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  • Writer's pictureTerry Richardson

A Brief History of Salt Galata in Istanbul

What is Salt Galata?

Salt Galata is a contemporary arts space housed in an ornate 19th-century building that was once the headquarters of the Imperial Ottoman Bank.

Salt Galata

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Salt Galata History

While the exhibitions held in the cultural institute Salt are often boldly modern in ethos, the building in which the artworks are displayed is anything but. In the 19th century the street on which Salt stands today was the heart of the Ottoman Empire’s financial system, home to the head offices of numerous banks. These great palaces of finance, built in the Neoclassical style popular across Europe at that time, were intended to inspire confidence and admiration.

The Imperial Ottoman Bank, as it was originally known, was established at the behest of the Ottoman state, with British and French financial institutions owning majority stakes in it. Its head office, in the vibrant commercial district of Galata, was designed by the Franco-Turkish architect Alexandre Vallaury in 1890. Already acclaimed in his field, he would go on to design the Archaeology Museum across the Golden Horn in the old city, and the prestigious Pera Palace Hotel on a hill above Galata.

Constructed over four floors, the Ottoman Bank was built in the Beaux-Arts style, with rusticated stonework prominent on the ground-floor façade, mock-classical columns and capitals used to great effect on the second and third floors, while the fourth floor’s most obvious feature is a series of small windows overshadowed by boldly projecting eaves. Work was completed in 1892, when the bank opened for business.

The most notable event in its long history occurred just a few years afterwards. In 1896 armed members of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation, the Dashnaks, seized the premises. Their goal was to bring the mistreatment of the sizeable Armenian population of the Ottoman Empire to the attention of the Western powers. Ten people were killed, including Armenian revolutionaries and Ottoman soldiers, and the 14-hour siege was only ended by the intervention of European ambassadors, who managed to persuade the revolutionaries to accept safe passage from Istanbul on a yacht belonging to the bank’s director, Edgar Vincent. The bank survived as a commercial entity until 2001, when it merged with Turkey’s Garanti Bank, who founded Salt in 2011.

Today part of the building houses the Ottoman Bank Museum. The former vaults are of particular interest, cleverly using customer records, personnel files, share certificates and the like, to tell the story of the institution and the diverse range of people it served. There is also a large exhibition space, a public library and archive rooms, plus a regular Thursday cinema slot.

Another Istanbul-based arts space backed by Garanti Bank, Salt Beyoğlu, is housed in a beautiful 19th-century apartment block on nearby Istiklal Caddesi, with over a thousand metres of exhibition space spread over three levels.

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