The city of Marseille, located on the Mediterranean Sea, is the oldest city in France and the second most populous after Paris. An historic port city and home to the infamous Chateau D’If, made famous for its role in The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas, Marseille boasts a rich past. Its history stretches back some thirty thousand years to the Paleolithic cave paintings of Cosquer cave. Today Marseille is a famous melting pot for many immigrants from Italy, Algeria, Morocco, and elsewhere. Its popularity as a center of culture and position on the Mediterranean make it a popular tourist destination.
Archeologists believe Marseille was home to Neolithic people around 6,000 B.C. as evidenced by their brick dwellings. The city was founded, however, in 600 B.C. by the Greeks who called it Massalia. As a Greek colony, Marseille faced a combined threat from the Celts, Carthage, and the Etruscans so it came under the protection of the Roman Empire and enjoyed great prosperity. Marseille became an important stop on the trade route between Rome and the interior of Gaul. However, Marseille lost favor with Rome in 49 B.C. when it sided with Pompey against Julius Caesar in the civil war which ended with Caesar’s victory. Christianity also appeared for the first time in Marseille during the Roman occupation as evidenced by catacombs near the harbor.
After the fall of Rome Marseille fell to the Visogoths and then to the Frankish King Charlemagne who granted the city civic power. During this and subsequent periods Marseille again thrived as a center of trade with its busy port. The city was stricken with bubonic plague in 1348—its population of twenty-five thousand people lost fifteen thousand lives. Eventually Marseille became famous for its independence and willingness to thwart authority. Many insurrections were put down in the city. Francis I visited the city and had the fortress of D’If constructed as a reminder of his authority. King Louis XIV visited Marseille to squash an uprising there against the governor.
During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries Marseille continued to grow and enjoy prosperity as an important Mediterranean port. The city’s inhabitants famously supported the French Revolution and five hundred of its volunteers journeyed to Paris to join in the defense of the new government—their rallying song became known as The Marseillaise, France’s national anthem. During WWII Marseille was occupied by both German and Italian armies. Much of its old port was bombed in 1944 and war reparations were used to repair the city and to compensate for killed civilians.
Today Marseille is still an important French center for trade and industry. Travelers from across France and elsewhere come to enjoy the city’s cultural appeal and historic sites. Some of the most famous attractions of Marseille, both past and present, include the Old Port, the Quai des Belges (which still features a daily fish market), the Phare de Sainte Marie (a lighthouse), the Musee d’Histoire, the Hotel-Dieu, the Cathedral of Sainte-Marie-Majeure, and the Abbey of Saint-Victor—one of Europe’s oldest sites of Christian worship. Travelers also visit these popular sites located just beyond central Marseille: the Basilica of Notre-Dame-de-la-Garde, the Musee des Beaux-Arts, the Corniche (a famous water-front road), and the Pharo Gardens.