Brief history of Gent

The confluence of the Leie and Schelde Rivers has always been an important place for human habitation. This favorable geographic location has attracted and brought people together since pre-historic times. Archeological evidence shows human presence in the regions going back as far as the Stone Age and the Iron Age. Most historians believe that the older name for Gent, ‘Ganda’ is derived from the Celtic word ‘ganda’ which means confluence. There are no written records of the Roman period. In the first centuries of our Era, during Roman rule, a fairly major village stood on the high sand ridge that stretched from Eenbeekeinde in Destelbergen to the confluence of the Leie and the Schelde. People lived in safety, protected from the water. Further along the Schelde, on Blandijnberg, stood a Roman villa.

When the Germans invaded the Roman territories (from the end of the 4th century and well into the 5th century) the area around the confluence of the Leie and Schelde Rivers was where some chose to permanently reside. The Germans brought their language with them and Celtic and Latin were replaced by Old Dutch. This language represents the first attested stage of the Dutch language and its dialects, being succeeded by Middle Dutch in the later middle Ages. Old Dutch became the basis language in the Netherlands and the northern part of present-day Belgium (Flanders), as well as in areas of northern France along the North Sea coast and adjoining Belgium.

Between 629 and 639AD, Amandus (the hermit missionary and bishop of Maastricht, Netherlands) at the request of Clotaire II, began first to evangelize the inhabitants of Gent, who were then considered by the Catholic Church as degraded idolaters. It was during this time that he established two great abbeys in Gent: Sint-Pieter’s Abbey and Sint-Baaf’s Abbey. These were the first monuments to the Catholic faith in Belgium.

The city grew from several nuclei, the abbeys and a commercial center. Around 800 Louis the Pious, son of Charlemagne, appointed Einhard, the biographer of Charlemagne, as abbot of both abbeys. In 879 and 883 the city was however attacked and plundered twice by the Vikings and both abbeys were destroyed.

Somewhere around the year 1000 is considered to be the beginning of the current and real city of Gent. Gent flourished from the 11th century on. Around 1100 Gent began to develop its own leadership and local government and a great wall with four portals was constructed around the city.

From the 11th until the 12th century Gent rose to become an important trade center, especially because of the production of cloth based on the import of English wool. The Gent boat and barge captains traveled through much of Europe to sell wool and to buy salt, wine other commodities to feed the needs of the thriving city of Gent. During this time several trade unions and guilds became wealthy and powerful.

In 1178 Count Philip of Alsace granted Gent its first privileges. The same Count also transformed the wooden fortification into the impressive stone Castle of the Counts, Gravensteen. In the 13th century the city was governed by an oligarchy of patricians who, continuously, defended their own (mercantile) interests against the Count and the corporations. During the Hundred Years’ War the count of Flanders chose the side of the French king. Gent, however, depended heavily on the import of English wool. Therefore, the people of Gent asked Jacob van Artevelde, a corporation spokesperson, to try and preserve the trade-relations with England. Through diplomatic actions he succeeded and managed to avoid an open conflict with the French King.  Jacob was killed by his own people in 1345 but his son Fillip van Artevelde continued the opposition against the Count of Flanders Lodewijk van Male.

Until the 13th century Gent was the second largest city in Western Europe after Paris; it was larger than London, Cologne or Moscow. Within the city walls lived up to 65,000 people. At that time London had a population of about 10,000. The towers of the Saint Baaf’s Cathedral and Saint Nicholas’ Church continue to be a prominent part of the Gent skyline.

The prayer of the Lamb of God (De aanbidding van het Lam Gods) was painted by the Van Eyck brothers in 1432. Jan van Eyck and its older brother Hubert created this for the leader of the city of Gent. It is still on display at Sint Baaf’s Cathedral in Gent.

In 1500 Juana of Castile gave birth to Charles V, who became Holy Roman Emperor and King of Spain. To the Flemish he is known as Keizer Karel. Charles V personally traveled to Gent to punish the inhabitants of the city where he had been born. He abrogated their privileges, the proof of their independence, and abolished their exercise of power outside the city walls with one stroke of the pen. Perhaps not without a touch of cynicism, he called his punitive law the Concessio Carolina (Caroline Concession). Fifty Gent patricians, dressed only in a white shirt, were made to beg for his mercy. They were barefoot and wore a noose around their neck, as a sign that they had earned the gallows. Ever since, the people of Gent have been known as ‘Noose-bearers’ (Stropendragers).

More catastrophes followed. The voices of Luther and other reformers found a ready ear here. Already around 1530, the city was divided by a profound religious schism. The Gent Protestants suffered heavily under the relentless inquisition and the merciless implementation of the emperor’s heresy edicts. From 1559 onwards, hardly a month went by without the stakes blazing high on Vrijdagmarkt or Sint-Veerleplein, sometimes for the execution of two or three ‘heretics’ at the same time. The reaction came in the form of the infamous iconoclastic fury of August 1566. Not a single church, monastery, convent or chapel remained undamaged by the vehemence of the Protestant ‘image-breakers’. The Gent altarpiece of the Adoration of the Lamb only escaped destruction because it had been hidden, just in time, in the tower of the Cathedral of St Bavo.

In 1566, rising Calvinism became active in Gent; in this year a number of Catholic churches were plundered and images of saints destroyed. The Mennonites, maintaining their principle of nonresistance, did not cooperate with the Calvinist iconoclasts. Notwithstanding their non-participation, they were terribly persecuted in 1567-1573 during the reactionary and implacable Catholic government of the Duke of Alba: within those six years no fewer than 49 members were put to death. The congregation, which is said to have numbered 400 members in 1567, greatly decreased in the following years, both by execution and flight.

In 1577-1584 Calvinism reigned in Gent. Under the supremacy of the Calvinist government the Mennonite congregation too had a time of rest and security; no one was executed, only a few were banished from the city. But equality with the Calvinist church was not yet obtained: Calvinism considered the Mennonites as heretics just as Roman Catholicism had done before. This is proved from the fact that a debate between Calvinist and Mennonite leaders held in the fall of 1581 was fruitless; and a request of the Mennonites presented to the city government in February 1582 to obtain the use of one of the former Catholic churches taken over by the Calvinists was refused.

The Calvinist government lasted only a few years. In September 1584 the Spanish Stadholder Alexander Farnese conquered the city and the Calvinist magistrates were replaced by Roman Catholics. The new government was rather moderate toward the Calvinists, permitting them, if they wanted to keep their faith, to sell their property and leave the city. But the Mennonites, whose number is said to have been “not small,” usually were handled with less moderation. So persecution again came over the congregation. A number of its members died as martyrs, others escaped and cwent to the Netherlands. On 15 March 1585, nine Mennonites were arrested in the home of Jan de Cleercq. They were probably all deacons, constituting the board of the congregation of Gent.

Twelve years later, the cathedral itself was stripped bare and whitewashed to serve for the Protestant service. A couple of agitators had seized power in a coup to which Prince William of Orange was privy, and had established a Protestant dictatorship. Gent was the spearhead in the revolt of the Netherlands against King Philip II of Spain. The popular leaders started a regular round-up of Catholic clergymen. In their eyes, Gent was to be turned into the ‘Geneva of the North’.

When the duke of Parma made the pendulum swing once again to the Catholic side in 1584, by his conquest of Gent on behalf of the king of Spain, many of the inhabitants of Gent had had too much. About 15,000 people left. The majority were Protestants, of course, but they also included people who simply did not feel like staying in the moribund city. Most of them immigrated north to the Netherlands. Lieven de Key, who was to become a famous architect in Haarlem and Leiden, was amongst them. Judocus Hondius van Wakken, who was later a well-known cartographer in Amsterdam, was an alumnus of the Protestant Latin School in Gent.

After 1600, the entire public life of the city was dedicated to the Catholic reconstruction, in both the literal and the figurative sense. Literally dozens of destroyed or badly damaged monasteries, convents, churches, chapels and almshouses were repaired or rebuilt on a grand scale. It was the era of the triumphant Baroque in architecture. In its entire history, Gent has rarely seen such building activity as in the years between 1600 and 1660. About 56 contractors employed nearly a thousand construction workers. The city council encouraged private citizens to make their own contributions to the ‘cieraet van deser stede’ (embellishment of this city).

Roughly two dozen new religious orders established themselves in the city, especially female orders. The principal newcomers were the Jesuits. With their catechism lessons, their Congregations of the Blessed Virgin, their retreats and their missions, they were to reach nearly all layers of the urban population, from young to old. From then on, devotion and discipline would be the order of the day for everyone. In their colleges, the Jesuits and the Augustinians not only endeavored to acquaint boys and young men with the Classics and stage their plays, but also, and foremost, to initiate them in the Catholic teachings and morality.

The figure that towered above all the others involved in this Catholic revival was the Gent bishop Antoon Triest, a man who excelled in piety and charity. He was a tireless organizer. Seated in his coach, in which he departed daily from the Episcopal palace (now the seat of the provincial administration), he was a familiar sight to the townsmen. On average every three years, he personally visited each of the 150 parishes of his diocese. He left many marks of his love and patronage of the arts, of which one is reminded at every step on a visit to the Cathedral of St Bavo, for which he commissioned works from the painters Rubens and van Dyck and the sculptor Jeroom Duquesnoy.

The bishop not only personified the new religious spirit and the flourishing of the arts, he was also a symbol of Gent’s tentative economic revival. The prospects of Gent commerce and inland shipping were greatly improved by the digging of the canal from Gent to Brugge, which was further connected to the harbors of Oostend and Dunkirk (1613-1640). Soon, barges were floated on these canals, both for passengers and for freight. The barges were drawn by a team of two horses. Every day at 10 a.m., one barge would leave in Gent and another in Brugge. Every year, they carried about 50,000 passengers from Gent to Brugge or the other way around. One of the most famous amongst them, who departed from Gent in 1717, was the Russian Tsar Peter the Great.

The late 16th and the 17th century brought devastation because of the Religious wars. At one time Gent was a Calvinistic republic, but eventually the Spanish army reinstated Catholicism. The wars ended the role of Gent as a center of international importance. The Protestant church and especially the Evangelical Protestant church is still recovering from this event. Until recently the lack of seminaries and Bible colleges in Flanders has meant there are few, trained leaders for the churches.

After 1700, the new direct connection to the sea made the more enterprising inhabitants of Gent look out to the wide world again. Gent traders fitted out ships to China and India in 1714-1715. A few years later, Jan Baptist van Goethem and a group of other Gent citizens helped to found the Oostendse Compagnie, a company for international marine commerce. Today, the imposing Hotel Van Goethem on Ingelandgat still stands as a witness to this profitable activity.

In the peaceful times that started in 1740, under the prosperous reign of the Austrian Empress Maria Theresia, Gent had its first great economic revival since the middle Ages. With the powerful support of the municipal and the central authorities, enterprising merchants established ‘manufacturen’ or factories. The first sugar refineries appeared in 1750. These first real factories, which fell completely outside the framework of the traditional craftsmen’s guilds, heralded the era of capitalist industry. Over time, the ‘cotton barons’ came to dominate the scene with their spinning mills, bleach works, dye houses and cotton-printing shops. The transport of their wares was no longer limited to inland shipping. From Gent, new and perfectly straight cobbled roads were laid to all the larger cities and towns in the vicinity. They have survived more or less intact to this day, in the form of the contemporary district roads.

The factory owners became rich and sought to imitate the lifestyle of the aristocracy. They purchased titles, married into distinguished families, started to collect art, and built themselves opulent residences in the French style. When the Theater of St Sebastian opened on the Kouter in 1715, Gent even had its own opera, the favorite fashionable meeting place of the city’s aristocracy and bourgeoisie.

Around 1800, the mechanization of the textile industry brought Gent to a new industrial awakening. At the time, the city belonged to France. The principles of the French Revolution were applied here just as radically as in the rest of France, down to the introduction of a new form of city council, which has survived to this day. In the name of the modern liberties, the privileges of the church were abolished. For the workers, there was a prohibition on association.

The factory bosses, on the other hand, were given free rein, and now they suddenly had an enormous market for their products in the French hinterland. An early feat of industrial espionage was pulled off by Lieven Bauwens, who smuggled spinning and weaving machines and steam engines from England to his native city. Gent, this center of industry, was called ‘the Manchester of the continent’. It was only natural therefore that the city desired to finally have a canal that would connect its port directly with the North Sea. A canal was dug from Gent to Terneuzen, Netherlands. After its opening in 1827, real sea-going vessels sailed into the city for the first time in its history. From now on, many generations of dockworkers would earn their living with hard labor on the quayside.

The patrician residences in the French style that were built after 1750 were still among the most luxurious of the city in the beginning of the 19th century. They were extremely comfortable residences that played a role in the international events of their times, such as the fall of the French Empire of Napoleon. In 1815, during the Hundred Days after Napoleon’s escape from Elba, the French King Louis XVIII stayed at the Hotel d’Hane Steenhuyse. (To ears accustomed to the Gent dialect, ‘Louis Dix-huit’ sounds just like ‘Loewie die zwiet’, ‘Louis Who Sweats’.) Former guests had been Tsar Alexander I of Russia in 1814 and King William I of the Netherlands in 1816. In another of these hotels, the Hotel Clemmen (now the Vander Haeghen Museum), the Duke of Wellington stayed for a few days on his way to Waterloo.

The residence of the Schamp family (now a shoe store) was where the American Delegation stayed in 1814 during the negotiations with the British. The leader of the delegation, John Quincy Adams, the future president of the United States, maintained very cordial relations with the people of Gent. The treaty that was signed on this occasion, known as the Treaty of Ghent, put an end to the Second Anglo-American War. Gent became a part of the United Kingdom of the Netherlands for 15 years. In this period Gent got its own university (1817).

The main characteristic of Gent in the period from 1800 to 1930 was its nature of a city of large textile factories and workers. In 1930, approximately 35,000 workers were employed in 1, 200 factories and workshops. The population rose at a spectacular rate, from 61,000 in 1815 to more than 175,000 in 1930. The textile industry had come to dominate the city to such an extent that even the venerable Gravensteen was converted into a spinning mill, with workers’ houses built against it. The abolished monasteries and convents were put to similar uses. Lieven Bauwens established his first factory in the former Carthusian monastery on Fratersplein.

The Caermersklooster (Carmelite friary) in the Patershol district and the former Dominican friary on Onderbergen were turned into workers’ barracks. For a hundred years, these masses of workers who flocked to the city from the surrounding countryside lived in appalling squalor. They were hoarded together in dingy, cramped alleys known as ‘beluiken’ and miserable slums. They had to cope with dismal working conditions in the spinning and weaving mills, low wages, degrading living conditions, lack of elementary hygiene and the recurrent scourge of cholera epidemics. No wonder that the roots of the Flemish organized trade unions, both of Socialist and of Christian-Democrat inspiration, lie in this large city of factories and proletarians.

There was an immense chasm between the lives of the workers and those of the Gent factory bosses and bourgeoisie. After Belgian Independence, although they still invariably spoke French, the majority had remained supporters of the Dutch King William I. These Orangists remained loyal to the house of Orange because William, in the short period when Belgium and the Netherlands had been brought together, had greatly favored the expansion of their commerce and industry.

After 1830, the sale of his stud farm, which had been seized by the new state of Belgium, took on an almost political symbolic value for the Gent elite. In 1838, inspired by their anti-Belgian outlook, and as a kind of public rehabilitation, they started organizing horse races on Willemsveld in Sint-Denijs-Westrem, where Flanders Expo is now. For three quarters of a century, the horse races in Sint-Denijs were a real society event, where the rich and famous came to show off in their open carriages.

The influence of the French language remained strong in Gent until quite recently. The only Belgian Nobel Prize winner for literature, the Gent author Maurice Maeterlinck, wrote in French. But Gent also played an important role in the struggle for the recognition of Dutch, the language of the people. After the Belgian Revolution of 1830, a group of intellectuals around Jan Frans Willems, mainly from educational circles, made sure that the language contacts with our Northern neighbors were repaired quite soon.

Willems’s statue can be seen on Sint-Baafsplein, in front of the theatre of the Nederlandse Schouwburg, which also played a significant role. Both the composer and the writer of the lyrics of the Flemish hymn ‘De Vlaamse Leeuw’ (The Flemish Lion) were from Gent. The city was also the birthplace of the Vlaamse Academie voor Taal- en Letterkunde (Flemish Academy of Language and Literature) in 1886, the current Koninklijke Academie voor Nederlandse Taal en Letterkunde (Royal Academy of Dutch Language and Literature), on Koningstraat.

One of the main items on the program of the Flemish Movement was the language used at Gent University. The university had been founded by King William I of the Netherlands. For Flanders, it opened up the modern world of science and technology. The introduction of Dutch at the university in 1930 was a milestone in the history of Flemish awareness. From that year onwards, students from Gent and elsewhere in Flanders could complete their entire studies, from primary school to a doctorate degree, in their own native language.

The rather coarse but very expressive Gent dialect was not eradicated by the more generalized use of standard Dutch. On the contrary, dialect-speaking variety artists such as Henri Van Daele, Hélène Maréchal and, later, Romain Deconinck, remained enormously popular, both among the lower classes and with the bourgeoisie.

In 1830, Belgium broke away from the Netherlands and became an independent country. In February 1831, the National Congress adopted a constitution which, at that time, was considered as progressive. It was on 21 July 1831 that Leopold of Saxe-Coburg swore allegiance to the Belgian constitution in the Sint Jacobs Church on the Coudenberg in Central Brussels. Leopold I thus became the first king of the Belgians. The great powers at that time recognized the Belgian independence. Thus July 21 is celebrated as the National Holiday of Belgium and is the anchor point for the annual 10 day Gentse Feesten (Gent Festivals).

After 1830, the city changed dramatically. Until then, it had largely remained as it had been in the middle Ages, with lots of green areas. Now, industry changed the face of the city with numerous factories and workers’ housing estates, built in what is now called the ’19th-century belt’. Secondly, there was the mechanization of public transport. On 28 September 1837, five hundred prominent Gent citizens rode into Zuidstation on the first steam train of the line Mechelen-Dendermonde-Gent, through Muinkmeersen. This train station in the south district of Gent was also the departure point of the first ‘tramway américain’, a horse-drawn tram that became operational in 1874.

There was a line to Vlasmarkt and Dampoort and another that went over the Kouter to the Court of Justice. Later, the Korenmarkt became the second main tramline junction. By 1899, the tramway company was already running seven lines, with battery trams that were painted green. In 1905, the familiar electric trams with their overhead wires made their entry.

But the most radical transformation was the urban renewal operation with a view to the organization of the World Exhibition of 1913. The inner city was completely redesigned. The new axis from Hoogstraat and Sint-Michielshelling to Vlaanderenstraat and Zuidstation, together with the many new squares in the city center, definitively opened up the old picturesque ‘kuip’ (which means ‘vat’ or ‘pit’), as the medieval inner city of Gent is known. Thanks to these developments, we now have the famous view of the three Gent towers. Most of the historical monuments, including the Belfry, the Cloth Hall, the Counts’ Castle, the Great Butchers’ Hall, the Geraard de Duivelsteen, the façades on the Graslei and many other buildings were restored.

There were also lots of new initiatives. One of the most beautiful buildings erected around this time is undoubtedly the Museum of Fine Arts, designed by Charles van Rysselberghe. All kinds of entertainment could be had in Gent, from traditional to the most modern. From now on, the people of Gent could enjoy the same spectacles that were all the rage in the big cities of Europe and America. The Valentino theater on Kuiperskaai started showing the first silent films as early as 1901, by way of entr’acte in its music hall shows. Geo Henderick converted the hall into cinema Scala, which later became the Wintergarten and a few years later (in 1921), the Coliseum. The Vooruit complex of function and meeting rooms on Sint-Pietersnieuwstraat, with a film theater giving out on Muinkkaai, was a remarkable eye-catcher. The Nederlandse Schouwburg on Sint-Baafsplein, the Minard Theatre and the Opera always played to a full house.

The World Exhibition, colloquially called the ‘Expo’, was a spectacular event for the people of Gent. Even though the writer Karel van de Woestijne may have seen nothing else than ‘flirts van Gentsche meisjes met menschenetende negers’ (‘Gent girls flirting with man-eating niggers’), other witnesses wrote enthusiastic reports of a swarming world full of wonders. Visitors could walk from Senegal to Persia and from Canada to the Philippines. Gent was well-prepared for the onrush of tourists. In 1912, the new train station on the Brussels-Ostend line, Sint-Pietersstation, was completed. On the other side of the square, there was the brand-new Flandria Palace, a large hotel with no fewer than 600 rooms. Gent had already had fifteen other large hotels since the beginning of the 20th century.

After the First World War, the upper middle class considered the now vacated grounds of the World Exhibition an ideal place for building new fashionable mansions and villas. The new district had broad lanes and lots of trees and parks. On the corner of Krijgslaan, architect Oscar Van de Voorde even built the first real block of apartments in Gent, in 1925. This high-class residential district is still called the ‘Miljoenenkwartier’ or ‘Millions’ Quarter’ in popular speech.

In the years between the two World Wars, the lives of the people of Gent drastically improved thanks to achievements such as the eight-hour working day, the six-day working week and paid annual holidays. It was no longer a privilege of the rich to go on a Sunday outing to an open-air café in the countryside, such as ‘t Heilig Huizeken and a dozen others in the direction of Drongen, or for a stroll along the banks of the river Leie. Such outings were now a popular pastime of the common people too. Cinema, opera, circus, theater, music hall, football, bicycle races at the Kuipke, the Mid-Lent fair on Sint-Pietersplein, and, not to forget, the Gentse Feesten, they all drew immense crowds.

This was a sign that everyone, from high to low, participated equally in leisure and entertainment. From 1932 onwards, Cinema Capitole on Graaf van Vlaanderenplein was one of the most magnificent and largest cinemas showing talking pictures in the whole of Belgium. In the mid-thirties, Gent had its own radio distribution. Until around 1960, the music box with its single button was to remain a familiar sight in more than three quarters of the Gent homes. In his critical drawing, the artist Frits Van den Berghe brought Gent’s ‘roaring twenties’ and ‘turbulent thirties’ to life as no other. With the writer Richard Minne, he shared the themes of the unbridled optimism and dark foreboding that both characterized this era with equal intensity. He was one of the first to denounce the rise of Fascism.

Just like the First World War had put a damper on the high expectations aroused in Gent by the World Exhibition of 1913, the economic crisis of the thirties and the German occupation during the Second World War made life miserable for the urban population. During the Allies’ final offensive, the period from May to September 1944, the inhabitants of the districts around the Verbindingsvaart canal and the neighborhood of Merelbeke station were hard hit by the bombardments.

But after 1950, Gent revived at breathtaking speed. The digging of the Watersportsbaan Course and the erection of high-rise flat buildings for social housing around it were the first remarkable signs of this new dynamism. The broadened canal to Terneuzen attracted large steel, petrochemical and car assembly plants to the harbor area. And thanks to the improvement of employment conditions after 1960, the majority of the Gent people were now able to benefit from the new welfare society: a house of their own with a garden, preferably in one of the green suburbs, a car, and an annual holiday at the Belgian seaside resorts of Knokke or Blankenberge, or, increasingly, even at the in the south of Europe.

The municipal reorganization of 1977 merged a number of surrounding villages with Gent, creating a new city of about a quarter of a million inhabitants. The urban flight to the countryside continued unabated. But at the same time, a policy was started to make the inner city more attractive again for housing, commerce and recreation. Monuments were restored and pedestrian shopping areas were created. Another considerable contribution towards this aim was the introduction of a drastic traffic plan in 1997, which bans car traffic from the inner city.

In a unique way, Gent has managed to preserve its medieval power while keeping up with the times. The city center alone is a showcase of medieval Flemish wealth and commercial success. Modern Gent certainly cannot be overlooked in Belgium. The city has an important harbor, thanks to the canal Gent-Terneuzen which allows sea-going vessels to bring their products to the city and its industrial hinterland.

The University of Gent continues to grow in importance. The enrollment of the University of Gent equals the Catholic University in Leuven which has long been the largest university in Belgium. Gent University yearly attracts over 30,000 students, with a foreign student population of over 2,200 EU and non-EU citizens. Gent University offers a broad range of study programs in all academic and scientific branches. After more than twenty years of uninterrupted growth, Gent University is now one of the most important institutions of higher education and research in northwestern Europe. The presence of so many young people and students has turned Gent into an important Flemish cultural center.

Gent is also the flower city of Belgium. Flower growers from the region around Gent sell their beautiful begonia’s and azalea’s all over the world. Every 5 years the successful ‘Gentse Floraliën” ( Gent Flower Show) attracts thousands to the city. The tourist will not have eyes enough to admire the awesome architectural wealth, which offers a splendid combination of impressiveness and idyllic.

The seaport of Gent, with its rich history starting in the Middle Ages, has proven to be an important economic gateway to and from one of the most densely populated regions in Europe. Gent is a multipurpose seaport offering a choice of well equipped terminals for handling and storing a vast range of commodities and cargoes. Its nautical access goes up to Panamax-type vessels of 80,000 DWT. In all, Gent seaport handles around 45 million tons of water-borne cargo a year, of which two thirds are transported overseas and one third via inland waterways. There are easy on-carriage connections by sea, inland waterway, rail and motorway as well as by pipeline.

Gent is the largest industrial center in Western Belgium. For centuries the most important industry was textiles which made Gent into a “Manchester of the European mainland”. Today the city still has large cotton spinning mills and linen weaving mills where the world famous Flemish cloth is produced, but the decline of the textile industry has forced the establishment of new areas of economic activity. Today factories in and around Gent produce paper, chemicals, cars, optical, engineering, electrical and electronic components with a large steelworks being the major industry. All of the Volvo Trucks in most of Europe are manufactured in Gent.

Gent is also a cultural center. Everywhere you turn there seems to be another museum. The following is a list of some of the museums found in Gent:  Museum of Fine Arts (Citadelpark); Museum of Contemporary Art   S.M.A.K. (Citadelpark); STAM : City Museum Gent (Godshuizenlaan 2); Design Museum Gent (Jan Breydelstraat 5); Museum of Folklore – The House van Alijn (Kraanlei 65); De world van Kina – Nature Museum for Children and Youth (Sint Pietersplein 14); Lapidary Museum (Gandastraat 7); Saint Peter’s Abbey (Sint Pietersplein 9); Botanical Garden and Planetarium of the University (K. L. Ledeganckstraat 35); Museum for Industrial Archaeology and Textiles (Minnemeers 9); Museum for the history of Sciences  (Krijgslaan 281); History of Education Collection (Baertsoenkaai 3); Museum History Medicine (Het Pand, Onderbergen 1).

The Flanders International Film Festival is hosted in Gent. It was established in 1974 as a students’ film festival, and has since developed into one of Europe’s most prominent film events. Every year in October, the festival presents some 120 features and 50 shorts from all across the world. A range of different film programs are showcased, attracting over 100,000 viewers each year. The International Federation of Film Producers Associations (IFFPA) recognizes this festival as a competitive festival primarily geared towards the ‘impact of music on film’. There are 4 awards up for grabs and around 15 entrants.

Every year, the festival organizes film music concerts, giving composers of film scores the platform they deserve. Composers such as Ennio Morricone, Gabriel Yared, Elmer Bernstein, Michael Kamen, Patrick Doyle, Howard Shore, Georges Delerue, Hans Zimmer, Maurice Jarre, Craig Armstrong, Harry-Gregson Williams, Michael Danna, Gustavo Santaolalla are some of the many film music legends who have already taken the stage at Gent.

Since 2001, the Film Festival has also organized the World Soundtrack Awards, the most prestigious soundtrack awards in the world. Each year, the best soundtrack composers are honored and receive international recognition for their work. This pioneering role has certainly had an impact. Gent has grown into a meeting point for established and up-and-coming musical talent and ever greater numbers of festivals play soundtracks from the wings. Trade paper Variety placed the festival in its top 50 must attend festivals of the world because of this focus on (film) music. American financial news paper The Wall Street Journal called the festival one of the five European Film Festivals with character!

Demographically and economically, Gent is the core city of a metropolitan area of 515,000 inhabitants. This means that 290,000 people live in the villages of the Gent commuting belt outside the city limits. Every day, 35,000 people commute to Gent. The current population of Gent is about 235,143 (2007). The annual growth rate is about 3%.

Population figures for the 5 largest Belgian cities: (


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The sea port of Gent plays an important role in the economy of the metropolitan area with 25,000 jobs, especially in industry. The port of Gent is the third port of the country, and lies within the Hamburg-Le Havre range, which increasingly becomes the gateway to Europe.

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TABLE: Port of Gent, 2000

Sources: Stad Gent Archives, Wikipedia and others.