Marseille, the beautiful seaside port city is France’s biggest city on the Mediterranean coast. It has always been a huge, thriving commercial port, all the way back to the beginning. We’re talking B.C. years beginning.
There is a lot more to Marseille than meets the eye. So let’s sail back through the centuries and find out more about this ancient city. From the Greeks to the Romans to the French, you never know what lies around the next bend!
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There is evidence of human inhabitants in Marseille for 30,000 years. The proof is in the pudding! Or actually, the proof is the palaeolithic cave paintings in the underwater Cosquer Cave. Good thing scuba diving exists in the modern world, right?
Marseille was first established as a Greek colony in 600BC. It was known as the colony of Massalia, which is a lovely name don’t you think? Unfortunately, they lost their independence to the Romans in 49 BC during the infamous Caesar’s Civil War. Given that time in history though, they held onto their independence for a surprisingly long stretch of time!
As a Roman city, Marseille did prosper. Then there was a sacking by the Visigoths, some problems with Charles Martel, and then, of course, the Black Death…. Marseille did have its fair share of problems throughout the centuries! However, it wasn’t until 1480 that Marseille became part of France.
The Ancient Greek settlers established a trading post back in 600 BC at the precise location of the Old Port of Marseille. This trading post was the thriving hub of all maritime activity until the 19th century. Curiously, during medieval times the land at the far end of the port was dedicated to farming hemp to make rope!
In the mid-1800s, the Old Port could hold over one thousand ships at any given time! On average, 18,000 merchant ships went in and out of the port every year. In a single year, 20 million barrels of freight went through the Old Port. It only was six meters deep though, so they had to install deeper docks later in the 1800s to accommodate larger steam ships.
In WWII the Nazi’s lit up some dynamite and destroyed the Old Port. In 1948, Fernand Pouillon was charged with the task of rebuilding and reconstruction of the entire old quarter of Marseille. He sure had his work cut out for him! Today, it is as beautiful as ever. Bravo, Fernand!
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The Abbey of Saint Victor in Marseille was built very, very slowly. It was built between the 3rd and 9th centuries. Those construction workers sure took their sweet time! Sadly it was soon destroyed by barbarian invasions. It needed to be rebuilt in the 12th and 13th centuries. Calling all construction workers, back to work! All hands on deck!
When deciding where to build the Abbey, the city’s religious leaders selected the site on the gentle hills near the Old Port. This location just happened to be the site of an ancient Hellenic burial ground. Let’s build an abbey on top of a graveyard. Good plan? Yes or no?
During the French Revolution, the Abbey of Saint Victor took on the role of a filling station, a prison, and then soldiers’ barracks. In the 19th century, it was restored and it became a minor basilica in 1934 thanks to Pope Pius XI. Finally, back to being what it was always meant to be. Identity crisis, no more!
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As a port city that receives an unbelievable amount of ships in and out of the harbour, Marseille is a prime location in France for immigration. The 20th century brought huge waves of immigrants due to the unstable global political and economic climate. By the 1950s, forty percent of Marseille’s population was made of Italians!
Back in 2006, the largest nationality of Marseille’s residents wasn’t actually French citizens. In fact, it was Algerians! Marseille has a large population of Armenians, Corsicans, Chinese, Turks, Maghrebis, and Vietnamese. Just to name a few…
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The Château d’If sits on the Île d’If, a small island off the Old Port of Marseille. The only thing on the island is the fortress, that also once functioned as a prison. Now, the island is completely uninhabited aside from the looming, highly fortified stony structure.
The Château d’If was commissioned by King Francis I. The king saw the island in 1516 and immediately knew it was at a crucial location to defend the coastline. However, it never had to actually fend off a single attack!
Most people might know the Château d’If as being one of the settings of Alexandre Dumas’ famous novel, The Count of Monte Cristo. Today, the city has named a middle school after the author. Congrats, Mr. Dumas!
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From way back to the Middle Ages, Marseille has made a lot of soap. Since there was an abundance of raw materials such as olive oil and soda available, Marseilles and its surrounding area became the first official soap producing region!
The year was 1688 and King Louis XIV passed the Edict of Colbert, which set the standards and qualifications necessary for using the revered Marseilles soap label. The king knew the soap business was serious business! He forbid animal fat to be used in soap. If you ignored that rule, you would be banished from the whole region!
In 1924, a total of 132 soap makers called Marseille home. Things changed quickly in the 1950s when petrol-based soaps took over the market. Would you rather put a bar of 72% olive oil soap that contains no chemicals on your body? Or a bar of soap that predominantly is made of what you fuel your car with? Tough call. Apparently, the world favored petrol-based soaps, and today there are only five savonneries in Marseille!
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Since 1996, Marseille has held the title of the World Water Capital, as bestowed by the World Water Council. It was also deemed the European Capital of Culture in 2013. Moreover, in 2017 it was named the European Capital of Sport. This seaside port city and international gateway sure has a lot of titles to its name!
Paired with an ancient history proved by underwater sea caves with palaeolithic cave paintings, Marseille is a city of quite a few curiosities. From soap pioneers to the Count of Monte Cristo, we hope you learned a thing or two that caught you off guard!
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Lily Allen-Duenas is a wandering yoga instructor, massage therapist, and reiki healer. For the last two years she’s been journeying around the world, teaching yoga on island resorts in Cambodia, surf hostels in Sri Lanka, and wellness centers in the Phillipines. Lily loves building her life around her passions, health, wellness, and travel. You can follow her journey at wildyogatribe.com or get social with her @wildyogatribe