Ghent is a city and a municipality located in the Flemish region of Belgium. It is the capital and largest city of the East Flanders province. The city started as a settlement at the confluence of the Rivers Scheldt and Lys and in the Middle Ages became one of the largest and richest cities of northern Europe. Today it is a busy city with a port and a university.
The municipality comprises the city of Ghent proper and the surrounding towns of Afsnee, Desteldonk, Drongen, Gentbrugge, Ledeberg, Mariakerke, Mendonk, Oostakker, Sint-Amandsberg, Sint-Denijs-Westrem, Sint-Kruis-Winkel, Wondelgem and Zwijnaarde. With 240,191 inhabitants in the beginning of 2009, Ghent is Belgium's second largest municipality by number of inhabitants. The metropolitan area, including the outer commuter zone, covers an area of and has a total population of 594,582 as of 1 January 2008, which ranks it as the fourth most populous in Belgium. The current mayor of Ghent, Daniël Termont, leads a coalition of the sp.a, Open VLD and Pro Gent.
Every year the ten-day-long "Ghent Festival" (Gentse Feesten in Dutch) is held. About two million visitors attend every year.
Archaeological evidence shows human presence in the region of the confluence of Scheldt and Lys going back as far as the Stone Age and the Iron Age. Most historians believe that the older name for Ghent, 'Ganda', is derived from the Celtic word 'ganda' which means confluence. There are no written records of the Roman period but archaeological research confirms that the region of Ghent was further inhabited.
Around 650, Saint Amand founded two abbeys in Ghent: the (Blandinium) and the . The city grew from several nuclei, the abbeys and a commercial centre. Around 800, Louis the Pious, son of Charlemagne, appointed Einhard, the biographer of Charlemagne, as abbot of both abbeys. In 851 and 879, the city was however attacked and plundered twice by the Vikings.
The city recovered and flourished from the 11th century on. Until the 13th century, Ghent was the biggest city in Europe after Paris; it was bigger than London, Cologne, or Moscow. Within the city walls lived up to 65,000 people. Today, the belfry and the towers of the Saint Bavo Cathedral and Saint Nicholas' Church are just a few examples of the skyline of the period.
The rivers flowed in an area where a lot of land was periodically inundated. These richly grassed 'meersen' ("water-meadows": a word related to the English 'marsh' were ideally suited for herding sheep, the wool of which was used for making cloth. In fact, Ghent was, during the Middle Ages, the most important city for cloth.
The wool industry, originally established at Bruges, created the first European industrialized zone in Ghent in the High Middle Ages. The mercantile zone was so highly developed that wool had to be imported from Scotland and England. This was one of the reasons for Flanders' good relationship with Scotland and England. Ghent was the birthplace of John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster. The trade with England (but not Scotland) suffered significantly during the Hundred Years' War.
The city recovered in the 14th century, while Flanders was united with neighbouring provinces under the Dukes of Burgundy. High taxes led to a rebellion and eventually the Battle of Gavere in 1453, in which Ghent suffered a terrible defeat at the hands of Philip the Good. Around this time the center of political and social importance in the Low Countries started to shift from Flanders (Bruges–Ghent) to Brabant (Antwerp–Brussels), although Ghent would continue to play an important role.
In 1500, Juana of Castile gave birth to Charles V, who became Holy Roman Emperor and King of Spain. Although native to Ghent, he punished the city after the 1539 Revolt of Ghent and obliged the city's nobles to walk in front of the emperor barefoot with a noose (Dutch: strop) around the neck; since this incident, the people of Ghent have been called "Stroppendragers" (noose bearers). The was abolished, torn down, and replaced with a fortress for Spanish troops. Only a small portion of the abbey was spared demolition.
The late 16th and the 17th century brought devastation because of the Eighty Years' War. The war ended the role of Ghent as a center of international importance. In 1745, the city was captured by French forces during the War of the Austrian Succession before being returned to Austria following the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle.
In the 18th and 19th century the textile industry flourished again in Ghent. In 1800 Lieven Bauwens, having smuggled the plans out of England, introduced the first mechanical weaving machine on the European continent.
Ghent was also the site of the signing of the Treaty of Ghent which formally ended the War of 1812 between Britain and the United States. After the Battle of Waterloo, Ghent became a part of the United Kingdom of the Netherlands for 15 years. In this period, Ghent established its own university (1817) and a new connection to the sea (1824–27).
After the Belgian Revolution, with the loss of port access to the sea for more than a decade, the local economy collapsed and the first Belgian trade-union originated in Ghent. In 1913 there was a World exhibition in Ghent. As a preparation for these festivities, the Sint-Pieters railway station was completed in 1912. Ghent was occupied by the Germans in both World Wars but escaped severe destruction and was liberated by the British 7th Desert Rats Armoured Division on 6 September 1944.