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Antwerp History, Belgium

Antwerp History – Foundation and Early Development

The city is said to have gotten its name from a mythological figure, the giant Antigoon, who used to claim a fee from anyone crossing the river Scheldt and cut off a hand from those unwilling to pay. Then came Brabo, a young hero, who cut off the giant’s hand and threw it into the river, the name of Antwerp being an etymological derivation that means “to throw the hand”. The city’s initial function was that of a border of the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation, so it was highly fortified to prevent enemy invasion. Step by step it gained a reputation due to its wool market and sea access, becoming one the most important trading centre in Western Europe. After losing administrative power in the favor of Bruges, Antwerp regained its privileges in the last half of the 14th century, when it started flourishing both culturally and economically. It was a small metropolis and a cultural point of pilgrimage for the likes of Brueghel and Quinten Metsys.

Antwerp History – The Golden Age

The 16th century saw Antwerp prosper commercially and culturally, as most of the commercial exchanges that took place in the port were controlled by foreigners. By 1560 it was the second largest northern European city and many foreign merchants started to arrive and settle here. The Portuguese brought in pepper and cinnamon and the diamond industry also started developing. The city became an international point of exchange with residents and merchants from Spain, Portugal and Venice and, due to its high level of tolerance, it also attracted a considerable number of Jews. Still it was not considered a free and independent city, as it was tributary to Brussels.

Antwerp History – The Closure of the River Scheldt

The religious battle between Catholic Spain and Protestant North led to one of the biggest disasters in the history of the city. The Treaty of Munster in 1648 by which independence of the United Provinces was recognized stipulated that the river Scheldt would be closed for navigation, which meant economical collapse for Antwerp. This caused a massive fall in the number of inhabitants, as all the merchants deserted the city and very few intellectuals remained. Between 1570 and 1590 the population decreased from 100.000 to 40.000 inhabitants, which had a very strong impact on the life of the city. Still, until the mid 17th century, important cultural figures continued to remain and work in Antwerp, figures like the painters Rubens and Van Dyck and the Quellin and Verbrugghen sculptor families. The river Scheldt remained closed until the year 1863, which transformed the prosperous metropolis into a provincial town. Although several attempts were made during this period to reopen the commercial routes, they all failed until 1863, when the river finally rejoined Europe’s economical circuit.

Antwerp History – 20th Century

In 1903 Antwerp hosted the first World Gymnastics Championship and in 1920 it was home to the Summer Olympics. Still, during World War II it was a very important target due to its location: the Germans wanted to destroy the Port and they hit it with V-2 missiles more severely than any other city during the war. The port itself wasn’t destroyed but the city suffered very extensive damage and was almost entirely rebuilt after the war. Today the port is considered the second largest to Rotterdam in the whole of Europe.

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