Marseilles (märsāˈ) [key], Fr. Marseille, city (1990 pop. 807,726), capital of Bouches-du-Rhône dept., SE France, on the Gulf of Lions, an arm of the Mediterranean Sea. It is the second largest city of France and one of its most important seaports; an underground canal (see Rove Tunnel) links it with the Rhône River. Marseilles is a major industrial city where flour, vegetable oil, soap, cement, sugar, sulfur, chemicals, and processed foods are produced. The city opened a subway system in 1977, and is connected to most major European cities by rail, road, air, or boat. There is also a history of organized crime and drug traffic in Marseilles, particularly with the Corsican Mafia. The city has a large immigrant population, predominantly North and West Africans who have arrived since the 1970s.
The oldest town of France, it was settled by Phocaean Greeks from Asia Minor c.600 B.C. Known as Massilia, it became an ally of Rome, which annexed it (49 B.C.) after it supported Pompey against Julius Caesar. Although the city retained its internal autonomy, it was of secondary importance during the Middle Ages. The upper city was ruled by its bishops from A.D. 539 until 1288, when it was reunited with the lower city, which had been governed independently by a city council since 1214. During the Crusades (11th–14th cent.) Marseilles was a commercial center and a transit port for the Holy Land. The city declined commercially in the first half of the 14th cent. Marseilles was taken by Charles of Anjou (13th cent.) and then absorbed by Provence and bequeathed (with Provence) to the French crown in 1481. In the 1700s commerce revived, mainly with the Levant and the Barbary States; although the plague wiped out almost half its population in 1720, Marseilles continued to enjoy prosperity until the civil strife of the French Revolution. In the 19th cent. the French conquest of Algeria and the opening of the Suez Canal led to a tremendous expansion of the port of Marseilles and to the city's industrialization.
The sight of Marseilles from the sea, a gleaming white city rising on a semicircle of bare hills, is famous. The Canebière, the principal thoroughfare, is one of the great avenues of the world. The science and medical schools of the Univ. of Aix-en-Provence are in Marseilles, as are industrial and engineering schools, the National School of Marine Commerce, a number of museums, and an observatory. A landmark of Marseilles harbor is the Château d'If castle. Excavations in 1966–67 uncovered what are believed to be vestiges of the ramparts of ancient Massilia.
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