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Wednesday 13th December
Belgium Information - Page 2
History
Belgium has been inhabited since prehistory. Celtic people living in Belgian Gaul were conquered by Julius Caesar in 57 BC. With the decline of the Roman Empire, in 406 AD, Belgian Gaul was passed to the control of the Franks. Charlemagne, King of the Franks, became the first Holy Roman Emperor - the Emperor of the West - in 800. After Charlemagne's death the Empire was divided between his sons: two of the regions eventually became France and Germany.

The Counts of Flanders became powerful, building the Flemish towns of Bruges, Ghent and Ypres whose economic success was founded on the cloth industry. By the twelfth century these cities had developed a successful textile trade using wool imported from England. However in 1337 the Hundred Years' War between France and England began. Flanders sided with the French against England which seriously damaged the Flemish textile industry as wool could not be obtained from England.

In the early fifteenth century Belgium came under Burgundian rule - the Duke of Burgandy had become the Count of Flanders - this marked the beginning of the era known as the Burgundian Period. In 1477 Marie of Burgundy married Maximilian the Austrian ruler, a member of the Hapsburg family. Maximilian's grandson became King of Spain (and eventually Holy Roman Emperor) so Belgium came under Spanish influence.

In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries Belgium flourished and Antwerp became a major port and an important economic centre. However religious conflict brought about by the teachings of Luther and the Reformation caused economic problems: the rise of Protestantism, especially in Flanders, was severely suppressed by the Catholic Philip II of Spain in the mid sixteenth century.

France rose as an important European power, with Belgium suffering as a battleground for French ambitions. A period of French and Austrian claims on Belgium followed. The French were defeated at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815. Following the French defeat, Belgium was given to the Netherlands - an unpopular decision - which led to rebellion in 1830 and the crowning, in 1831, of Prince Leopold of Saxe-Coburg as the first King of the Belgians.

Leopold was personally responsible for the acquisition of the Belgian Congo (later Zaire and now Democratic Republic of Congo).

Rwanda and Burundi were later ceded to Belgium in the division of German colonies after World War One.

During the First World War, Belgium - although offering resistance led by King Albert - was occupied by the German army. Ypres is a well-remembered battle ground where many French, German, British and Commonwealth soldiers lost their lives. Belgium suffered a second occupation by German troops during the Second World War.

After the war, in 1948, the customs and economic union - BENELUX (Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg) - was formed. These countries together with France, West Germany and Italy formed the European Coal and Steel Community: "to substitute for age-old rivalries the merging of essential interest". In 1957 the same countries signed The Treaty of Rome which established the European Economic Community (EEC) now known as the EU.

In 1960 the Belgian colonies in the Congo gained their independence and became the Republic of Zaire in 1971.

Economy
Belgium was a founder member of NATO (eventually located in Brussels) and the EEC. The country's position as the "centre of Europe" is aided by the excellent transport system.

As an important European economy Belgium has developed its international commercial sector. The Belgian tourist industry is also important: the cities of Antwerp, Bruges, Brussels and Ghent attract many visitors and the Ardennes region offers castles, forests and country areas for the tourist.

Belgium's industrialization and the later formation of the European Coal and Steel Community were dependent on its coal and iron deposits. Although not very rich in mineral resources Belgium's wealth was supplemented by the diamonds, copper, zinc and cobalt from its colonial possessions in the Congo.

Other Belgian industries are petroleum, engineering and metal products, motor vehicle assembly, transportation equipment, scientific instruments, chemicals, diamond cutting, glass, textiles (including lace), processed food and beverages.

The agricultural sector produces grains, sugar beets, vegetables, hops, fruits, meat and milk. (2008)

Arts
It has been said that Jan Van Eyck in the early fifteenth century, was the first really successful painter in oils. Van Eyck was the court painter to Philip the Good, Duke of Burgandy.

Within the next hundred years an individual Flemish style developed, led by Pieter Brueghel the Elder, famous for his paintings which place classical or religious events in the setting of contemporary Flemish village life.

Belgium's next truly great artist was Pieter Paul Rubens (1577-1640). Amongst his many paintings was the ceiling of the Banqueting House in London's Whitehall. Anthony Van Dyck, Ruben's contemporary, became court artist to Charles I of England, who went to his execution from a window of the Banqueting Hall.

From the fifteenth to the eighteenth century Flanders led the world in the production of tapestries. Rubens was among the artists who produced designs for tapestries following the example of Raphael who was commissioned by the Pope to design tapestries for the Sistine Chapel in Rome, which were woven in Brussels.

In more recent years Belgium has produced key artists in two schools of painting. The Symbolists, such as Jean Delville and Fernand Khnopff, turned to the images of dreams and mystery for their subjects. Then in the twentieth century, Rene Magritte and Paul Delvaux were among the leading exponents of Surrealism.

In the field of literature, Belgium has produced two of the most popular writers of the twentieth century. Georges Simenon, creator of Inspector Maigret, published over three hundred novels mainly on crime subjects. His books have been translated all around the world and adapted for film and television. Georges Remi (who took the pen name Herge) drew the adventures of Tintin. Beginning as a newspaper cartoon, these stories have now sold over one hundred and forty million copies in book form, translated into all the main languages of the world.

The country's contribution to music has varied. Adolphe Sax invented the saxophone in 1845. Jacques Brel was one of Europe's greatest singer/songwriters in the French tradition of the chanson. And Jean-Philippe Smet took the name Johnny Hallyday and became France's answer to Elvis Presley.

Sport
The best-known Belgian sportsman is the racing cyclist Eddy Merckx who won the Tour de France five times and also took over one hundred and forty other major titles.

In terms of international fame he is closely followed by Jacky Ickxx, the racing driver, who won eight Grand Prix in Formula One and also became a very successful rally driver.

Cycling and motor racing are undoubtedly the most popular sports, along with football. Climbing in the Ardennes, fishing in the rivers and canals and sailing and surfing on the Channel coast are also popular.

Holidays
Belgium is a Roman Catholic country and all the main religious festivals are celebrated. National Day on 21 July celebrates the Belgium's independence. Other events and festivities take place throughout the year.

News
News is available online from Newslink.

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