A town one passes through, a town jostling with different races, a pluri-cultural home, the oldest town in France, the Phocean city, the gateway to the south, the gateway to the Orient, France's largest maritime city: a string of phrases, all apt, associated with this port-town, meaning a town whose port is at the heart of its economic activities, its destiny and its identity. Although the town was officially founded in 600 BC by Greeks from Phocaea – thus making Marseille a town born from both the sea and immigration – the site was occupied well before. Recent archaeological discoveries have shown us that groups of Ligurian Celts were here, and there are traces of dwellings well before that (the Cosquer cave in the neighbouring calanques) The Lacydon, the original calanque chosen by the Phoceans as their harbour, is in part protected by the twin islands of Pomègues and Ratonneau.
Two centuries after it was founded, Massilia in its turn founded the neighbouring cities of Nice, Antibes, Hyères, La Ciotat and Agde. A trading crossroads thanks to the Rhone valley, the city which turns its face resolutely towards the sea (Pytheas' voyage of exploration towards the North and Baltic seas in the 4th century BC) was attacked by the Carthaginians before asking for help from Rome and passing under the control of Caesar (49 BC). Taken and sacked by the Barbarians in the 5th and then 8th centuries AD, the town owes the spread of its influence to the abbey of St Victor. There was a renewal of vitality during the Crusades when it became a major port of embarkation for the Holy Land. In 1423 the town, which was part of the Angevin empire, was sacked by the Aragons. Its trading power returned when, after the death of King René, it passed with the rest of Provence into the kingdom of France.
Proudly jealous of the privileges accorded the town by rulers from Francois 1st to Louis 13th, Marseille was becoming a "little autonomous Catholic republic". Across the Mediterranean maritime relations were developing: the treaties signed between France and Constantinople (1536) encuraged trade between the two countries, and that included the Levantine ports. The Compagnie de corail (1551), the first soap manufacturer, a maker of drap (the textile used for army uniforms), a sugar refinery are all proof of this economic vitality. However the behaviour of the elites and the desire for autonomy came in conflict with Royal absolutism: in 1660 Louis XIV brought the "rebel" city to heel. Life was controlled by the central power, fortresses were either built or strengthened (the St Nicolas citadel and the Fort St jean) and a programme of expansion changed the urban landscape. Marseille became a war port (building an arsenal for the galleys) at the same time developing its merchant fleet; the opening of the infirmery (1668), the edict to make Marseille a free port (Colbert 1669) and the 20% tax on goods imported from the Levant all helped Marseille's trading monopoly with the Levant.
At the beginning of the 18th century expeditions to the south seas and the relations with the French islands of America, then with the Indian Ocean added to the new momentum and characterised a growth which even the terrible plague of 1720-1722 could not break. Marseille kept the Mediterranean, took control of the oceans and pulled itself up to the level of a world port, while the number of traders rocketed from 250 to 750. The "glorious 18th century" is nevertheless broken by wars, the Revolution and Napoleon's Empire.
The town's renewal after 1820 and the new start to its commercial activity are inseparable from the colonial conquests and the exploitation of distant lands. The evolution of maritime equipment (larger ships, first with sails then steam), the passenger business managed by large companies (Paquet, CGT) and the growing industries all cried out for more space: naval, food-stuffs, chemical, petrochemical. The companies shifted further north (Joliette, Arenc, Mourepaine, Estaque) but also towards the shores of the Etang de Berre, beyond the massif of hills known as La Nerthe. What used to be called the Lacydon now became the Old Port, used by coasters, pleasure craft and fishermen (before the latter left Lacydon at the end of the 20th century and La Criée became a theatre). Decolonisation and the new forms of trading (hydrocarbons, minerals, container-ships) led to the decline of the former port areas and benefitted the new facilities at Fos-sur-Mer and Lavéra (petrochemicals and steel). All these economic and political changes from the 19th and 20th centuries were accompanied by the movement of people arriving from every part of the Mediterranean and beyond –Ligurians, Piedmontese, Neapolitans, Catalans, Armenians, Jews, North Africans, Comorrians – re-inforcing the city's cosmopolitan nature, well aware of what tensions can be caused by people from elsewhere.
Marseille remains the leading French and Mediterranean port. The current Euromediterranée programme is completely changing the old urban-port spaces, turning the old harbours towards leisure and tourist activities, offering an image other than those peddled by "Marius, Fanny and César", though of course not refusing the prestigious patronage of their creator, Marcel Pagnol. As the example of Marseille reminds us, any port which has weathered the centuries can never be static, must always be changing.
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