History

A fort built here during Charlemagne’s time (768–814) was visited by such noted Christian missionaries as St Amand and St Bavo before being destroyed by Vikings in 836. Antwerp’s well-protected port on the wide Scheldt River (Schelde in Dutch, Escaut in French) really came into its own once the Zwin waterway silted up, destroying Bruges’ economy and forcing traders to move east. In 1531 the world’s first specially built stock exchange opened here, and by 1555 Antwerp had become one of Europe’s main trading, cultural and intellectual centres, with a population of around 100,000.

But prosperity was ruthlessly cut short when Protestants smashed the city’s cathedral in 1566 (a period known as the ‘Iconoclastic Fury’). Fanatically Catholic Spanish ruler Philip II sent troops to restore order, but 10 years later the unpaid garrison mutinied, themselves ransacking the city and massacring 8000 people (the ‘Spanish Fury’). After further battles and sieges, Antwerp was finally incorporated into the Spanish Netherlands and force-fed Catholicism. Thousands of skilled workers (notably Protestants, Jews and foreigners) headed north to the relative safety of the United Provinces (today’s Netherlands).

By 1589 Antwerp’s population had more than halved to 42,000. Affluence passed progressively to Amsterdam, although Antwerp revived somewhat after 1609 with the Twelve Years’ Truce between the United Provinces and the Spanish Netherlands. Once the city was no longer cut off from the rest of the world, its trade and arts flourished and its printing houses became known throughout Europe. The world’s first newspaper, Nieuwe Tydinghen, was produced here by Abraham Verhoeven in 1606.

Then the Treaty of Westphalia, which finally concluded the Dutch-Spanish wars in 1648, struck a massive blow by closing the Scheldt to all non-Dutch ships. Without its vital link to the sea, Antwerp was ruined. But Napoleon’s arrival in 1797 changed all of that. The French rebuilt the docks, Antwerp got back on its feet, and by the late 19th century it had become the world’s third-largest port after London and New York.

Antwerp was occupied by Germany in October 1914 after weeks of heavy bombardment including aerial Zeppelin attacks. Around a million refugees left for the UK, France and the Netherlands, although most returned after 1918 to rebuild the city. In 1920 Antwerp hosted the Olympic Games and in 1928 construction began on Europe’s first skyscraper, the 27-storey Torengebouw (still standing, now called KBC Tower).

During WWII Antwerp’s port again made it an obvious military target, and during German occupation around two-thirds of the Jewish population perished. The city's later 20th-century regeneration has been a sometimes contradictory mixture of modern multiculturalism and backlash, but few places seem so optimistic in forging ahead with 21st-century visions.