For a good understanding it is absolutely necessary to be aware of the fact that Holland and the Netherlands are not two names for the same country, but rather that Holland is the former name for part of it.
Holland is a region and former province in the western part of the Netherlands. The term Holland is also frequently used as a pars pro toto to refer to the whole of the Netherlands. This usage is generally accepted, but disliked by part of the Dutch population, especially in the other parts of the Netherlands.
From the 10th to the 16th century, Holland proper was a unified political region within the Holy Roman Empire, a county ruled by the Counts of Holland. By the 17th century, Holland had risen to become a maritime and economic power, dominating the other provinces of the newly independent Dutch Republic. Today, the former County of Holland consists of the two Dutch provinces of North Holland and South Holland, which together include the Netherlands’ three largest cities: the capital city of Amsterdam; the seat of government of The Hague; and Rotterdam, home of Europe’s largest port.
Why is it so important to make this distinction, you may ask.
The answer is simple; it’s incorrect not to. More specifically: the history of The Netherlands becomes completely incomprehensible when the distinction is not made. Not just for tourists, but for locals as well. In today’s schools there are teachers who tell the children that Dordrecht is The Netherlands’ oldest city, after having read somewhere it is Holland’s oldest. Can you imagine how confusing it must be when you discover that cities like Maastricht, Nijmegen and Utrecht, to name just a few, are much, much older? But of course not of Holland.
But don’t ‘Hol’ and ‘Nether’ mean the same?
No, although it’s often claimed that they do. ‘Nether’ means ‘low’, and although ‘Hol’ nowadays translates to ‘hollow’, the terms do have different meanings. ‘Hol’ originally referred to ‘holt’, an old word for ‘wood’. The region around Dordrecht, Holland’s oldest town, was known as Holtland, after its many forests.
Nijmegen is oldest city of the Netherlands, but Dordrecht is the oldest city of Holland.
Dordrecht (Dutch pronunciation: [ˈdɔr.drɛχt] ( listen)), colloquially Dordt [dɔrt], historically in English named Dort, is a city and municipality in the western Netherlands, located in the province of South Holland. It is the fourth largest city of the province, having a population of 118,601 in 2009. Dordrecht is the oldest city in Holland and has a rich history and culture. The name Dordrecht comes from Thuredriht (ca 1120), Thuredrecht (ca 1200). The name seems to mean ‘thoroughfare’; a ship-canal or -river through which ships were pulled by rope from one river to another, as here from the Dubbel to the Merwede, or vice versa. Earlier etymology has assumed that the ‘drecht’ suffix came from Latin ‘trajectum’, a ford, but this has been rejected in 1996. Drecht came from ‘draeg’, which means to pull, tow or drag. Inhabitants of Dordrecht are Dordtenaren (singular: Dordtenaar). Dordrecht is informally called Dordt by its inhabitants. In earlier centuries, Dordrecht was a major trade port, well known to British merchants, and was called Dort in English. (Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dordrecht)
Nijmegen is a municipality and a city in the east of the Netherlands, near the German border. It is considered to be the oldest city in The Netherlands and celebrated its 2000th year of existence in 2005.
The first mention of Nijmegen in history is in the 1st century BC, when the Romans built a military camp on the place where Nijmegen was to appear; the location had great strategic value because of the surrounding hills, which gave (and continues to give) a good view over the Waal and Rhine valley.
By 69, when the Batavians, the original inhabitants of the Rhine and Maas delta, revolted, a village called Oppidum Batavorum had formed near the Roman camp. This village was destroyed in the revolt, but when it had ended the Romans built another, bigger camp where the Legio X Gemina was stationed. Soon after, another village formed around this camp.
In 98 Nijmegen was the first of two settlements in what is now the Kingdom of the Netherlands to receive Roman city rights.
In 103 the X Gemina was restationed to Vienna, which may have been a major blow to the economy of the village around the camp. In 104 Emperor Trajan renamed the town, which now became known as Ulpia Noviomagus Batavorum, Noviomagus for short (the origin of the current name Nijmegen).
In the 4th century, Roman power decreased and Nijmegen became part of the Frankish kingdom. It has been contended that in the 8th century Emperor Charlemagne maintained his palatium in Nijmegen on at least four occasions. During his brief deposition of 830, the emperor Louis the Pious was sent to Nijmegen by his son Lothar I. Thanks to the Waal river, trade flourished. (Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nijmegen)