Statue of Brabo, Antwerp - ©milo-profi

Excavations have shown that Antwerp was inhabited as long ago as the Gallo-Roman period (2nd or 3rd century A.D.). The city appears to have grown up around two settlements: the 'aanwerp' (alluvial mound) from which it takes its name and Caloes, 500 metres further south.

Hans Vredeman de Vries, allegory on the surrender of Antwerp 1585 - ©Mas Bart Huysmans

The city first experienced an economic boom in the 12th century, when the rival port of Bruges started silting up. By the first half of the 14th century, Antwerp had become the most important trading and financial centre in Western Europe, its reputation based largely on its seaport and wool market.

In 1356, the city, which had been part of the Holy Roman Empire, was annexed to the County of Flanders and lost lots of its privileges, partly to Bruges' advantage. Fifty years later, the political and economic tide turned again and as the Golden Age unfolded, Antwerp became a world class metropolis, described as 'the loveliest city in the world'.

By the second half of the 16th century, the city was the focus of politico-religious struggles between the Protestant North and Catholic South (Spain), which led to the River Scheldt being closed. From an economic point of view, this was a disaster. Yet the city continued to flourish culturally until the mid-seventeenth century thanks to painters like Rubens, Anthony Van Dyck, Jordaens and Teniers, printers such as Plantin and Moretus, and the famous Antwerp harpsichord builders.

But from 1650 till the 19th century, Antwerp went into serious decline, as the Scheldt remained closed and the city became little more than a provincial town. It was only after the fall of Napoleon at Waterloo (1815) that Antwerp entered a short period of prosperity, which ended with the Belgian Revolution (1830) and once again the closure of the Scheldt. The river was finally reopened for good in 1863, paving the way for Antwerp to return to its former glory.

Apart from interruptions during the two world wars, Antwerp has experienced steady economic growth since the start of the 20th century and is now home to the second largest port in Europe, as well as the world hub for uncut diamonds.

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