The historical district of Galata, also known as Pera, was the site of an important Genoese colony near Constantinople starting in the 14th century. Previously, it was the site of a settlement known as Sykai and later a fort was built on its shores, which protected the northern side of the legendary chain protecting the Golden Horn.
The topography of Galata consists of plain-like strip along the coast of the Golden Horn, with a relatively steep incline towards Galata Tower. This allowed the hilltop of Galata to have a clear view of the Golden Horn and the Bosporus - along with Constantinople itself. Its most important monument today is Galata Tower, which is one of the major landmarks of modern Istanbul. Two churches - the Arab Mosque and St. Benoit - from this period also survive, while the substructures of the Fort of Galata now function as a mosque. While most of its original walls were demolished in the second half of the 19th century, some sections have survived, including a city gate and a few towers.
Sykai, as Galata was known in antiquity, apparently referenced a harbor next to a fig grove on the northern side of the Golden Horn (then known as Keras or “Horn”). On the hill to the north was a suburb known as Elaia, while the valley below, where a stream entered a cove, was known as Pegai. By around 425 Sykai had become an integral part of the city as the Thirteenth Region of Constantinople, when it was recorded as having the Baths and Forum of Honorius, a church, a theater, a large portico, a dockyard, five private baths, one public bath, four private mills, and 431 houses. Sykai’s defensive walls were probably built over the course of the 5th century, though they were traditional attributed to Constantine I.
Sykai was renamed Justinianopolis in honor of Justinian I (527-565) after he restored it in 528. He also restored its walls and built a bridge across the Golden Horn to the west of Sykai. During the Plague of Justinian of 541-542, the dead were interred in the towers of Sykai’s walls, since there was not enough space to bury the dead in Constantinople. A church dedicated to Hagia Eirene (“Divine Peace”) was built in 552 near the Golden Horn (at the site of Church of San Domenico, now known as the Arab Mosque), although one tradition traces the church back to St. Andrew’s time in the city (when he ordained St. Stachys as the first bishop of Byzantion). Sources from the late 5th and 6th centuries mention other churches and monasteries in the area, including a church dedicated to St. Thekla located near the shore (possibly at the site of the later Genoese church of San Michele and the current site of Rüstem Pasha Caravanserai).
Sykai may have been abandoned by the 8th century, since later sources only mention a fort (kastellion) situated on the seashore. The Fort of Galata is first mentioned in connection to the Second Arab Siege of Constantinople in 717-718, when a chain was extended across the Golden Horn. This is also the first mention of the name Galata, the etymology of which remains unclear. Basil I (867-886) built a palace at Pegai to the west of Sykai, which was later destroyed by the Bulgars at the Battle of Pegai in 921 during the reign of Romanos I Lekapenos. In 1077 much of the suburbs in the area were destroyed during the revolt of Nicephorus Bryennius. While Jews were supposedly not allowed to settle in Constantinople, there was certainly a Jewish quarter in Galata by the 12th century. By the early 13th century, Jews were living in a quarter known as Stenon in eastern Galata, which was destroyed by the Crusaders in 1204.
During the Fourth Crusade, the Fort of Galata and its naval chain were captured by Crusader forces in July 1203. Following the capture of Constantinople in 1204, Galata and its surroundings were allocated to the newly established Latin Empire. In 1260, Nicaean troops attempted to seize Galata and its fort from the Latins, resulting in the signing of a one-year armistice following the failed attempt.
Only traces of Byzantine Sykai have been recorded. One important site was at St. Benoît, which is recorded as having a collapsed cistern with around 300 columns, along with traces of a forum (possibly the Forum of Honorius) and an aqueduct channel near the shore recorded in the 1540s. Archaeological evidence suggests that the necropolis of Sykai was located around Azapkapı, while a secondary burial was around the Church of San Domenico (Arab Mosque). More ruins were found in the vicinity, including remains of cisterns at Turkish Cancer Society building in Kasımpaşa and on Sıraselviler Street, as well as the remains of a bath and a sarcophagus at Meclis-i Mebusan Street.
Written with the help of Dr. Sercan Sağlam
In 1155, the Genoese were first given right to establish a commercial quarter in Constantinople, though they had already established trade connections in Constantinople by the 1140s. In 1162, Pisans, Venetians, and Byzantines attacked the Genoese merchants in Constantinople, leading the Genoese to flee the city. The chrysobull of 1169 granted some privileges to the Genoese, while the chrysobull of the following year granted a quarter known as Koparion along with a landing stage near the Neorion Harbor to the Genoese. Shortly after, around 1170-1171, the Venetians attacked this quarter, resulting in significant losses for the Genoese.
Anti-Latin sentiments among the Byzantines resulted in the Massacre of the Latins in 1182, with the Genoese and Pisan quarters being attacked and the Italian population of Constantinople, allegedly numbering 60,000, being completely wiped out. Negotiations over the next few years between the Byzantines and Genoese failed until the chrysobull of 1192 allowed the Genoese to return to the city and extended their quarters to include the Palace of Botaneiates (also known as the Palace of Kalamanos, which had a bath and a cistern) and several houses. The chrysobull of 1201 gave additional grants that included a church, a pier, and other buildings. The Genoese, though, would lose all of their commercial privileges and trading quarter in Constantinople following the Fourth Crusade in 1204.
The Empire of Nicaea and the Republic of Genoa signed the Treaty of Nymphaeum in 1261, in which the Genoese agreed to help retake Constantinople from the Latin Empire. The Genoese were offered generous concessions, including commercial privileges and quarters in Constantinople and other port cities in return assisting the Byzantines to take their old capital. Even though the city was taken two weeks later without Genoese involvement, the agreement was still honored and the Genoese occupied the former Venetian palace in Constantinople. However relations between the Byzantine and Genoese almost immediately soured, following the Venetian victory at the Battle of Settepozzi in 1263, and a plot by the Genoese podestà in Constantinople to betray the city to King Manfred of Sicily. This resulted in the Genoese being exiled to Heraclea in 1264, though negotiations in 1267 resulted in the Genoese being granted land in Galata, which they officially called Pera (“other side”). Before receiving the land grant, the fortifications of Galata were demolished, except for the Fort of Galata, which would remain in Byzantine hands. By 1275, negotiations resulted in reinstating the privileges of the Treaty of Nymphaeum made earlier.
In 1296 during the Byzantine-Venetian War of 1296-1302, a Venetian fleet set fire to the buildings of the defenseless Genoese quarter at Galata, while its inhabitants sought refuge behind the walls of Constantinople. The earliest borders of the Genoese quarters are uncertain, but following this disaster the limits of the quarter were clearly delineated in 1303 – officially granting a relatively long, narrow strip of land along the southern shore of Galata west of the Fort of Galata. Following their arrival in Constantinople in 1303, the Catalan Company were involved in a conflict with the Genoese, allegedly resulting in the death of 3000 Genoese. While Andronikos II managed to stop the Catalans from pillaging Galata, this threat further emphasized the Genoese’s need for security. An agreement made between the Byzantines and Genoese in 1304 allowed for a moat and the construction of fortified civil buildings that would provide security in their quarters. It strictly prohibited fortified walls, but allowed for other buildings, including a slaughterhouse, marketplace, loggia, baths, church and weigh house. Three churches also remained under the authority of the Patriarchate, including Hagia Eirene located on the future site of the Church of San Domenico, which evidence from the dating of tombstones suggests was built around two decades later. It seems that there were two churches (San Francesco and San Michele) in the Genoese quarters by the early 14th century.
Image from Hasluck
Lost Slab with a Latin inscription from the Walls of Galata
MEN ⋮ IMPERANTE ⋮ SERENISSIMO ⋮ | D(OMI)NO ⋮ D(OMI)NO ⋮ ANDRONICO ⋮ PALEO- | LOGO ⋮ DEI ⋮ GRA(TIA) ⋮ IMPERATORE ⋮ RO- | MEORU(M) ⋮ M ⋮ CCC ⋮ III ⋮ EDIFICATA ⋮ FUIT ⋮ | PEYRA ⋮ ET ⋮ M ⋮ CCC ⋮ XV ⋮ CO(M)BUSTA ⋮ FUIT ⋮ | MEDIETAS ⋮ PEYRE ⋮ CU(M) ⋮ ECCL(ES)IA ⋮ PALA- | CIO ⋮ CO(MMUN)IS ⋮ ET ⋮ M ⋮ CCC ⋮ XVI ⋮ T(EM)P(O)RE ⋮ PO- | TESTACIE ⋮ D(OMI)NI ⋮ MO(N)TANI ⋮ D(E) ⋮ MARINIS ⋮ | REDIFICATA ⋮ FUIT ⋮ PEYRA ⋮ QUI ⋮ D(OMI)N(U)S ⋮ | MONTAN(I) ⋮ REDIFICARI ⋮ FECIT ⋮ PALA- | CIUM ⋮ PLATEA(M) ⋮ LOGIE ⋮ HOSPITALE ⋮ | ET ⋮ DOMU(S) ⋮ PONDERIS ⋮ CO(MMUN)IS ⋮ ET ⋮ ECI- | AM ⋮ EXGRA(TIA) ⋮ SIBI ⋮ CONCESSA ⋮ A DIC- | TO ⋮ SERENISSIMO ⋮ IMP(ERA)ATORE ⋮ DO- | MOS ⋮ IUXTA ⋮ FOSSATA ⋮ CIRCA ⋮ TERRA(M) ⋮ | PEYRE ⋮ DILIGITE ⋮ IUSTICIA(M) ⋮ QUI ⋮ IU- | DICATIS ⋮ TERRA(M) ⋮ AUDI ⋮ ADVERSAM ⋮ | PARTE(M) ⋮ ANTE ⋮ QUA(M) ⋮ FERAS ⋮ SE(N)TE(N)CIAM ⋮
The most serene reigning ruler, Lord Andronikos Palaiologos, by the grace of God, Emperor of Rome established Pera in 1303. The half of Pera was burnt in 1315 with the church and the communal palace. In 1316, during his podestàship, Lord Montano De Marini restored Pera that Lord Montano rebuilt the communal palace, marketplace, loggia, hospital, and the weigh house. Furthermore, houses next to moats around the land of Pera were granted as a favor by the most serene emperor himself. Love justice, you judges of the earth! Listen to the opposite party before ratifying judgments!
This slab and several other documented or surviving slabs are an important source of information about the construction of the Walls of Galata and their historical context.
It is unclear exactly when the Genoese began to build the walls of Galata. By 1308, the Genoese were purchasing land beyond the borders granted by the emperor and built a series of fortified houses that were converted into defensive towers with windows modified into arrow slits. Much of the quarter including the Palazzo Comunale burned down in 1315 and was rebuilt in 1316. During this time, it seems that proper fortified walls were also built, despite the prohibitions of previous agreements. During a secondary phase of construction, a small rectangular castle was built on the western flank of the Palazzo Comunale by 1335, during which time other fortifications were being built north of the quarter determined by previous agreements. It also seems that the heights of the walls were increased during this phase of construction. Following their occupation of Mytilene in 1333, the Genoese began to illegal expanded their quarter at Pera. In 1336, when Andronikos III recaptured Lesbos from the Genoese, the emperor ordered these walls to be demolished, though it is unclear how well was this implemented. While they were given permission to purchase adjacent vineyards, the Genoese continued to expand and fortify their quarters far beyond this area, towards the hill where they would build Galata Tower (known as Christea Turris or “Tower of Christ”) in 1348. The area around Galata Tower was probably enclosed with walls the following year.
This secondary phase of the construction of fortifications also corresponds to the civil war between John V Palaiologos and John VI Kantakouzenos in 1341-1347 and the war between in the Genoese and Byzantines over customs duties in 1348-1349, during which the imperial fleet was destroyed and a major fire broke out in Galata. It also corresponds with the outbreak of bubonic plague in Europe, which seems to have been first brought to Constantinople in 1347 by Genoese ships travelling from Crimea, after which it then spread across Europe. In 1351, the Byzantines unsuccessfully attempted to capture Galata. The next major construction phase of Galata’s walls took place after the Byzantine fleet was defeated by the Genoese in 1352, which concluded with a treaty officially extending the Genoese quarters of Galata to the east. This, in turn, was followed by another Byzantine civil war in 1352-1357. This period involved a significant decline in Byzantine fortunes, while at the same time Galata increasingly flourished and acted more independently.
It is uncertain when the Fort of Galata was actually it was handed over to the Genoese, though it was certainly by the year 1384. By the time it became a possession of the Genoese, it was known as the Castle of Holy Cross (Castrum Sancte Crucis). Around this time a tower (known as the Tower of the Holy Cross) was added to the structure, over which a gilded cross was placed in 1391. A bell was added to the castle in 1390, which perhaps was used to give warning signals. Eventually the fort was linked to the walls of Galata, during which time it might have also functioned as an arsenal. It is generally held that the Genoese acquired the northwestern district in 1387, the western district Spiga in 1397, and the eastern district Lagirio around 1400, though there is evidence suggesting that the Genoese controlled Spiga by 1351 and Lagirio in 1376. Repairs made to the wall in 1390-1391 were likely made in expectation of an Ottoman attack, though the blockade of Bayezid I halted defensive constructions until 1435. An unsuccessful Ottoman siege of Galata took place in the late 14th century and again in 1411 and 1422. The Milanese occupation of Genoa in 1421-1435 likely slowed addition of defensive construction. In 1427 Benedictine monks founded the Church of San Benedetto (now St. Benoît) in the district of Lagirio. The last known pre-Ottoman slab records work in 1452 supported by Pope Nicholas V (1447-1455), who was of Genoese origin.
Galata surrendered to the Ottomans in 1453 following the conquest of Constantinople. While Mehmet II promised that the fortifications of Galata would be spared, several sources mention that he ordered the walls to be demolished. However there is little evidence that any significant Ottoman reconstruction took place and the walls were largely extent until the late 19th century. Perhaps the textual references to the destruction of the walls only refer to a symbolic destruction of the upper sections of the walls which would limit their defensive function. The earthquake of 1509 caused the upper levels of Galata Tower to collapse. Galata would suffer from a sequence of fires and earthquakes over the next few centuries, though damage it caused to Galata’s walls was not recorded. The local municipality began to demolish the walls in 1864, though the walls were well documented before this began. Today only a few sections of the walls and its towers survive – though much more of the walls survive than is commonly known. Several sections of walls and one gate still exist. In addition, there are two slabs in situ and several other slabs from the Walls of Galata are now at Istanbul Archaeological Museums.
Galata from miniature by Matrakçı Nasuh (1533)
Galata from map by Cristoforo Buondelmonte (1422)
The Chronicle of Theophanes Confessor (Second Umayyad Siege of Constantinople in 716-717)
Now Masalmas, after he had wintered in Asia, was awaiting Leo's promises. But when he had received nothing from Leo and realized that he had been tricked, he moved to Abydos, crossed over to Thrace with a considerable army, and advanced towards the Imperial City. He also wrote to the Caliph Souleiman that the latter should come with the fleet that had been fitted out in advance. After devastating the Thracian forts, Masalmas laid siege to the City on 15 August. [The Arabs] fenced the land walls all round by digging a wide trench and building above it a breast-high parapet of dry stone. On 1 September of the first indiction Christ's enemy Souleiman sailed up with his fleet and his emirs. He had enormous ships, military transports, and dromones to the number of 1,800. He put in between the Magnaura and the Kyklobion. Two days later a south wind blew, and they set out from there and sailed past the City. Some of them crossed over to [the suburbs] of Eutropios and Anthemios, while others put in on the Thracian side, from the fort of Galata all the way to the Kleidion. Since the big ships were heavily laden and moved slowly, some twenty transports protected the rear, each one of them guarded by a hundred men clad in corselets. These found themselves becalmed in the midst of the current and, when a slight breeze blew down the straits, they were pushed back. Straight away, the pious emperor sent against them the fire-bearing ships from the Acropolis and, with divine help, set them on fire, so that some of them were cast up burning by the sea walls, others sank to the bottom with their crews, and others were swept down flaming as far as the islands Oxeia and Plateia. As a result, the inhabitants of the City took courage, whereas the enemy cowered with fear after experiencing the efficacious action of the liquid fire: for they had intended to beach their ships that evening by the sea walls and set their steering paddles upon the battlements. But God brought their counsel to nought through the intercession of the all-pure Theotokos. That same night the pious emperor stealthily drew up the chain on the Galata side. The enemy, however, thinking that the emperor had drawn it aside with a view to entrapping them, did not dare move in and anchor on the inside of Galata. Instead, they sailed up to the bay of Sosthenion and made their fleet secure there.
Drawing by Jérome Maurand (16th century)
Raid by the Rus’ in 969 from the History of Leo the Deacon
Meanwhile, when the Roman emperor Nikephoros learned about the situation with the Taurians [Rus’], since he was always careful and vigilant throughout his entire life, and was never drowsy, nor did he become enslaved by certain pleasures (for no one could say that he had seen him indulging in revelry even during his youth), he then seemed to be everywhere at once. He began to equip the infantry, to arm the companies, to draw up the cavalry regiment in depth, and to display the ironclad horsemen. In addition, he had artillery engines made and set them up on the walls of the city. He also secured to the tower that is usually called Kentenarion a very heavy chain made of iron, attached it to enormous logs, stretched it next to the Bosporos, and fastened it to a tower of the Kastellion on the other side. Since he was more effective and wiser than anyone we know of, he did not think it expedient to war against both peoples. Therefore he decided it would be a good idea to win over one of the peoples, for thus he thought he could prevail over the other very easily and subdue it in a shorter time.
Galata from panorama by Matthäus Merian (1641)
Crusaders attack the Fort of Galata in July 1203 from the Annals of Niketas Choniates
Not many days had elapsed before the Latins, realizing that there was no one to oppose them on land, came ashore. The cavalry moved out a short distance from the sea, and the long ships, dromons, and round warships moved inside the bay. Both the land and sea forces mounted a joint attack against the fortress, to which the Romans customarily fastened the heavy iron chain whenever an attack by enemy ships threatened, and forthwith they assailed the fortification. It was a sight to behold the defenders fleeing after a brief resistance. Some were slain or taken alive, and others slid down the chain as though it were a rope and boarded the Roman triremes, while many others lost their grip and fell headlong into the deep. Afterwards, the chain was broken, and the entire fleet streamed through. As for our triremes, some were overpowered on the spot, and those forced to shore suffered damage after they were emptied of their men. The evil took many forms, such as has never entered the heart of man.
View of Constantinople from Pera by Antoine Ignace Melling (1819)
Custom House by Coke Smyth (1838), originally the Fort of Galata
Lithograph of Genoese Palazzo Comunale
Church of Saint Benoît by Cosimo Comidas (1794)
Galata Bridge by Eugène Flandin (1853)
Panels from Panorama of Constantinople by Henry Aston Barker (1813)
Drawing by Cosimo Comidas (1794)
Lithograph by W.H. Bartlett (1838)
Photo by James Robertson (c.1855)
Ernest De Caranza (1854)
“The gates are always closed at sun-set, with the exception of one leading to Pera, which is opened at all hours on payment of a small sum to the guard - an accommodation granted to the merchants, who reside either at Pera or in the villages, and transact their business at Galata.”
From A Handbook for Travellers in Turkey (1854) edited by J. Murray
Photo by Francis Bedford (1862)
Photo by Sébah & Joaillier (1880s)
Photo by Guillaume Berggren (c. 1880)
Photo by Abdullah Fréres (1870s)
Photo by Sébah & Joaillier (c. 1890)
Postcard of Galata during British occupation (c. 1920)
Photos by Harip Gate
Aerial photo by István Pi Tóth
Aerial photo by Kadir Kir
Section of the Golden Horn chain
Genoese Slabs from the Walls of Galata
Slab with Byzantine Imperial Emblem (c.1304-1316)
Slab with St. Michael the Archangel flanked by arms of Genoa and Doria (1387)
Slab with arms of Fregoso, Genoa, and Spinola (1442)
Slab with the Virgin Mary and the Christ Child, flanked by two saints (c.1442)
Slab with arms of Adorno, Genoa, and Grimaldi (1443)
Slab with Papal insignia and arms of Genoa flanked by arms of Fregoso and Lomellini (1452)
Tombstones from Genoese Galata
Tomb of Lord Antonio De Varna 1440 (left), Antonio de Lastrego 1439 (middle), Niliani and Batiste Argenti 1392 (right), and Guillielmi de Candolfi 1260 (bottom)
Tombstone from gardens of Istanbul Archaeological Museum
Tombstones of Lord Ioannes (1347) and an English couple (1391)
Bildlexikon zur Topographie Istanbuls: Byzantion, Konstantinupolis, Istanbul by Wolfgang Müller-Wiener
Documenti riguardanti la colonia Genovese di Pera by LT Belgrano
Histoire de la Latinité de Constantinople by FA Belin
Le Pietre Sepolcrali di Arab Giami (Antica Chiesa di S. Paolo a Galata) by Eugène Dalleggio
Le Lapidi Genovesi delle Mura di Galata” Iscrizioni Genovesi in Crimea ed in Costantinopoli by E. Rossi
“Dr. Covel's Notes on Galata” by FW Hasluck
“Palazzo del Comune des Genois a Pera” by S. Eyice
“The Corner of the Horn: An Architectural Review of the Leaded Magazine in Galata Istanbul” by Namık Erkal
“Manuel and the Genoese: A Reappraisal of Byzantine Commercial Policy in the Late Twelfth Century” by Gerald W. Day
“L'Arap Djami ou Eglise Saint-Paul a Galata by Palazzo” by P. Benedetto
“Kastellion” İstanbul Ansiklopedisi by A. Berger
The Chronicle of Theophanes Confessor translated by Mango, Scott, and Greatrex
The History of Leo the Deacon: Byzantine Military Expansion in the Tenth Century translated Talbot and Sullivan
O City of Byzantium: Annals of Niketas Choniates translated Harry J. Magoulias
A Handbook for Travellers in Turkey edited by J. Murray