Here’s the scenario: I zipped my WordPress website files. I downloaded the zip file. I did a SQL dump and downloaded it. I unzipped the file on my localhost and installed the database. Now, I’m trying to go to the website in my browser on my localhost, and localhost is downloading file instead of displaying the website. What the heck?

This is a weird behavior that’s a side-effect of downloading your site from a host that uses cPanel. And there’s an easy fix. Here’s the step-by-step:

  1. In your files, open your .htaccess file in a code editor. Your .htaccess file is in the root folder of your WordPress site.
  2. Scan through the file with your eyes until you find the following lines of code:
    <IfModule mime_module>
        AddHandler application/x-httpd-ea-php80 .php .php8 .phtml
  3. Delete it and save your changes.
  4. Restart your server.
  5. In your browser, try visiting that site again. Voila! It stops downloading it and starts serving the files normally.

These three lines of code are important to make your site work on a host that uses cPanel, but if you use a local host server like MAMP, it’s useless. If you’re wondering how the code in your .htaccess file works, read on.

What is the .htaccess file for?

The .htaccess file is a configuration file used by the Apache web server to define various settings and directives for a specific directory or a specific website. It plays a crucial role in controlling and customizing the behavior of the Apache server, allowing webmasters to fine-tune their websites’ functionality, security, and performance.

When a request is made to an Apache server, it goes through a series of steps to process the request and deliver the appropriate content. One of those steps involves checking for the presence of an .htaccess file in the requested directory and applying its directives. Let’s delve into the workings of the .htaccess file:

Location: The .htaccess file resides in the root directory of a website or in any specific subdirectory. It affects only the directory where it is placed and its subdirectories, enabling the configuration to be applied selectively.

File Naming: The .htaccess file has a leading dot in its name, indicating that it is a hidden file on Unix-like systems. This convention ensures that the file is not visible when browsing the directory through a web browser or a file manager. The filename is case-sensitive and must be precisely “.htaccess”.

Overrides: The .htaccess file allows overrides of server configuration directives. It means that settings defined in the .htaccess file can override global Apache server settings for that particular directory. This provides flexibility and allows webmasters to modify settings without administrative access to the server.

Directives: The .htaccess file contains directives, which are instructions that define specific behaviors and configurations. Directives are written in a human-readable format and follow a specific syntax. Each directive affects a specific aspect of the server’s behavior, such as access control, URL rewriting, MIME types, error handling, and more.

Context: Directives in the .htaccess file are enclosed within a specific context, which defines where and when the directive is applicable. Common contexts include “Directory”, “Files”, and “Location”. The “Directory” context is the most commonly used, and it applies directives to a specific directory and its subdirectories.

AllowOverride: In the Apache server configuration file, there is a directive called “AllowOverride” that determines which directives can be overridden by the .htaccess file. It can be set to different values such as “None”, “All”, or a combination of specific options. This directive gives administrators control over what settings can be modified by the .htaccess file.

Order of Execution: When a request is made, Apache checks for the presence of an .htaccess file in the requested directory and reads its directives. If multiple .htaccess files are found in parent directories, Apache processes them in a top-down manner, applying the directives sequentially. This allows for hierarchical configurations and cascading overrides.

Access Control: One of the most common uses of the .htaccess file is access control. It enables administrators to restrict or allow access to specific directories or files based on IP addresses, authentication, or other conditions. By utilizing directives like “Deny”, “Allow”, and “AuthType”, administrators can implement fine-grained access restrictions.

URL Rewriting: Another powerful feature of the .htaccess file is URL rewriting. With directives like “RewriteEngine” and “RewriteRule”, administrators can modify the appearance and behavior of URLs. This is particularly useful for creating search engine-friendly URLs, redirecting old URLs to new ones, or implementing custom routing schemes.

Error Handling: The .htaccess file also allows customization of error pages. By specifying directives like “ErrorDocument”, administrators can define their own error pages for various HTTP error codes. This provides a more user-friendly and consistent experience when visitors encounter errors on the website.

The .htaccess file is a powerful configuration file within the Apache server that enables webmasters to fine-tune their websites’ behavior, security, and performance. By placing an .htaccess file in a directory, administrators can override global server settings and define specific configurations for that directory and its subdirectories. Through directives, the .htaccess file controls access, URL rewriting, error handling, and much more. Understanding how to effectively use the .htaccess file empowers webmasters to have granular control over their websites and optimize their Apache server configuration.