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Atomium building in Brussels

Atomium Belgium

The Atomium is situated in Heysel, the northern downtown of Brussels. The design is based on a crystallized molecule of iron magnified 150 milliard times.

History of Brussels


Pre-Belgian history of Brussels

Map with Sint Gori island

At the end of the sixth century, the Preacher Saint Gorik built a chapel on a small island formed by the two arms of the river Zenne, creating the first building known to have been built in Brussels.

Saint Vindicianus, the bishop of Cambrai made the first recorded reference to the place called "Brosella" in 695 but later, in 977, the first officially written record of Brussels declared Charles of France to be the legal owner of Low-Lorraine, including the island of Saint-Gorik, on which he built a fortress.

On the left is the plan of Brussels from 1837. The Saint Gorik island is depicted in the red color where close to this historic island the Brussels Beurs is depicted in green.

The most common theory for the origin of the Brussels name is that it was derived from the Old Dutch Broek-sel which means marsh (broek) and home (sel) or "home in the marsh". Another, very similar theory starts from Fench name Bruxelles that was derived from Dutch Broek-zele where zele meant village thus “village in the marsh”.

Officially, Brussels was founded in 979, after Lambert of Leuven inherited the land from Charles of France. During the next three centuries, the city grew as a trading post and popular resting spot on the way to the channel ports, and the marshland surrounding the city slowly dried, opening up more land for habitation.

The increased population put stress on the social system of guilds and noblemen, resulting in peasant uprisings that were quickly stifled during the thirteenth century. As the city grew to a population of around 30,000, the surrounding marshes were drained to allow for further expansion. At the end of 12th century the Counts of Leuven became Dukes of Brabant and in the 13th century, the city got its first walls.

After the construction of the first walls of Brussels, in the early 13th century, Brussels grew significantly. To let the city expand, a second set of walls was erected between 1356 and 1383. Today, traces of it can still be seen, mostly because the "small ring", a series of roadways in downtown Brussels bounding the historic city centre, follows its former course.

Right, Charles of France founder of what later became Brussels.

Charles of Laurens

In 1402, construction on Grand Place began after 50 years of recession, and in 1430 Philip the Bold, Duke of Burgundy became the Duke of Brabant through marriage to Margaret, an heiress of the former ruler of Brussels, Duchess Joan. This period of relative calm was marked by a flowering of the arts and commerce in Brussels. The period of calm was shattered however, when a plague killed about half of the city's 60,000 inhabitants in 1489. In 1507, Margaret of Austria was appointed General Governor of the Netherlands, and growth resumed in Brussels for a good 50 years.

Grote Markt Brussels

Guilde Houses in Brussels

The intrigues of the Emperor Charles V and his successor Philip II brought revolution back to Brussels.

Those, sympathetic to William of Orange, supervisor of Holland (and champion of Charles V), fought against those who followed the Duke of Alva (favorite of William of Orange) in a battle for power over the city. Alva triumphed, only to be replaced by Isabella and Archduke Albert of Austria.

Another plague outbreak, with losses comparable to the first, occurred in 1578, before Albert came into power in 1596.

On the left the houses of Brussels' Guilds that are still standing on the Grand Place.

In 1695, King Louis XIV of France sent troops led by field marshal Villeroi, to bombard Brussels with artillery. Together with the resulting fire, it was the most destructive event in the entire history of Brussels.

The Grand Place was destroyed, along with 4000 buildings, a third of those in the city. The reconstruction of the city centre, effected during subsequent years, profoundly changed the appearance of the city and left numerous traces still visible today.

To the right, Grand Place after 1695 bombardment.

Brussels Bombarded by French

The city was captured by France in 1746 during the War of the Austrian Succession but was handed back to Austria three years later.

Belgian history of Brussels

In 1830, the Belgian revolution took place in Brussels after a performance of Auber's opera La Muette de Portici. Then, beginning in Brussels, the revolution was exported to other cities of South Netherlands. The main argument for this revolution was the necessity of creation the new state that will be bound by common Catholic religion in contrast to the North Netherlands that were mostly Reformats (Calvinists and Lutherans).

Sint Michel and Godula Cathedral

The real reason was to create conditions in which Brussels will get more prominent role.

During the years of UKN (United Kingdom of Netherlands, 1815 – 1831) Brussels was just like a provincial city, only the capital of South Brabant that was just one of the 17 provinces of UKN.

The second problem was the language. In 1830 in Brussels all bourgeoisie was switching to French language and almost half of the Brussels citizens were already speaking French. The King and the elite of UKN were speaking Dutch and within the 17 UKN provinces only three, Hainaut, Namur and Liege were the French speaking provinces where other 14 provinces were speaking Dutch.

Above that, the North Netherland provinces were strong in industry and commerce what was even more diminishing the importance of Brussels and all South Netherlands.

On the left, Saint Michael and Godula Cathedral in Brussels.

During the normal circumstances Russian Tsar would send his army to put down the Belgian revolution. Russian had still fresh memories of Napoleon Bonaparte and any revolution with the French accents would be killed by them at its beginning. Luckily for Brussels at the same year 1830, the Polish uprising has begun in November in Warsaw and the Russian army had to deal with the Polish uprising first.

Finally, the Russian army never arrived in Brussels and on 21 July 1831, Leopold I, the first King of the Belgians, ascended the throne. His first undertaking was the destruction of the city walls and the construction of many state buildings. Following independence, the city underwent many more changes. The Zenne had become a serious health hazard, and from 1867 to 1871 its entire course through the urban area was completely covered over. This allowed urban renewal and the construction of modern buildings and boulevards characteristic of downtown Brussels today.

During the 20th century the city has hosted various fairs and conferences, including the fifth Solvay Conference in 1927 that became the first world conference of physics and two world fairs: the Brussels International Exposition of 1935 and the Expo '58. During the World War II Brussels suffered some damage though, it was minor compared to cities in Germany and the United Kingdom or Warsaw in Poland.

Right, Loepold I, the first king of Belgium, 1831.

Leopold the Ist

After the war, Brussels was modernized for better and sometimes for worse.

Beurs in Brussels

The construction of the North–South connection linking the main railway stations in the city was completed in 1952, while the first Brussels pre-metro was finished in 1969, and the first line of the real Brussels

Metro was opened in 1976. Starting from the early 1960s, Brussels became the de facto capital of what would become the European Union, and many modern buildings were constructed. Unfortunately, development was allowed to proceed with little regard to the aesthetics of newer buildings.

Many architectural gems were demolished to make way for newer buildings that often clashed with their surroundings.

On the left Brussels' Beurs building.

The Brussels-Capital Region was formed on 18 June 1989 after a constitutional reform in 1970. The Brussels-Capital Region was made bilingual, and it is one of the three federal regions of Belgium, along with Flanders and Wallonia.

Municipalities of Brussels

  1. Anderlecht
  2. Auderghem/Oudergem
  3. Berchem-Sainte-Agathe/Sint-Agatha-Berchem
  4. City of Brussels
  5. Etterbeek
  6. Evere
  7. Forest/Vorst
  8. Ganshoren
  9. Ixelles/Elsene
  10. Jette
  11. Koekelberg
  12. Molenbeek-Saint-Jean/Sint-Jans-Molenbeek
  13. Saint-Gilles/Sint-Gillis
  14. Saint-Josse-ten-Noode/Sint-Joost-ten-Node
  15. Schaerbeek/Schaarbeek
  16. Uccle/Ukkel
  17. Watermael-Boitsfort/Watermaal-Bosvoorde
  18. Woluwe-Saint-Lambert/Sint-Lambrechts-Woluwe
  19. Woluwe-Saint-Pierre/Sint-Pieters-Woluwe
19 Municipalities

The 19 municipalities (communes) of the Brussels-Capital Region are political subdivisions with individual responsibilities for the handling of local level duties, such as law enforcement and the upkeep of schools and roads within its borders. Municipal administration is also conducted by a mayor, a council, and an executive.

In 1831, Belgium was divided into 2,739 municipalities, including the 19 in the Brussels-Capital Region. Unlike most of the municipalities in Belgium, the ones located in the Brussels-Capital Region were not merged with others during mergers occurring in 1964, 1970, and 1975.

Town Hall of Sint Gilles

However, in 1921, several municipalities outside of the Brussels-Capital Region have been merged with the City of Brussels throughout its history including Laken, Haren, and Neder-Over-Heembeek.

The largest and most populous of the municipalities is the City of Brussels, covering 32.6 square kilometers (12.6 sq mi) with 145,917 inhabitants. The least populous is Koekelberg with 18,541 inhabitants, while the smallest in area is Saint-Josse-ten-Noode, which is only 1.1 square kilometers (0.4 sq mi). Despite being the smallest municipality, Saint-Josse-ten-Noode has the highest population density of the 19 with 20,822 inhabitants per km2.

Left, Saint Gilles municipiality, Town Hall.

The problem of 19 municipalities in Brussels is today the political one. Dutch political parties see this problem as extreme inefficient way of governing the Brussels city costing a lot of money and causing in addition the problem for citizens’ safety because also the police of Brussels works divided between a police zones what undermines its efficiency. (see the plan above)

The French speaking politicians are strongly opposing to any merge of this municipalities. They do not want to create a big city of Brussels but they want that Brussels will at least remain as it is today; The Brussels Capital Region and, in the future, it may possibly evolve to the federal region with the same rights as Wallonia and Flanders.

Certainly, the Dutch speaking politicians oppose to this idea, especially due to the fact that Brussels is historicly the Flamisch city and is located within the territory of the Flemish province of Brabant.

To the right, the Saint Maria church in Schaarbeek municipiality.

Saint Maria chyrch Schaarbeek


Apart of its complicated structure, Brussels cover comparatively very small area. On 1 May 2008, the region had a population of 1,070,841 inhabitants and an area of 161 km2 which gives the region a population density of 6,635 inhabitants per km2.

In 2011, people of Muslim background accounted for about 25.5% of Brussels due to the Brussels emigrations policies.

Regions of Belgium (01/01/2005) Total population People of Muslim origin  % of Muslims
Brussels-Capital Region