Written by Boris Perišić

Many of the world’s great cities were born on the rivers. In the past, a river acted as a kind of highway. Transport by water was faster and sometimes safer than by land. A city that arises on a deep river has a watercourse as a transport and trade route, and a source of drinking water as well. This was the case with Antwerp.

The Scheldt is 350 km long, originates in the North of France, and flows through Belgium and Zeeland to the North Sea. 

The history of Antwerp goes back to Gallo-Roman times. Julius Caesar is the first to mention the Scheldt under the name Scaldis. Back then, the Scheldt was of great commercial and strategic importance. The Scheldt was the waterway to Roman Britannia, the British Isles. Antwerp became a link, between land and water, in the trade network.

The oldest floor plan of the city is reminiscent of typical Viking settlements.  The Vikings also used the Scheldt as the gateway to the Low Countries.  It was narrower then and less subject to tides. Later, Antwerp grew into a small trading settlement. In the 11th century, Antwerp was part of the Holy Roman Empire. The western border of the empire was on the Scheldt. The Settlement got a stone wall and became a city. 

In the late Middle Ages, the first ships from distant lands began to arrive. Caravels and galleons, with up to 200 tons of cargo or more, would sail into Antwerp to unload and load.  The city grew bigger and richer thanks to the waterways and little harbors within the city. These waterways and canals are now long gone, but there is a new building to remind the visitor of the history. The MAS building, is a new home for the collections of the old Maritime and Ethnography Museums of Antwerp. 

The new museum stands on the last remaining island in the city: Eilandje, nowadays in a modern residential neighbourhood.  The island is in northern Antwerp, one of the oldest port areas of the city.

The architecture is based on 19th-century warehouses typical of the district. The outer façade is covered with red Indian sandstone from Agra (India), and there are 3185 hands on the façade; the hand is a symbol of Antwerp. The MAS stands on the site of the former Hanzehuis, the 16th-century trade center. Hanza was a merchant association in northern Europe around the Baltic Sea, which later transformed into an alliance of cities.

For five centuries, the Cathedral of Our Lady, with its 123 m high tower, has been the tallest building in the city. It honors the Virgin Mary as a Patron Saint of Antwerp. 

If we pay attention, we see statues of the Virgin Mary everywhere in Antwerp: on facades and street corners. There are almost 170 statues in the city center. They once served as street lighting, and many statues were equipped with an oil lamp. During the French occupation, when public expressions of religion were prohibited, the statues were removed. It was forbidden even to wear religious clothing in public. Civil registers for births, marriages, and deaths were introduced, in about 1796 – the end of the 18th century.

The most impressive square in the city is De Grote Markt which means the Big Market.  The Renaissance building of City Hall is surrounded by former “gildehuizen” that were originally the headquarters of the city’s 16th and 17th-century guilds. However, a large part of the Grote Markt burned down in 1576.

In the 16th century, Antwerp was “the center of the entire international economy.” It was the richest city in Europe at the time.  Antwerp’s golden age is tightly linked to the fact that it became the financial center where goods coming from the Americas were exchanged for the banking credit of wealthy German families. After visiting Antwerp in 1516, Thomas More wrote ‘Utopia’ a book about an imagined island with a perfect society and laws. 

During the first half of the 16th century, Antwerp grew to become the second-largest European city north of the Alps. Many foreign merchants resided in the city. Hundreds of ships would pass in a day, and 2,000 carts entered the city each week. Wine from the Rhine region, wool, ivory, sugar, silk, velvet, pepper, etc. 

By 1504, the Portuguese had established Antwerp as among their main shipping bases, bringing in spices from Asia and trading them for textiles and metal goods. The city’s trade expanded to include cloth from England, Italy, and Germany, wines from Germany, France, and Spain, salt from France, and wheat from the Baltic. The city’s skilled workers processed soap, fish, sugar, and especially cloth. Banks helped finance the trade, the merchants, and the manufacturers. The city was a cosmopolitan center; its bourse opened in 1531, “To the merchants of all nations.”  It was home to many foreigners; women could own businesses, and Jews would find refuge from prosecutions. Still today, 19% of the city population is of foreign origin.

Antwerp was a leader in the pepper market, the market of precious metals from the New World, and the textile industry. At the beginning of the 16th century, Antwerp accounted for 40% of world trade. However, after 1541, the city’s economy and population declined dramatically. The Portuguese merchants left, and there was much less trade. 

Aside from commerce, Flanders was historically also an important manufacturing region. At the beginning of the 16th century, the old cloth industries of Flanders had been seriously threatened by English competition. However, Emperor Charles V implemented reforms to put the industries of the Netherlands under protection. The introduction of factory methods strengthened the cloth industry, and the linen industry was fully developed. 

In the Age of Exploration, Antwerp was a spectacular location, like nineteenth-century Paris or twentieth-century New York.  In 1555 Plantin established in Antwerp one of the biggest books publishing companies in the world, and he was given the privilege of exporting liturgical books to the new world. However, because of the 80 years long war between the Protestants and the Catholics, Antwerp lost its trading privileges, and Amsterdam eventually became a major trading center for the region.

The Brabo Fountain is a tribute to the mythical Roman soldier Silvius Brabo. According to the legend, once upon a time, a giant named Druon Antigoon forced passing boats to pay a toll. Whoever refused, the giant would cut off their hand and throw it into the river. When Silvius Brabo sailed down the river and refused to pay the toll, he challenged the giant to a duel. Brabo won and cut off the giant’s hand, which he threw into the river just like the giant once did.

Brabo stands on a pedestal decorated with marine creatures like fish, a sea lion, a turtle, and a dragon. A few mermaids hold up a castle and the ships that symbolize Antwerp and its port. Beneath is the dead body of the giant Antigoon. This legend resulted from stories that started after huge bones were found in the river, bones that looked like the ribs of a giant. 

Probably they were the bones of a long-dead wale. In 2009 there was a dead whale floating on the river. Hundreds of people came to Sint Anneke beach on the other side of the river to see it.

For more than 100 years the Dutch collected tolls limiting the growth of the city and its port, but in 1863 the Dutch stopped demanding tolls. As a result, the port of Antwerp has again become one of Europe’s largest ports, second only to Rotterdam. Of all the seaports of Europe, the port of Antwerp is the furthest inland. Its geographical situation gives it particularly fast and cheap access to Europe. Ever since the first ships arrived in the city on the Scheldt River, this port has been growing and evolving. The Scheldt river shaped a city’s success.

The city has an ambitious climate plan to become free of greenhouse gases by 2050. The Green Plan wants to link, enlarge, and enhance the green areas in the city. The aim is to create a network of large-scale areas of greenery that give all residents access to pleasant landscapes. The city of Antwerp reminds and encourages the residents to help the plants grow in the city to help preserve a healthy habitat for insects as well. An exemplary policy if you ask me!

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