FRANCE  |  Marseille & Aix en Provence, France Travel Guide
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A Brief History of Marseille

Artist Garneray's 1825 depiction of the port of Marseille, France

Early History of Marseilles

Marseille was already an established trading post in 600 BC between the Ligurian and the Celtic tribes of the hinterlands when Phocaen Greeks sailed up the creek that is now its Old Port. In fact, cave paintings found in Cosquer’s cave in the nearby calanques (narrow coves cut by water out of the rock), show signs of some kind of social organization in this area going back as much as 27,000 years – during the last Ice Age! But it was the Phocaens (not to be confused with that other seagoing people, the Phonecians) who really put Marseille – they called it Massalia – on the map. The Phocaens, who came from an island near the Turkish coast, were the earliest Greeks to make long-distance voyages. They must have liked what they discovered because, in addition to founding France’s oldest city, they planted their key crops – vines, almonds, olives, apricots and cherries – establishing most of what is, today, considered Mediterranean agriculture. They established other cities as well.

Roman Era

By the time the Romans arrived (at the invitation of the Greeks in the second century AD), the Phocaens' empire included Arles, Nice, Antibes, Agde, La Ciotat and the Iles d’Hyères.

However, Roman domination (they changed the name to Massilia) was short lived, but long enough to bring the first monastic communities, leading to the spread of Christianity in Provence. By the third century, barbarians and plagues had turned the city into a backwater, but the crusades ushered in a new seagoing era. The shipbuilding and navigational skills of the Marseillaise brought the city to prominance once again, and its merchants competed with the Genoese to outfit and supply the Crusaders.

Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries

The resilient spirit of Marseille and its powers of recovery are almost legendary. Twice the city provided the entry point for Plague into Europe and was devastated by it – most recently in 1720 when it opened the door to the last major outbreak of Plague in Europe and lost 50,000 people as a result.

In the 19th century, before the French conquered Algeria, its shipping trade was regularly ravaged by Barbary pirates from the North African coast.

World War II

During World War II it suffered bombardment by the Germans, Italians and Allies. In 1943, in the guise of a civic cleanup (but more likely to destroy the hiding places of the Resistance), the Nazis evacuated 40,000 people from the city’s oldest and most picturesque quarters and then razed the neighborhoods, leaving only a single row of older buildings around the harbor. Nearly 2,000 buildings north of the Old Port were destroyed. A large proportion of the inhabitants were sent to the death camps.

After the war, Marseille saw the rise and fall of its steel industry, the decline of its ship-building trade and the creation of an industrial super-port at Fos, west of the city, that produced fewer jobs than expected. Nevertheless, despite high levels of unemployment and poverty, today it remains one of the most important ports in Continental Europe, a center for the French film and animation, petro-chemical, high tech and logistics industries and a premier port of call for the major Mediterranean cruise companies.

Last updated January 13, 2012
Posted in   France  |  Marseille & Aix en Provence
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