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Antwerp

Updated on May 5, 2010

Antwerp is the largest city in Belgium and one of the principal ports of Europe. It is situated on both banks of the Scheldt River, about 55 miles (88.4 km) from the sea, in the center of a wide alluvial plain, about 25 miles (40.2 km) north of Brussels. It is the capital of Antwerp province. The name of the city in French is Anvers and in Dutch Anttverpen. The official language of the city is Dutch.

Economy

Antwerp, noted for its skilled gem cutting, is famous as the diamond center of the world. Its main commercial activity, however, is shipping. The processing of foods, oil refining, and automobile assembly are also important.

More than 30 million tons of cargo are handled each year by the port of Antwerp, through which 90 percent of Belgium's total tonnage passes. About 250 shipping lines connect the port with the rest of the world, while 170 lines are occupied with land-waterway shipping. Britain, the Netherlands, Norway, Germany, and Sweden are the principal foreign traders in the port. The port, with about 31 miles of quays along the river and docks, is exceptionally well equipped. The name Antwerp literally means "at the wharf" (aan het werf), although a legend ascribes the origin of the name to the severed hands (hand) of mariners thrown (werpen) into the Scheldt by the mythological giant Antigonus as the price exacted when the mariners could not pay his toll on the river. (Two severed hands make up part of Antwerp's armorial bearings.)

The two halves of Antwerp are joined by two tunnels under the Scheldt- one for pedestrians and one for vehicles. The city is well connected by rail with other major centers in Europe, and several canals connect it with the interior of Belgium. The most important, the Albert Canal, was completed in 1939 and links the port of Antwerp with Liege and the Meuse River industrial area. Its location and high retaining walls made it part of Belgium's first line of defense against the Germans in 1940. Antwerp's airport is at Deurne, an eastern suburb.

Points of Interest

The atmosphere in Antwerp is cosmopolitan, and intellectual and artistic life flourishes. The city is the home of the Royal Academy of Fine Arts and the Prince Leopold School of Tropical Medicine, as well as of schools of engineering, business, navigation, and architecture. Antwerp's towering architectural monument is the Gothic Cathedral of Notre Dame, with a spire 400 feet high. It was begun in 1352 and completed nearly 200 years later. The largest cathedral in Belgium, it contains two of the finest works of Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640), The Raising of the Cross and The Descent from the Cross. The Church of St. James (15th-16th centuries), where Rubens is buried, and the churches of St. Paul (16th century) and St. Augustine (17th century) are decorated in baroque style.

The city has restored to their former baroque splendors the house and workshop of Rubens and the printing house of the 16th century printer Christophe Plantin, publisher of the Polyglot Bible. Other notable 16th century buildings are the Town Hall and Butchers Hall, now a museum of industrial art. In addition, many fine old guild houses line the two squares, the Groote Markt and the Groen Plaats.

Among the numerous museums in Antwerp are the Royal Museum of Fine Arts, housing more than 1,000 Flemish and Dutch masterpieces, and the Mayer van der Bergh Museum, noted for its collection of furniture and sculpture and for its paintings by the elder Brueghel. The National Museum of shipping is housed in the Steen, a part of the old castle of Antwerp, which dates from the 16th century. Antwerp's zoological gardens are well stocked and contain an aquarium.

History

Although Antwerp is mentioned in 7th century documents, it did not gain renown as an international port until the decline of Bruges and Ghent in the second half of the 1400's. Excellently connected'with inland trade routes, the city rapidly developed into the greatest commercial and financial center of Europe and attracted the establishment (1460) at Antwerp of Europe's first stock exchange. As the century ended, the population neared 200,000, and more than 500 vessels were entering the port every day. Antwerp's prosperity was aided by favorable city policies concerning taxes and religion. The city's diamond industry expanded greatly when Jewish craftsmen, expelled from Portugal, settled in Antwerp.

Further growth was checked, however, during the late 1500's. Philip II of Spain, who then ruled the Low Countries, initiated a repressive policy against the Protestants. Antwerp, a citadel of resistance, was sacked by Spanish troops (the so-called "Spanish Fury") in 1576 and finally surrendered in 1585. The Dutch provinces to the north had meanwhile declared their independence (1581). By recognizing Dutch independence, the Peace of Westphalia (1648) sealed Antwerp's decline for centuries. The Dutch had full control of the estuary of the Scheldt, and at the behest of merchants in Amsterdam the river was closed to navigation. Antwerp was to languish in economic isolation until the 1800's.

Following the Belgian revolution in 1830 and a cash payment to the Dutch in 1863, the Scheldt was again opened to international trade. Antwerp steadily developed to become the world's third- or fourth-greatest port. In 1914 it fell to the Germans after a short but intensive siege. In World War II it suffered heavily after liberation by the Allies in 1944, when it became a constant target for German rocket attacks. The city soon regained and even surpassed its prewar prosperity.

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