Lhasa is one of the highest cities in the world, located almost 12,000 ft above sea level. Lhasa literally translates to "place of the gods", a name change from Rasa in the early 7th century (which meant "goat's place"). The recorded history of the city starts around this time when Songstan Gampo became the leader of the Tibetan Empire and moved the capital to Lhasa in 637 AD. Gampo soon converted to Buddhism (which he learned of from his wives), and began the construction of Buddhist statues and temples. While the political power of the city slowly waned over the centuries (the monarchy eventually dissolved in the 9th century), Lhasa continued to rise in prominence as a religious center. During this time the first Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader of the Tibetan Buddhists, rose to power in 1391.
In 1642 the fifth Dalai Lama, Lobsang Gyatso, began to wield real political power, in addition to his spiritual authority, and unified the loosely assembled Tibetan tribes into one country. Lhasa was named both the spiritual and political capital of the new country. By the time the West began sending explorers to the city in the early 20th century, nearly half of Lhasa's population were practicing Buddhist monks.
In 1950 China invaded Tibet and many people fled the city, including the 14th Dalai Lama, and sought refuge in exile in India. The attack is classified as a "peaceful liberation" by the Chinese, but the Tibetans, US Congress, and other prominent military and political figures consider it an unprovoked invasion. Many of the remaining monks and nuns in the city revolted and held peaceful demonstrations against the Chinese oppressors, which led to an imposed restriction upon the monasteries. Re-education programs were instituted in an attempt to realign the Buddhists with Communist views, while also requiring the protesters to denounce both the Dalai Lama and Tibet's independence. Many monks and nuns refused to cooperate and were sent to prison; those who escaped fled to India.
The question of Tibet independence is still a major source of controversy in Lhasa and in the rest of the world, with many world leaders continuing to condemn the Chinese' treatment of the Tibetan people. Talks between the reigning Dalai Lama in exile and the Chinese government began in May 2008 discussing Tibet's independence and autonomous rule, but little has changed as a result.