Gravensteen - (c)

Archaeological research has proven that the earliest signs of human settlement in the Ghent area date back to prehistoric times. However, it was only during the Roman period that a community of note began to grow near the confluence of the two rivers Scheldt and Leie. In the Middle Ages, the Abbey of Saint Peter (later the Abbey of Saint Bavo) was founded and a 'portus' created for commercial activity (It is thought that the Flemish name 'Gent' derives from the Celtic 'Ganda', meaning ‘confluence’).

Evening view on Graslei, Ghent - ©DdeKievith

In the 11th and 12th centuries, Ghent became an important trade center thanks to the local production of cloth, made from imported English wool. It was at this time that the city's impressive stone Castle of the Counts (or Gravensteen) was built.

In 1500, it was in Ghent that Charles V, destined to become one of Europe's great rulers, was born. But although a native of the city, Charles V was not popular in his home town - in 1540 he punished the city severely when its citizens refused to pay more war taxes. Ghent history took a turn for the worse under the rule of Philip II of Spain (Charles V's son). Like most other cities in the low countries, Ghent suffered from the continuous religious troubles between Protestants and Catholics.

By the late 15th century, the cloth trade had begun to wane, though Ghent remained prosperous by shifting its economy to the shipping trade along the Leie and Scheldt rivers. In the latter part of the century, however, the closing of the Scheldt brought with it commercial decline, a decline not to be reversed until the revival of cloth working during the industrial boom of the 19th century.

Groot Vleeshuis - Ghent

It was not until the late 18th and early 19th century, when the city became a part of the French Empire, that peace and prosperity were restored to Ghent. From 1800, new factories were constructed such as sugar refineries and cotton mills. The plans for a cotton mill were smuggled out of England by Lieven Bauwens, and Ghent soon became the Manchester of the Continent.

The city continued to grow as an industrial center throughout the 19th century, and the number of inhabitants tripled. The miserable working and living conditions of the working-class resulted in the creation of the first Belgian trade union in Ghent.
Today, Ghent, which is the capital of the province of East-Flanders, has a population of about 250,000 inhabitants.

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