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  • Writer's pictureJoel Butler, MA

A Brief History of Galata Tower in Istanbul

What is Galata Tower?

Galata Tower is a 14th-century Romanesque watchtower built into the walls of the Genoese colony in Constantinople, currently operating as a museum and exhibition space.


Galata Tower

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Galata Tower History

Imagine a city within a city. There is the main city, populated by its citizens. Within the sub-city, a different world exists. A colony. A trade hub. A place where foreigners come to trade and are compelled to remain during their stay. This is not a far-fetched concept, however odd or illiberal it may seem through 21st-century eyes. Throughout much of the recent past, this was how international trade functioned. Dutch merchants were confined only to the island of Hirado in their early encounters with Japan. In China, European influence was originally constrained to outposts like Hong Kong, Macao, and Shanghai. Galata in Byzantine Constantinople was no different: this was the designated trading colony of Genoese merchants.


It had not always been so. In the late Roman and early Byzantine era, a separate city stood across the Golden Horn from Constantinople, which was eventually named Justinianopolis after Emperor Justinian I. However, the city became abandoned, and by the medieval period was instead home to Constantinople’s sizeable Jewish Quarter. The Genoese arrived in the mid-12th century, settling their community in the area. It was formally granted to the Genoese in 1267 after they helped to expel the Venetian-backed Latin Empire of the Fourth Crusade from Constantinople, which restored Byzantine rule over the city. The colony boundaries were established in 1303, alongside a law which prevented its fortification. The Genoese ignored this, however, steadily expanding the walls of their colony outwards and eventually, in 1348, they built ‘The Tower of Christ’, which was the tallest building in Constantinople when it was constructed.


The nine-storey tower is nearly 70 metres tall and stands on a ridge of a similar elevation above sea level, therefore granting commanding views over the Golden Horn and Bosphorus; during the Ottoman era, it was used in part as a fire watchtower for this reason. Ironically, damage from fires and storms have caused the tower to require frequent renovations throughout its history. The renovation of 2020 saw the space adapted for use as a museum and exhibition space. From its construction until the present day, it has remained one of Istanbul’s most prominent landmarks and a symbol of the city.


Though the surrounding neighbourhood was for a long time a Genoese colony, it was also inhabited by Venetians, Greeks, Armenians, and Jews at the time of the Ottoman conquest, and remained the quarter of the city in which foreign embassies and trade companies were housed. The English embassy was in fact forcibly removed from the docklands of Tophane to the current British Consulate premises within sight of the tower, around a decade after their arrival in the late-16th century. The Galata Tower, and the large number of foreign consulates and Christian and Jewish places of worship in the surrounding streets and neighbourhoods, stand as testament to the cosmopolitan history of the city of Istanbul.


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