All About Turkey

Galata and the Galata Bridge

Galata towerGalata is located at the north side of the Golden Horn, towards Taksim Square. Galata was surrounded by walls, constructed by the Genoese, until the 19th century. These walls started at Azapkapi near the Golden Horn. The Galata Tower was the northernmost observation tower and the walls go down to Tophane from this point.

Its name was "Sykai" (Fig field) during the Byzantine period. It also was called "Peran en Sykais" in Greek, which means fig field of the other side. Its name "Pera" which was used by the Levantines came from this origin. The origin of Galata was either "galaktos" (milk) in Greek or "calata" (stairway) in Italian.

Galata is on the European side of Istanbul both geographically and culturally. It was established as a western, Latin and Catholic colony right next to Constantinople, capital of the Eastern Orthodox Byzantine Empire. Its governments changed hands between Venetians and Genoese, but it always remained Latin and Catholic. This did not change after the conquest of Istanbul. However, Sultan Mehmed the Conqueror made this a residential area for Greeks and Jews. Even though this made Galata a non-Latin place, it was still a non-Muslim area next to the capital of Islam.

Therefore, "the other side" does not only mean the other side of Golden Horn, but it also means other side culturally. Sometimes the people of Galata sided with the enemies of Istanbul. The first time Galata betrayed the locals was when the Latin Crusades occupied Istanbul in 1204. Galata helped the Latins during this occupation, and Istanbul was pillaged by Latins. That incident was one of the reasons of the decline of the Byzantine Empire.

Galata was not faithful to the Ottoman Empire either. Galata was an important center to govern the "capitulations" which caused the decline of the Ottoman Empire. The Empire had a large debt from Galata's bankers since the beginning of the 19th century and that economically pillaged the Empire. Also Greek bankers of Galata supported Greece in its independence from the Empire.

Galata has been a very active business center since its establishment. It also was a night-life center with its taverns which attracted the Muslim population, too. But Galata lived its golden years during the second half of the 19lh century. Foreigners and minorities gained some new rights with sultan Abdulmecid's political reforms of 1839 in addition to the capitulations.This quickly created wealth and enhancement for Galata.

In 1860 the area inside the Genoese walls was not large enough for Galata. So, the walls were destroyed and Galata was enlarged and Istiklal Street (of today) and "Grand Rue de Pera", called by Levantines, became a luxury district. First, there were foreign embassies and churches. Then, big houses, luxury apartments, shopping centers, and entertainment and art centers were built on Istiklal Street. Residential houses followed this. The people called this area "Beyoglu" which was an enlarged Galata called "Pera" by Levantines.

Tram on Istiklal streetIn a short period the infrastructure problems of the new district were solved. Streets were covered by rocks, sewage systems were enlarged, electricity, water, and natural gas networks were laid down, and trams pulled by horses were put into service for public transportation. Most important of all, the second oldest metro of the world was opened in Galata.

Galata was a finance center with its bankers and stock exchange. Its harbor was one of the busiest harbors of Europe. The Grand Rue de Pera or Cadde-i Kebir became a shopping center second only to the Grand Bazaar. The imported European goods were bought not only by Levantines but also by western sympathizers. It was also an entertainment center with its cafes, theaters, bars, opera houses, restaurants, and pastry shops. Ottomans liked the way of living in Pera so much. So, Galata became a kind of school for Ottoman politicians who sympathized with the western way of life. Because the Ottoman people were learning how to eat, drink, dress, entertain, and talk like westerners from the Levantines and Europeans in Beyoglu.

Galata was a cosmopolis. Mainly French, but also almost all other European languages were spoken there. Italians, Germans, French, British, Armenians, Greeks, Jews, Hungarians, Poles, and Russians had their own communities. Each community had its own places of worship, not only based on its religion but also based on its different sects. Therefore, many churches and synagogues of different groups were located close to each other.

Despite the fact that the existence of many Muslim people and places in Galata like Galata Mevlevi Convent, Arab Mosque, Asmali Mosque and Aga Mosque, these were hardly enough to change the Galata's Western characteristics.

There were also many foreign education centers in Galata; French, British, Italians, Germans, and Austrians opened high schools in Galata. The rich and noble muslim families, along with the Levantines and minorities, sent their children to those schools. Most of the Ottoman and Turkish scholars were educated in those schools.

Galata was always different. It did not even share the same faith with other districts of Istanbul. While Istanbul was in poverty and political chaos during the Balkan War, Galata was experiencing its golden age. The spoils of World War I flowed to Galata. Beyoglu was revived by the arrival of White Russians who escaped from the October Revolution of Russia. Its entertainment life was always good. This place was the primary entertainment center for the foreign forces while Istanbul was under occupation. But after the war, during the first years of the republic, the gorgeous Pera of Levantines slowly declined.

In the late 80's and 90's Galata district became an important cultural center again for the local people of Istanbul and foreigners. There are beautiful old houses and buildings, cafes, restaurants, local markets and colorful atmosphere. Today Galata is known as the district of Jews and foreigners who live in Istanbul.

Galata Tower is the most impressive monument from the old tissue of the district, there is a great view of the city from the top.

Pera Palas Hotel, once used by the travelers of the Orient Express, is also in the Galata district. The room where Agatha Christie stayed is the most popular room for the guests. Atatürk also stayed for some time in this fantastic hotel, today his room is a kind of small museum. Pera Palas is closed at the moment for restorations, but there are other special category hotels in Galata neighborhood.

The Galata Bridge

Galata bridge from the airBridges have a special fascination for people and tend to acquire their own stories and legends. This is true of Istanbul, where bridges have found their way into folklore and become a treasured feature of the urban landscape.

Therefore to treat the Galata Bridge over the Golden Horn merely from the historic angle would be misleading. This bridge has not only been a means of getting from one side of the waterway to the other, but like a fellow citizen has had symbolic and spiritual significance in people's lives. From the end of the 19th century in particular, the bridge has featured in Turkish literature; in theater, poetry and novels. Above all in the latter medium there is hardly a novelist, including Hüseyin Rahmi Gürpinar and Ahmet Rasim, who has not mentioned this bridge.

The oldest recorded bridge in Istanbul was built over the Golden Horn in 1453 during the Turkish siege of the city. In the years 1502-1503 plans to construct a permanent bridge here were discussed, and with this object a design sketch was made by Leonardo da Vinci showing a single span bridge with double pillars at either end, 350 m long and 24 m wide. However, technical drawbacks made it impossible to realize this project, and another Italian artist, Michelangelo was invited to design a bridge for Istanbul. Michelangelo rejected the proposal, and the idea of building a bridge here was shelved until the 19th century. In the early 19th century Mahmut II (1808-1839) had a bridge built at some distance up the waterway between Azapkapi and Unkapani. This bridge, known as the Hayratiye, was opened on 3 September 1836. The project was carried out by Deputy Lord High Admiral Fevzi Ahmet Pasa using the workers and facilities of the naval arsenal. According to the History of Lutfi this bridge was built on linked pontoons and was around 500 to 540 m long.

The first Galata Bridge at the mouth of the waterway was constructed in 1845 by the mother of Sultan Abdulmecid and used for 18 years. It was known as the Cisr-i Cedid or New Bridge to distinguish it from the earlier bridge further up the Golden Horn, which became known as the Cisr-i Atik or Old Bridge.

The New Bridge was built by Abdulmecid Han. First to pass over the bridge was Sultan Abdulmecid, and the first to pass below it was the French captain Magnan in his ship the Cygne. For the first three days crossing the bridge was free, after which a toll known as mürüriye was paid to the Naval Ministry.

This was replaced by a second wooden bridge in 1863, built by Ethem Pertev Pasa on the orders of Sultan Abdulaziz in readiness for the visit to Istanbul of Napoleon III.

In 1870 a contract was signed with a French company, Forges et Chantiers de la Mediteranée for construction of a third bridge, but the outbreak of war between France and Germany delayed the project, which was given instead to a British firm G. Wells in 1872. This bridge completed in 1875 was 480 m long and 14 m wide and rested on 24 pontoons. It was built at a cost of 105,000 gold liras. This was used until 1912, when it was pulled upstream to replace the now genuinely old Cisr-i Atik Bridge.

The fourth Galata Bridge was built in 1912 by the German Man firm for 350,000 gold lira. This bridge was 466 m long and 25 m wide. It is the bridge still familiar to many people today that was badly damaged in a fire in 1992 and towed up the Golden Horn to make way for the modern bridge now in use.

The Galata Bridge was a symbolic link between the traditional city of Istanbul proper, site of the imperial palace and principal religious and secular institutions of the empire, and the districts of Galata, Beyoglu, Sisli and Harbiye where a large proportion of the inhabitants were non-Muslims and where foreign merchants and diplomats lived and worked. In this respect the bridge bonded these two distinctive cultures. As Peyami Safa said in his novel, Fatih-Harbiye, a person who went from Fatih to Harbiye via the bridge set foot in a different civilization and different culture. Apart from its place in fiction, the romantic appearance of the Galata Bridge made it a subject of many paintings and engravings.

All daily city tours in Istanbul include this bridge as it's the passageway to the Old City of Constantinople.

All About Turkey © Burak Sansal 1996–2014, a certified professional tour guide in Turkey. Contact Burak at buraksan@superonline.com for all kinds of regular and/or private travel services throughout the country.