Holland is the name of a stretch of 100 miles of land along the North Sea. Its name ("Holtland" - woodland) isn't much reflected in its landscape, which is predominantly urban area and agricultural polderland. Holland is a centre of world trade, provides agricultural products to the whole of Europe and far beyond, and is home to over 4 million people.

Its highest natural points are the dunes; what lies behind is flat and mostly below sea level. The lowest points are urban areas: the Willem-Alexanderpolder in Rotterdam and, at 6.74 m below NAP, the Zuidplaspolder in Nieuwerkerk aan den IJssel.

In mediaeval times, Holland was a county. Its counts were homegrown, bearing names like Dirk and Willem. The most striking event in its history was the assassination of count Floris V in 1296. Through war and marriage, its rule fell to foreign nobility (globalization medieval style), and at the start of the 16th century, to the duchy of Burgundy. Thus, Holland became part of the Low Countries, a federative assembly of counties, with a parliament seated in Brussels.

The retirement (1555) and death (1558) of Charles V left Burgundy in the hands of the new king of Spain, Philip II, who showed little interest or respect for his remote "Burgundian" property. He set out to rule as an absolute monarch, attempted to centralize power, imposed heavy taxation and enforced religious prosecution of the new protestant movement, which had spread like wildfire.

The Low Countries revolted; after a Spanish military campaign ran dead in the Holland moorlands, the Northern half formed its own parliament in 's-Gravenhage, and effectively gained political independence, a status quo eventually confirmed by treaty after an 80 year war (1568-1648).

In the new federation, which later developed into the present-day state of the Netherlands, Holland became the dominant economical and political force. A free haven for those persecuted elsewhere, it attracted much economic activity. Amsterdam took over Antwerps role as the main European port, not least because Antwerp was under Spanish rule, had been sacked by Spanish troops, and saw its port permanently blocked by the Dutch fleet.

A Golden Age set in; trade flourished, the arts, sciences and engineering skills moved north to Holland, and produced wonders such as the paintings of Rembrandt van Rijn, the land reclamation works of Cornelis Leeghwater, and the development of the wave theory of light by Christiaan Huygens.

After decades, neighbours Britain and France (10 to 20 times bigger) overcame their internal and mutual conflicts, and pushed back Holland into a secondary political role. Holland always retained its prominent place in world trade, and lost political independence only twice after (1798-1813, to Napoleon, and 1940-1945, to Hitler).

The three principal cities of the Netherlands, Amsterdam, Rotterdam, and Den Haag, are all located in Holland. Amsterdam, the capital, is the cultural centre; Rotterdam, until recently the biggest port in the world, prides itself on being a working man's city; Den Haag, the seat of parliament, is the political and administrative centre. Loosely knit together by a string of smaller and bigger towns and suburbs, they form the Randstad, which surrounds the "Green Heart", a agricultural area with moderate urbanization.

Holland's liberal reputation is due to these origins, and lives on not so much in its policies, but rather in its lack of rigour in enforcing them. Consensus politics and laisser-faire have been the rule all through its political history; moral conduct has largely been considered the territory of religion.

Citizens of more repressed areas flock in large quantities to Amsterdam to have a taste of its red light district and drugs; the Dutch themselves are moderate users, but, as in all matters, are keen to make money on them.

It is common practice to identify Holland with the Netherlands - many Dutch do so themselves - but that is really a case of pars pro toto. North and South Holland are only two of the twelve Dutch provinces.