live.