The Île de la Cité is one of two remaining natural islands in the Seine within the city of Paris (the other being the Île Saint-Louis). It is the centre of Paris and the location where the medieval city was refounded.
The western end has held a palace since Merovingian times, and its eastern end since the same period has been consecrated to religion, especially after the 10th century construction of a cathedral preceding today’s Notre Dame. The land between the two was, until the 1850s, largely residential and commercial, but since has been filled by the city’s Prefecture de Police, Palais de Justice, Hôtel-Dieu hospital and Tribunal de Commerce. Only the westernmost and northeastern extremities of the island remain residential today, and the latter preserves some vestiges of its 16th century canon’s houses. The Mémorial des Martyrs de la Déportation, a memorial to the 200,000 people deported from Vichy France to the Nazi concentration camps during the Second World War, is located at the upriver end of the island.
Most scholars believe that in 52 BC, at the time of Vercingetorix’s struggle with Julius Caesar, a small Gallic tribe, the Parisii, lived on the island. At that time, the island was a low-lying area subject to flooding that offered a convenient place to cross the Seine and a refuge in times of invasion. However, some modern historians believe the Parisii were based on another, now eroded island. After the conquest of the Celts, the Roman Labienus created a temporary camp on the island, but further Roman settlement developed in the healthier air on the slopes above the Left Bank, at the Roman Lutetia.
Later Romans under Saint Genevieve escaped to the island when their city was attacked by Huns. Clovis established a Merovingian palace on the island, which became the capital of Merovingian Neustria. The island remained an important military and political center throughout the Middle Ages. Odo used the island as a defensive position to fend off Viking attacks at the Siege of Paris in 885-886, and in the tenth century, a cathedral (the predecessor of Notre-Dame) was built on the island.
From early times wooden bridges linked the island to the riverbanks on either side, the Grand Pont (the Pont au Change) spanning the wider reach to the Right Bank, and the Petit Pont spanning the narrower crossing to the Left Bank. The first bridge rebuilt in stone (in 1378) was at the site of the present Pont Saint-Michel, but ice floes carried it away with the houses that had been built on it in 1408. The Grand Pont or Pont Notre-Dame, also swept away at intervals by floodwaters, and the Petit Pont, were rebuilt by Fra Giovanni Giocondo at the beginning of the sixteenth century. The six arches of the Pont Notre-Dame supported gabled houses, some of half-timbered construction, until all were demolished in 1786.
The Île de la Cité remains the heart of Paris. All road distances in France are calculated from the 0 km point located in the Place du Parvis de Notre-Dame, the square facing Notre-Dame’s pair of western towers.