One of Europe's biggest ports and lying along the banks of the river Scheldt, Antwerp is also the second-largest city in Belgium. Among the outstanding features of the city is its system of boulevards, which replaced the walls that formerly encircled the city. The magnificent Gothic cathedral of Notre Dame (14th and 15th century), surmounted by a spire 121.9 m (400 ft) high, is the largest church in Belgium. The cathedral contains several paintings by Peter Paul Rubens, who spent most of his life in Antwerp. Other landmarks include the town hall and the Gothic church of St Paul, both completed in the 16th century, as well as the many medieval guild houses that still line the marketplace. The city has a museum of fine arts with paintings by several of the Flemish masters, and there are botanical and zoological gardens.
Antwerp became a port of commercial importance in the 15th century and during the early 16th century when the diamond industry was expanded. The city was also an active cultural and intellectual centre: the painter Anthony van Dyck was born there in 1599. Antwerp rapidly declined as a result of religious troubles after 1576 and under the provisions of the 1648 treaty known as the Peace of Westphalia, which closed the Schelde River to navigation; it was reopened by the French in 1795. The development of the modern city started in 1863 when the Belgians redeemed their navigation rights by making a cash payment to the Netherlands. Antwerp was occupied by the Germans during both world wars, until September 1944, when it became an Allied supply base and was heavily bombed.
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