The city was founded more than 2,500 years ago and is one of the oldest continuously inhabited settlements in Europe with a trading port since ancient times. The old port is still located in the heart of the city, where the famous Savon de Marseille soap was first produced, about 6 centuries ago. Today, Marseilles is the most important French port city and impresses with an eventful history.

What makes it particularly notable, is its spirit of independence and thanks to its openness to the Mediterranean Sea and the associated cultural and economic exchanges with other countries, it has developed into a cosmopolitan city since its inception. The diverse mix of history, Mediterranean weather, wonderful beaches and excellent food have made Marseilles one of the most important travel destinations in France, both for national and international tourism.

Everything began in the 6th century BC, when the Phocaeans set out from Greece to explore the Mediterranean coast and landed one day on the coast of what is now Marseilles, where Celto-Ligurians settled the Provence region at that time. The founding myth of Marseilles says that it was on the very day when the Celtic king Nann was looking for a husband for his daughter Gyptis. She was to offer a goblet from among all the assembled young men to whom she wished to marry. Surprisingly, it was Protis, the leader of the newcomers from Greece, to whom she gave it. The two married and the bride brought the land around the port into the marriage as a dowry.

The Greeks found a new home and together with the Celts they built a settlement that was oriented towards the sea and called it “Massalia”. The name was made up of the two words “Mas” (the Provencal name for a house or a settlement that still exists today) and “salia” (the name of the Salier Celtic tribe who lived in this area at that time). The population of Massalias grew rapidly, and the Greeks introduced money as a means of payment for the first time, which replaced the barter trade that had been common up until then and built up a maritime trade network.

The city experienced its first heyday as a trading city in the 4th BC. In the 2nd century BC, under the pressure of Celtic attacks, the Greeks had to call on the allied Rome for help several times. Then after the conquest of large parts of what is now Provence by the Romans, Romanization began and what was then Gaul finally became a province of the Roman Empire.

In addition to the introduction of the Christian religion, they also changed the cityscape with new buildings such as the city wall and port facilities. After the fall of the Roman Empire, foreign peoples such as the Visigoths, Ostrogoths, Franks, Burgundians and Saracens invaded the city and destroyed Marseilles.

The second heyday of Marseilles began in the 11th century, when the area politically belonged to the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation. The sea routes in the Mediterranean were expanded and trade flourished. Largely independent of the authorities, Marseilles practically administered itself and even formed an independent republic from 1216 to 1218, until Charles of Anjou subjugated the city in 1250, which was finally united with France in 1481.

In Marseilles, too, the inhabitants let themselves be carried away by the revolutionary dynamic until it became clear that the new government was by no means shy of violence and brutality in order to maintain power, Marseilles opposed the omnipotence of the French king and sympathized with the opposition. However, this was quickly put down, Marseilles was demoted to a “city without a name” as a punishment for its insubordination and the location of the navy was relocated from Marseilles to Toulon.

In the meantime, there was the great plague, which first entered Europe through the port of Marseilles in 1347, claiming millions of deaths there. Four centuries later, between 1720 and 1721, Syrian sailors brought the plague with them to Marseilles when 50,000 people , half ofthe population, died of the “Black Death”.



The French Revolution began in 1789 when many French felt that the king had too much power. The revolutionaries wanted to make France a more modern country in order to bring freedom, equality and brotherhood to the people. In 1792 men from a Marseilles volunteer army sang as they entered Paris, the song written by Rouget de Lisle in Strasbourg with the rather cruel lyrics that later became the national anthem of France and was given the name La Marseillaise due to this incident.

During and after the revolution, France became increasingly centralized. In 1815 the revolution and the time of Napoleon finally came to an end. Nevertheless, Marseilles was able to maintain its position as the most important port in the western Mediterranean. The appointment as capital of the Bouche-du-Rhône department, the French colonization of North Africa and the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 all contributed to this.

In January 1943, German soldiers bombed the historic harbor district and during the Second World War, Marseilles was considered a stronghold of the Resistance and was badly damaged. Despite all these strokes of fate, the city bounced back to new life over and over again.

After the independence of Algeria in 1962, the settlement of several hundreds of thousands of repatriates (returning French) from Algiers shaped the city. Today, Marseilles is a modern port city with around 862,000 inhabitants, making it the second-largest city in France after Paris. The city was named European Capital of Culture in 2013, among other reasons, in order to connect the European Mediterranean countries even more closely with North Africa.

Marseille’s most famous and classic dish is the Bouillabaisse fish stew, once known as the poor man’s soup. It was created out of necessity, and was made from the unsaleable varieties and unsold fish scraps. The fishermen took what was left in their baskets, mostly the bony, unappealing rock fish that no one wanted, added vegetables and spices, and made a stew.

The typical dish of the city has been improved over time and is made from at least three types of fish and often includes shellfish. Olive oil, tomatoes, onions, garlic, herbs and spices such as saffron, fennel and orange peel are added and cooked in a broth of water or white wine. It is served in almost all restaurants around the Vieux Port and is considered the most exclusive fish soup in the Mediterranean.


The article was first published in Issue 15

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