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What’s in a name ? There is no certainty about the meaning of the name "Aalst“. Amongst the many explications, two seem to make more sense : 1. "Alusoth" = germanic for "bunch of elm trees" : quite a lot of the names of neighbouring places have this kind of origin : they got their names from the German tribes who settled here after crossing the river Rhine and defeating the Romans. E.g. "Nederhasselt", where I live, means "neder - hasluth“ or : “lower part of a place where hazlenut-trees are found.” Another important argument in favour of this explication is that there is no mention of the name previous to the year 868, which seems to indicate that before that time the town was just one amongst the many small villages that were dispersed in the regio, which makes it more likely that it took a german name, just like the other villages.
Some people however claim a different orgine : "Al Ost" = Celtic for "place near the water" : When the german tribes invaded these parts, they argue, the place may already have had enough importance to keep it's original name. An argument in favour of this explication is that in other places called "Aalst" in Holland and Belgium, the name can be traced back to it's Celtic origin, whereas there is no second place known by this name, that received it's name from the germans.
A BIT OF HISTORY Aalst was part of Brabant, until captured by the count of Flanders in 1048. It received town's rights in 1164, a court in 1174, a hospital in 1241. The monastery buildings of the Old Hospital (13°-16° Century) still exist . Very attractive are the beautiful inner garden and the small gallery behind the chapel. The construction of the belfry dates from 1225, which makes it the eldest belfry in the Netherlands. Unfortunately, there is little left of the old beguinage, that was founded in 1261 . It was near ly completely demolished in the 1950's. At that time, most beguine-houses were in complete decay and the town decided to replace them by a modern social neighbourhood. Today, only the St. Catharine church, a rare example of classical church building at the end of the Ancient Regime and the small St Anthony of Padua - chapel, built in late-classical style, bear witness that this neighbourhood was once a beguinage.
In 1338, 3.600 people live in Aalst. In 1380, the town is almost completely destroyed by Ghent troups that revolted against the count of Flanders.
When the Count dies, Flanders becomes part of Burgundy. Aalst rises from it's ruins and becomes more prosperous than before.
But the tide changes when Emperor Charles dies : Soon after 1560, his son, Philipe II, declares war to protestanteism. He loses the Northern Netherlands, that become an independant protestant state and to which as many as 10% of the Flemish people flee in search for freedom of religion. In their war against Spain, the Dutch prevent all access to the ports of the Southern Netherlands : Antwerp, Ghent, and Bruges lose all traffic and pine away. The country is starved. 100 year later, things will become worse still, when the French join in and try to conquer Flanders. In 1667 the French attack and demolish the walls and main fortresses of nearly every flemish city. Aalst is no exception.
Aalst is the home of one of the largest corn factory's in the world (Amylum, now owned by a British/American group, which -due to the localisation of the plant in the very heart of the town - are gradually transferring most of their activities to a newly built factory in France).
One of the world's largest dredging comanies, Jan De Nul, also has it's seat in Aalst.
Economically, the city has always been known for it's textile-manufacturing companies and as a center and marketplace for surrounding flower-cultivators.
It never really recovered from the decay of the textile-industry. Still today, lots of people take the train everyday to go and work in offices and factories in the Brussels and Ghent regions.
Aalst is a small town, with provincial importance (the town-center counts 40.000 habitants only, counting the suburbs, there are some 80.000 people living in Aalst).
The region is densely populated, with "the end of Aalst" and "the beginning of" neighbouring villages (Denderleeuw, Haaltert, ...) barely more as a name-shield inbetween houses. In fact the surrounding villages are largely dependant on Aalst for govern-mental services (tax-administration, police-court, car-control, ...), schools, shopping, healthcare (hospitals), fire-brigade and even social and cultural life.
Made to people’s measure Aalst still has a couple of green places though : There is a large park (15 ha), where you can sport, and next to this park there is the "Osbroek", the largest in a series of small nature reserves that are situated in and around the city.