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It is the seat of government and the country's largest cultural and economic centre. The major cities closest to the capital are Iqaluit and St. Nuuk contains almost a third of Greenland's population and its tallest building. Nuuk is also the seat of government for the Sermersooq municipality. In January , it had a population of 17, It is so named because of its position at the end of the Nuup Kangerlua fjord on the eastern shore of the Labrador Sea.
The campus of the University of Greenland , hosting Statistics Greenland , and the main holdings of the Public and National Library of Greenland  are at the northern end of the district, near the road to the Nuuk Airport. The site has a long history of habitation. The area around Nuuk was first occupied by the ancient, pre-Inuit, Paleo-Eskimo people of the Saqqaq culture as far back as BC when they lived in the area around the now abandoned settlement of Qoornoq.
The Nuuk area was later inhabited by Viking explorers in the 10th century Western Settlement , and shortly thereafter by Inuit peoples. The city proper was founded as the fort of Godt-Haab in by the royal governor Claus Paarss , when he relocated the missionary and merchant Hans Egede 's earlier Hope Colony Haabets Koloni from Kangeq Island to the mainland. At that time, Greenland was formally still a Norwegian colony until under the united Dano-Norwegian Crown , but the colony had not had any contact for over three centuries.
Paarss's colonists consisted of mutinous soldiers, convicts, and prostitutes and most died within the first year of scurvy and other ailments. In and , a smallpox epidemic killed most of the native population as well as Egede's wife. In , Moravian missionaries received permission to begin a mission on the island; in , there were enough converts to prompt the construction of the Moravian Brethren Mission House and the formal establishment of the mission as New Herrnhut Danish : Nye-Hernhut.
This became the nucleus for present-day Nuuk as many Greenlanders from the southeastern coast left their territory to live at the mission station. From this base, further missions were established at Lichtenfels , Lichtenau , Friedrichsthal , Umanak , and Idlorpait ,  before they were discontinued in and folded into the Lutheran Church of Denmark.