Galata Tower and the Walls of Galata
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Galata Tower, one of the major landmarks of modern Istanbul, was built in the mid-14th century when the Genoese had a colony at Galata. This tower, which has long dominated the topography of the region, functioned as the donjon (keep) of the Genoese fortification system of Galata. The first construction phase of the Walls of Galata began in the early 14th century and continued to be expanded and strengthened until shortly before the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople in 1453. The Kastellion (Galata’s older fortress probably dating to the 8th century) was incorporated into the Genoese fortifications by the late 14th century. The local municipality began to demolish much of the walls in 1864, though several sections of the walls, multiple towers, and a gate still survive.

Sykai, as Galata was known in antiquity, probably received its first fortifications in the 5th century, though they were traditionally attributed to Constantine I. Justinian I restored Sykai and its walls in the 6th century, after which it was called Justinianopolis. The surviving fortifications of Galata were demolished by the Byzantines just before they granted the Galata region to the Genoese in 1267, following their recovery of Constantinople in 1261. The only exception was the Kastellion, which would remain in Byzantine hands for the next century. The earliest borders of the Genoese quarters of Galata (officially known as Pera) are uncertain, but 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 Kastellion.

A series of attacks followed this land grant, which eventually resulted in the Genoese building fortifications to protect their quarter. In the first year of 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. Following their arrival in Constantinople in 1303, the Catalan Company was involved in a conflict with the Genoese, allegedly resulting in 3000 Genoese deaths. While Andronikos II managed to stop the Catalans from pillaging Galata, this threat further emphasized the Genoese’s need for security. An agreement was made between the Byzantines and Genoese in 1304, which extended their colony, giving permission for the existing moats and allowing for the construction of fortified civic 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.

It is unclear exactly when the Genoese began to build the walls of Galata. In 1306 and again in 1308, the Genoese were purchasing land beyond the borders granted by the emperor and at the same time building a series of fortified civic buildings within the official quarters that were converted into defensive “tower houses” with windows modified into arrow slits.

Much of the quarter including the Palazzo Comunale (the municipal palace of the podestà, Galata’s chief magistrate) burned down in 1315 and was rebuilt in 1316. Sometime between 1304 and 1316, it seems that proper fortified walls were also built between the tower houses, despite the prohibitions in the previous agreement. During a secondary phase of construction, a small rectangular castle was built on the western flank of the Palazzo Comunale by 1335, when other fortifications were being built on the hill north of the granted quarter. During this phase of construction, the height of the walls was increased. Following their occupation of Mytilene in 1333, the Genoese began to illegally expand their quarter at Galata. In 1336, when Andronikos III recaptured Lesbos from the Genoese, the emperor ordered the walls towards the hill to be demolished, though it is unclear how well this was implemented. This secondary construction phase of the fortifications also corresponds to a series of wars, starting with the civil war (1341-1347) between John V Palaiologos and John VI Kantakouzenos. While they had been given permission by Kantakouzenos to purchase adjacent vineyards, the Genoese expanded and fortified their quarters far beyond this area, building Galata Tower on the hilltop around the end of 1348. The Genoese withdrew from the hill when the Byzantine-Genoese war of 1348-1349 came to an end. Kantakouzenos then returned it in 1349, as a clear signal that the Genoese must have imperial consent and could not act against the interests of the empire. This war, which began over a dispute over customs duties, also saw the destruction of the imperial fleet and a major fire in Galata.

In 1351, the Byzantines unsuccessfully attempted to capture Galata. The next major construction phase of Galata’s walls took place after the Byzantines and Venetians were defeated by the Genoese in 1352, which concluded with a treaty officially extending the Genoese quarters of Galata to the east. It was extended until the "Castle of Holy Cross" (Castrum Sancte Crucis) in the east, which had previously been known as the Kastellion. Genoese archives indicate that the Tower of Holy Cross" (Turris Sancte Crucis) was attached to the Castle of Holy Cross in 1391, after a series of works that also included adding a gilded globus cruciger (cross with an orb) on top of the tower. 

Epigraphic evidence suggests the Genoese acquired the northwestern district in 1387, the western district Spiga in 1397, and the eastern district Lagirio around 1400, though archival documents suggest 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 seemingly 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 additional defensive construction. 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 primary sources mention that he ordered the walls to be demolished. However it is unclear to what extent the Ottomans actually demolished the walls, and except for reconstruction following the earthquakes of 1509 and 1635, these walls were largely extant until the late 19th century. Perhaps sources of the time mentioning the destruction of the walls only refer to the destruction of the upper sections of the walls which would have limited their defensive function. The earthquake of 1509 caused the upper levels of Galata Tower to collapse. Galata would continue to suffer from a sequence of fires and earthquakes over the next few centuries. The local municipality began to demolish the walls in 1864, though the walls were well documented before this began. The total number of the gates is unclear, but it had at least 6 maritime gates (some of which were linked to piers). A total of 25 gates of Galata Walls were recorded with their locations and names in the Ottoman period of Galata. Today only a few sections of the walls, some towers and a gate survive.

Written with the help of Dr. Sercan Sağlam

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Galata Tower

Galata Tower is strategically located on top of a hill with an approximate altitude of 35 meters. Its topography allowed Galata Tower to have a clear view of the Golden Horn and the Bosporus as well as Constantinople itself. Galata Tower was built in 1348, when the Genoese were illegally expanding and fortifying their quarters far beyond the original land grant along the shores of the Golden Horn. The area around Galata Tower, which was known as the “Tower of Holy Cross” (Turris Sancte Crucis), was likely enclosed with walls the following year.

The tower, known as “Tower of Holy Cross” (Turris Sancte Crucis), had a large cross on its pinnacle. This name has caused some confusion, as the 8th century Kastellion was known as the Castle of the Holy Cross (Castrum Sancte Crucis) and had a tower with the same name attached to it. Other dedications, though, were also used more than once, such as towers dedicated to the Virgin Mary and the Archangel Michael. Galata Tower was also known as the “Great Tower” (Torre Grande and Μεγάλος Πύργος [Megalos Pyrgos] in Greek) according to anonymous sources. It only began to be called the “Tower of Pera” or “Tower of Galata” in the 16th century. While secondary sources often call it the “Tower of Christ”, the first clear reference only appeared in the late 18th century.

The higher hill beyond Galata Tower was the place where Ottoman troops had encamped during the unsuccessful siege of Constantinople by Bayezid I (1389-1403). The upper levels of Galata Tower reportedly collapsed during the great earthquake of 1509, which was known as the “Lesser Judgment Day” (Kıyamet-i Suğra) by the Ottomans, and were allegedly reconstructed by Mimar Hayreddin in 1510. The tower had other major repairs during the Ottoman era, including the reconstruction of upper sections following the devastating fires of 1794 and 1831. The Ottoman inscription above the main gate commemorates repairs made in 1832. Galata Tower became a freestanding structure following the demolitions of Galata’s walls that began in 1864. The roof was significantly altered when its conical roof was blown away by a storm in 1875. The restoration work of 1965-1967 had, as its main aim, the reconstruction of the conical roof.

The current height of Galata Tower, including the ornamental pole on its roof, is around 67 meters. The exterior was largely constructed with rough shaped rubble masonry, while bricks were generally used in the interior. The upper sections of the tower primarily consist of finely hewn limestone blocks. The tower has eight floors in total, with the interior of the first four floors and exterior of the first two floors dating to the Genoese period. Its openings in the first four floors are accessible by way of the main inner space and the vaulted stairway, which continues inside its main walls until the fourth floor. From this level, access between the floors is provided by a spiral wooden staircase running through the main inner space. The fifth and sixth floors have small windows; the circular windows of the fifth floor likely served as gun ports. The last two floors have much larger windows. The narrow arched openings of the tower probably functioned to provide light for the interior rather than function as arrow slits. There are much wider openings on the third floor. Additional storage was also built into the bearing walls in the Ottoman era.

The main gate of the tower is accessible by modern external stairs; probably it was elevated to better secure the entrance of the tower. It is possible that the entrance would have had a wooden drawbridge and the walled up arched opening directly above the entrance might have originally served as a machicolation. The finding of skeletons in its basement suggests it was likely used as a dungeon during the Ottoman era. Its interior was recently renovated and its exhibitions now include some of the original slabs of the Walls of Galata.

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Possible remains for machicolation or mechanism for a wooden drawbridge

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Inscription from the reign of Mahmud II

“…Bu kulle pek metîn oldu, pek a'lâ yapdı Mahmûd Hân. Sene 1248”

[“…This tower has become so strong, as Sultan Mahmud made it so beautifully. The year 1248 (1832-1833)]

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Map of surviving sections of the Fortifications of Galata by Sağlam

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Tower and wall southeast of Galata Tower

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Section of wall southeast of Galata Tower

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Harip Gate

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Mural Slab with arms of Doria, Genoa and De Merude above Harip Gate (c. 1386-1387)

Tower south of Harip Gate

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Section of wall near Haliç Bridge

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Section of wall north of Harip Gate

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Towers of Galata's Walls

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Section of Wall east of 16th century Azapkapı Mosque

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Mural Slab with inscription, defaced arms, flanked by arms of Genoa and De Marini (1435)

“+ IHS (Jesus). In 1435, the admirable lord Podestà Stefano De Marini built this wall.”

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Remains of Tower near Azapkapı Mosque

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Two towers southeast of Galata Tower

Looking to provide better security for the City, and considering that the Genoese, both those who were already present and those who were expected to arrive, were going to become very numerous and that they were too uncompromising to submit easily to the Romans, but that they were capable of exciting their pride and arrogance with the least excuse, he thought it not to be in his best interest to house them inside the City, but that they should live outside. He at first sent them to live in Thracian Herakleia, but he later thought it wise to settle them at Pera, with the sole exception being the fortress of Galata. But as for the Venetians and Pisans, who were few in number, he considered that he was able to house them inside the City, separating them from the others. This is why, for reasons of security, he ordered the demolition of two fortresses, one built inside on the side of the marketplace facing the sea, and the other constructed outside, namely that of Galata; and likewise he ordered that the Genoese, spreading themselves over a large area, should live in the western part of Pera near Galata, and that the others be assigned their own quarters for their homes. On the other hand he stipulated that each nation should have its own taxes without hindrance.

From The History of George Pachymeres (translated by Nathan John Cassidy)

Galata from miniature by Matrakçı Nasuh (1533)

Galata from map by Cristoforo Buondelmonte (1422)

From the Nuremberg Chronicle (1493)

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From Map by Braun-Hogenberg (1572)

Galata from panorama by Matthäus Merian (1641)

16th century view of Galata

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Drawing by Jérome Maurand (16th century)

Circumference of the walled town of Galata. Its circuit is 10,060 paces. In the year 1634, when Sultan Murad IV went on his expedition to Revan, his lieutenant Bayram Pasha repaired and whitewashed the walls of Galata and measured them with an architect’s cubit. The circuit, together with all the towers and ramparts, was calculated to be 18,000 cubits. There are 205 towers and 13,000 crenellations. The height of the walls is forty royal cubits. Some of the towers are eighty royal cubits in height.

But Galata Tower, built by Mehmed the Conqueror, is 118 cubits high, and its sky-scraping summit is covered with lead. From nowhere can one see the entire circuit of the walls of Istanbul, and its triangular shape, except from Galata Tower…The tower interior was a dungeon in ten layers; it is now a storage for Ottoman naval equipment. It has a single iron gate that opens to the south and is reached by a stone staircase of steps.

On the land side of Galata Tower is a deep moat, extending from Meyyit Gate to Tophane Gate. I have seen thousands of fortresses but never a moat like this; only that of Akkerman, where the Dniester flows into the Black Sea, might match it. There are always sailors in this trench twisting ship cables, marlines, and life ropes. It is broad and deep, and all along its edge are graveyards and cemeteries. But there is no moat on the sea side, which is entirely covered with markets.

From Seyahatnâme by Evliya Çelebi (translated by Robert Dankoff)

Panels from Panorama of Constantinople by Henry Aston Barker (1813)

British Library

Drawing by Cosimo Comidas (1794)

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Lithograph by W.H. Bartlett (1838)

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Photo by James Robertson (c.1855)

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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

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Photo by Francis Bedford (1862)

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Photo by Sébah & Joaillier (1880s)

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Photo by Guillaume Berggren (c. 1880)

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Photo by Abdullah Fréres (1870s)

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Photo by Sébah & Joaillier (c. 1890)

Postcard from British occupation of Gala

Postcard of Galata during British occupation (c. 1920)

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Photos by Harip Gate

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Bereketzade Fountain (1732-33)

In current and original location depicted by Eugène Flandin (1853)​​

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Aerial photo by István Pi Tóth

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Aerial photo by Kadir Kir

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Aerial photo by István Pi Tóth

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Map of Galata by Müller-Wiener

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Chain of the Golden Horn at Istanbul Arc

Section of the Golden Horn chain

Genoese Slabs from the Walls of Galata

Slab with Byzantine Imperial Emblem (c.1304-1316)

For more details on these slabs and their inscriptions, also see Galata Slabs

Genoese slab with Saint Michael the Arch

Slab with St. Michael the Archangel flanked by arms of Genoa and Doria (1387)

Genoese slab with Fregoso, Genoese, and

Slab with arms of Fregoso, Genoa, and Spinola (1442)

Genoese Slab with the Virgin Mary and th

Slab with the Virgin Mary and the Christ Child, flanked by two saints (c.1442)

Genoese slab with Adorno, Genoese, and G

Slab with arms of Adorno, Genoa, and Grimaldi (1443)

Genoese slab with Papal insignia, Fregos

Slab with Papal insignia and arms of Genoa flanked by arms of Fregoso and Lomellini (1452)

Sources

Urban Palimpsest at Galata & An Architectural Inventory Study for the Genoese Colonial Territories in Asia Minor by Sercan Sağlam

Bildlexikon zur Topographie Istanbuls: Byzantion, Konstantinupolis, Istanbul bis zum Beginn d. 17. Jh by Wolfgang Müller-Wiener

Galata ve Kulesi / Galata and its Tower by Semavi Eyice

Documenti riguardanti la colonia Genovese di Pera by LT Belgrano

Histoire de la Latinité de Constantinople by FA Belin

Le Lapidi Genovesi delle Mura di Galata” Iscrizioni Genovesi in Crimea ed in Costantinopoli by E. Rossi

“The Corner of the Horn: An Architectural Review of the Leaded Magazine in Galata Istanbul” by Namık Erkal

“Galata Kulesi” (Mimarlık 79/1) by K. Anadol & A. Ersin

“Galata Kulesi’nin Ceneviz Dönemine Yönelik Bir Yeniden Değerlendirme” by Sercan Sağlam

“Galata'da İhmal Edilmiş Ceneviz Yapılarına Dair Bazı Keşifler” by Sercan Sağlam

“Kastellion” İstanbul Ansiklopedisi by A. Berger

Oxford Dictionary of Byzantium edited by Alexander Kazhdan

Sources

History of George Pachymeres (translated by Nathan John Cassidy)

Seyahatnâme by Evliya Çelebi (translated by Robert Dankoff)

A Handbook for Travellers in Turkey (1854) edited by J. Murray

Resources

Galata Tower and Walls of Galata Album (Byzantine Legacy Flickr)

Galata Walls (Ghost Buildings)

Interview with Dr. Sercan Sağlam (Levantine Heritage Foundation)

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