Marseille a City that History Buffs Should Visit
Admittedly, my (old) view of Marseille came from mob and war stories in books, on TV and movies. Now after visiting the city, I’m impressed. To me, Marseille’s story is one of resilience. It shows how perseverance conquers adversity.
Marseille’s Story: Prehistory and Ancient Massalia
The earliest settlements in the area, now know as Marseille, date back to the Paleolithic period (60,000 BC). Residents lived along the Marseille basin which was about the size of the current city. The location was ideal for all types of sea activities. It was protected on the opposite side from the strong northerly winds (Mistrals) by a range of mountains.
600 BC the Phocaeans, Greeks from Asia Minor, arrive and name the settlement on the coastline Massalia.
600 BC to 49 BC the Greeks grow their trade routes from this central base.
49 BC the Romans troops under Julias Caesar take over Massalia. Due to its strategic location for trading, the city prospered during and even after the Roman era. However, that economic activity came to an abrupt halt in 739 after the Frankish military, led by Charles Martel, attacked the city.
Marseille’s Key Dates in History
1370 – The year that the first commercial soap maker established operations in Marseille. Read about the history of Savon de Marseille and the museum-boutique-workshop MuSaMa (Musée Savon de Marseille). Dedicated to preserving this traditional industry a group of fabricators in Marseille developed MuSaMa. This group continues making the soap following the original methodology with only the authentic ingredients.
1660 – King Louis XIV ordered the construction of Fort Saint-Jean. The Citadel built at the entrance to the Vieux Port was once the site of a previous commandary post of the Military Order of the Knights Hospitaller of Saint John. The fortress exists today, linked to MuCEM via a solid steel girder walkway. The old fort is now a space for art exhibits, a place to relax over a bite to eat or to enjoy the city views from the Garden of Migration on the old ramparts.
1720 – The Great Plague was the last of a series of outbreaks of bubonic plagues that significantly impacted Marseille’s population. This last one killed an estimated 100,000 people (50% in the city) in two years. The authorities were so desperate to stop the “march” of the disease that they built a wall. Read about Mur de la Peste a Rocky Trail in Provence’s History. For additional reading on the far-reaching impacts of the plague and the wall click here.
1869 – Despite its name, the Palais Longchamp was never a palace or even a private residence. The structure is an architectural folly built to celebrate the arrival of water to a city consistently impacted by drought conditions and health epidemics. Elegant white columns merge the east and west wings of Palais Longchamp. This graceful semi-circle of white columns surrounds a sizable water feature called the chateau d’eau. Visit the Palais Longchamp today to see the Natural History Museum and the Musée des Beaux-Arts. Spare some time for Parc Longchamp it’s a notable French garden located behind the Palais.
The impact of World Wars I & II on Marseille and the rest of the country were broad reaching. During WWII, the city suffered from bombings that impacted several arrondissements and the Vieux Port. The Germans, the Vichy government, the Militia and the French Popular Party actively suppressed the local inhabitants. In January 1943, more than 2,000 Marseillais were rounded up and sent to concentration camps.
2013 – Marseille is the European Capital of Culture (M2013) for the year. To mark this event new museums MuCEM (Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilisations) and Villa Méditerranée opened to the public. The Vieux Port benefited from a pedestrian-friendly update and the installation of the Foster + Partners’ designed mirrored canopy.
2019 – A celebration of gourmet food – “A Year to Savour” is the tag line for a year of culinary highlights cooking under the banner of Marseille Provence Gastronomy 2019 (MGP2019).