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The ruins of the former Sint-Baafsabdij (Abbey of St Bavo) are an oasis. They rest practically in the middle of Gent, mere minutes away from the current Sint-Baafskathedraal (St Bavo Cathedral), and literally next door to the confluence of the river Schelde (Escaut) and its tributary, the Leie (Lys). The fork of these two rivers is believed by many to be not only the first site settled in the area, but also the origin of the city’s older name, Ganda, derived from the Celtic word for confluence. The site certainly is among the first where Christianity found a foothold in Flanders.
Sometime around 629, the Frankish missionary Amand (c. 584 – 675) arrived here on his first attempt to baptize the local "pagans", who did what most people accused by a total stranger of not "living right" would do, (allegedly) tossing the proselytizing bishop back into the river that had brought him hither. Undaunted, Amand performed the "miracle" of resuscitating a hanged criminal, which so impressed the locals to abandon their previous beliefs they not only demanded to be baptized, but immediately set about destroying their former places of worship.
Amand went on to found not only the Sint-Baafsabdij, but also the Sint-Pietersabdij (Abbey of St Peter), together with his disciple Bavo (622 – 659) — formerly a nobleman known as Allowin of Hesbaye (Haspengouw). A tearaway slacker in his youth, Bavo "atoned" for his loutish years by becoming a monk and disseminating his wealth. Venerated as a saint upon his death, the abbey where he died was renamed after him in the ninth century. Not long after that, Sint-Baafs was sacked by Norsemen on one of their first murderous vikings in the area.
Setting up camp in Sint-Baafs during the winter of 879-880, the Norsemen went on to pillage Sint-Pieters as well. Further fortification of the sites, and fervent shipbuilding in a nearby wharf, didn't discourage additional raids, and by 883 the Norsemen had effectively razed both abbeys to the ground: practically wiping the emerging settlement of Gent off the map. However, Sint-Baafs was re-erected in the tenth century under the watchful eye of Arnulf the Great (c. 890 – 965), third Count of Flanders, and continued to flourish throughout the twelfth and thirteenth centuries.
Sint-Baafs last period of prosperity began at the turn of the fifteenth century, having been renovated and redecorated under abbot Raphaël de Mercatel (1437 – 1508). By that time, the population of Gent had reached some 65,000 inhabitants, supposedly making it the second largest city in Europe after Paris. However, some 900 years after it was founded the abbey's end was nigh: in 1539, Emperor Charles V decided to personally strike down the revolt brewing in the city — which his sister, Queen Mary of Hungary, had failed to quell — over the tax increases being squeezed out of its inhabitants to fund the Emperor's various wars.
Taking the revolt as a personal affront, Gent being Charles' city of birth, the Emperor had large parts of the original abbey buildings and its impressive Romanesque church — the very place Charles had himself been baptized — demolished, in order to make way for what would become infamously known as the Spanjaardkasteel (Spanish Castle). Constructed for the sole purpose of besieging and maintaining control of the rebellious city, Charles' Italian-style citadel was large enough for a garrison of 2,500 men. Completed in 1545, the citadel was itself demolished between 1827 and 1834, while what remained of the once prominent abbey was retained as ruins. In 1887, when the Belgian state handed the site over to the city of Gent, the city's lapidarium was installed there.
In 2007, a neighbourhood organisation — Buren van de abdij (Neighbours of the Abbey) — were granted permission by the city to open the closed off ruins to the public once a week, with volunteers guiding tours, exhibitions, and hosting concerts each Sunday between April and November. Today, five metre high hornbeams evoke the pillars of the demolished church, while a concrete podium marks the place where its altar once stood, effectively a multipurpose outdoor stage in a lush park setting. The ruins and remains of the abbey are also home to some 150 different species of wild plants, making the site quite unique among Europe's urban parks.
(More images of the ruined Abbey of St Bavo.)