Ghent, the capital of the province of East Flanders, is situated on the junction of the Lys and Scheldt rivers in northwestern Belgium. It is the fourth largest city in Belgium, and its well-preserved medieval centre provides a reminder that it is also one of the oldest cities in the region.
Ghent is thought to have been settled in prehistoric times, but it was only during the Gallo-Roman era that the nucleus of a town appeared at the confluence of the rivers. During the eleventh and twelfth centuries Ghent’s prosperity increased as it became a crucial trading centre, mainly because of its cloth industry. Its wealth meant it would frequently oppose its nominal rulers—during the Hundred Years War, for instance, the city supported Edward III of England, owing to its heavy reliance on English wool to make cloth. In the fifteenth century Ghent was under the authority of the Dukes of Burgundy. In 1500 Charles V, Duke of Burgundy and future Holy Roman Emperor, was born in the city.
The rule of Charles and in particular his son Philip proved costly for Ghent. It became a prominent centre for dissent against Spanish rule, and in 1576 the Pacification of Ghent united the northern and southern provinces of the Lowlands in opposition to Spain. After the ensuing war, Ghent’s cloth industry was left in ruins, unable to compete with English manufacturers. The city declined still further when its access to the sea was lost to the Dutch in the mid seventeenth century.
Ghent’s fortunes began to revive when new industrial techniques were introduced to facilitate the production of cloth. The construction of the Ghent-Terneuzen Canal in 1827 restored the crucial route to the sea. As a result Ghent was able to reclaim its position as the capital of the Belgian textiles industry and also established itself as the second largest port in the country.
Today Ghent’s major exports are light machinery, paper and chemicals. Industry includes oil and chemical refining. It is also a major centre for banking and horticulture, hosting the famous flower show ‘Les Floralies’ every 5 years. Like all Belgian cities, Ghent has an efficient public transport network. To the southwest there is an international airport at St Denis-Westrem.
Places of Interest
Ghent’s ancient medieval centre is extremely well preserved, and the Gothic cathedral of St Bavon, or Baaf, dates from the twelfth century. It also houses Van Eyck’s celebrated altarpiece The Adoration of the Lamb. This artistic heritage is also evident within the city’s many museums, most notable of which is the Museum of Fine Arts.