The Belfry is the symbol of the autonomy and independency of the city of Ghent. The construction started in 1313. The Belfry had different functions:
- Keeping of the municipal privileges
The municipal privileges were kept in a trunk in the secrecy room since 1402. The dragon, which was put on the tower in 1377, didn’t only keep an eye on the city, but was also the symbolic guardian of the privileges.
In 1539 all the municipal privileges were transferred to the Chamber of Accounts of Lille. Only in 1578, under pressure of the Calvinistic regime and in the heat of the battle against Philips II, the privileges were returned to Ghent and kept in the City Hall. Since 1633 the secrecy room was used as a records department for the fencing guild of St-Michael.
- Watch tower
The tower of the St-Nicolas church was the first watch tower and served for this purpose until 1442. In 1442 the watchmen moved to the Belfry. Until 1869 they watched over the city. Together with the city trumpet players and the bell-ringers they formed the ‘Men of Ghent’. Fire was the biggest danger in the city at that time.
- Carillon and chime bells
Initially, bells were used for religious purposes. Due to the emergence and growth of cities in the Middle Ages, bells were more frequently used to regulate the daily life. The alarm bell Roland, which was installed in the Belfry as early as 1325, was from 1378 onwards also used as the hourly bell. Because the hourly chiming came unexpectedly, there had to be signals announcing it on smaller bells. This was the predecessor of the carillon.
The carillon gradually expanded to 53 bells after the restoration in 1982. In 1993 a last bell, Robert, completed the carillon.
In 1972 Unesco agreed on the Convention concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage in order to protect sites and landscapes that are of unique universal value. The World Heritage List classifies these natural and cultural sites from all over the world.
On December 4, 1999 the Belfry of Ghent was inscribed upon this list, together with 23 belfries in Flanders and 6 in Wallonia. Belfries symbolize the human urge for freedom and democracy and play an exceptional role in the fields of architecture, urban planning and musical history.