The history of the neighbourhood Galata – sometimes known as Pera colloquially, or as Karaköy in modern Turkish – is in many ways distinct from the history of the rest of Istanbul. As you behold the networks of craft shops, chirping cafés and swirling streets, or as you sit and watch the parades of travellers, musicians, and gregarious business keepers, or as you observe the distinctive character of the buildings, and the multitude of international impressions on art, religion, and language, it is easy to see that this place has lived an interesting life of its own.
It is only very recently that Galata has gained a reputation as the glowing and multi-coloured jewel in the chest of the city, but the story of Galata is still, overall, a story of diversity, change, and the confluence of countless cultures and ideas over time.
This story has culminated in the rich mosaic ambiance you see today. Hopefully this page can complement your stay at world house hostel by familiarizing you with a bit of the history of the neighbourhood, introducing you to some of the important monuments and locales, and help you understand how modern Galata has grown into the distinctive place you explore today.
Firstly, you may have come across the word Pera. The names Pera and Galata were both derived by the old Greek names for the area, and refer to the region’s importance for fig cultivation and milk production respectively. As this may suggest, these regions north of the Golden Horn were undeveloped and scarcely documented until the days of Roman and Byzantine rule. The hills that now provide good cardio as you walk around Galata were once simply rolling fig fields spotted with cows and Greek-speaking farmers.
The area eventually grew into an important base for European merchants taking advantage of networks through Asia and the Near East. Constantinople eventually became a vital city in various Silk Road trade networks, for instance, making Galata a hub for the transportation of products and ideas between East and West.
The most important foreign groups to settle firmly in Galata were the Italians: the Venetians, and especially the Genoese, whose ships teemed in the harbours and whose entrepreneurship came to dominate the trading scene by the 11th and 12th centuries. These groups’ influence can be felt to this day. To defend their enterprises, these early Italian merchants flexed their financial and military might by building something called the “Tower of Galata” (the forgotten ancestor to today’ Galata Tower). Pera by this time was already a notable dot on the map.
Aside from being a home to Byzantines and Italians, Galata also came to house most of Constantinople’s Jewish population throughout the Middle Ages. These groups were scattered in various places across Anatolia at the time. Although they were persecuted at times by Justinian and his successors, this lived in relative peace compared to other areas in Europe during the Middle Ages. The cosmopolitan character of Galata was as already being formed. The Jewish Museum of Turkey just a few streets away from World House, preserves the legacy of these groups.
When the Forth Crusade hit Constantinople in the early 13th century, a large squadron of Byzantine army lined up along the shore of Galata as 200 crusader ships ferociously filled the Golden Horn. The siege, of course, ultimately led to the sack of Constantinople. It was the Genoese especially who threw all their support behind the Byzantine cause, but despite this the Crusaders eventually prevailed. They laid waste to Galata, destroyed the Tower of Galata, and greatly disrupted Constantinople’s Jewish communities.
During the short-lived, Crusader-operated Latin Empire of the 13th century, many Catholic friars were invited into Constantinople and Galata. Notably, the presence of the Dominicans in Galata started during this era. Many of the churches in and around the neighbourhood date from after this time.
After the Byzantines regained the city, the entire district of Galata was granted to the Republic of Genoa in return for their support during the crusade. The area effectively became a Genoese colony, and the architecture, culture, and administration of the area all became distinctly Italian. The best example of this is of course the Galata Tower, built in 1348. At the time this was the tallest building in Constantinople, and you can bet there were some people climbing to the top for a gorgeous panoramic view (though probably not for — lira). The Genoese presence and cultural domination of the area is among the most important developments along the course to modern-day Galata.
The Ottomans conquered the colony of Pera along with the rest of the Constantinople in 1453. Although the city was once again laid to waste, Mehmet I and his successors were actually greatly interested in rebuilding and repopulating the city. The city population plummeted, but by and by the Ottomans invited an unprecedented array of peoples to refill the districts north of the Golden Horn. First off, the Genoese were allowed to return once again, and were even allowed to retain their semi-autonomy and self-government. Venetians, too, were invited to populate the area and renew their trade enterprises. Venetian influence over the years can be seen most starkly in the buildings, many of which bare an unmistakable Venetian character, and – just as importantly – in the long tradition of coffee culture that became common to Turkey, Italy, and many other places in Europe starting around this time. The Italian communities were concentrated in the streets around the base of the Galata Tower, and a number of the descendants’ families, not to mention coffee shops, are still there.
It was the Ottoman conquest, of course, that also brought a substantial Turkish population into Galata, who perhaps accounted for around half of the total population at that time. But groups as diverse as Catalans, Greeks, Armenians, and Jews were also brought in from the reaches of the new empire to settle in Galata. Many more Sephardic Jews also arrived in the 16th century while attempting to escape the Spanish Inquisition. This conglomeration, combined with the Ottoman state’s policy of tolerance, developed into what was a diverse and surprisingly tolerant mix of Muslims, Christians, and Jews, who lived together in Galata for many years. This assorted ethnic and religious make-up was stable for a couple of centuries, and the architecture as well as religious buildings seen around Galata strongly reflect this mix. Nowadays you see, both operational and defunct mosques, churches, and synagogues can be found here.
In the 19th century things began to change, in large part because of the Ottoman state’s opening-up to Western ideas, and the international sea change taking place at the time. The events of the Crimean War in the mid-19th century brought in many British, French, and Italian diplomats and soldiers into Constantinople, most of whom set up operations near Galata. This meant both a wide wave of Christianity into the area, and an increased Western presence. Many of these diplomats also built their respective embassies around this time – all of which still stand but have been relegated to consulates after Ankara became the country’s capital. You may have noticed the French, Dutch, Russian, and Swedish consulates along Istiklal Avenue.
It wasn’t long before Galata and it’s surrounding regions gained a reputation as a more Westernized, Europeanized district, especially compared to the areas south of the Golden Horn. Many European nations even constructed their own schools here, many of which are still running – walking through the area, you may stumble across the Deutsch Schule Istanbul, St.George’s Austria High School, Lycée Sainte Pulchérie, and other high schools that are pedagogical legacies of this era. The near-by Istiklal Avenue – then known by foreigners as Grand Rue de Pera – soon became the site of a great number of European embassies, and a favourite location for sojourning foreigners, particularly intellectuals, officials, nobles, and the like. In was then that Grand Rue de Pera became adorned with buildings in Neo-Classical, Neo-Gothic, Renaissance Revival, and other typically Western European modes. The neighbourhood of Galata, although not strictly adjoined to Istiklal Avenue, was not unknown to these developments. Even the intense café and patisserie culture of today can be traced back to this time.
Galata and the surrounding areas were also the first in Constantinople to enjoy certain modern technologies: telephones, electricity, and tram-lines reached this area before it reached the rest of the city. The French even oversaw the construction of the Tünel, the world’s second oldest funicular, which runs underneath Galata to this day. The late 19th century also saw the transformation of parts of Galata into something of a commercial and banking centre. The Ottoman Bank moved its headquarters to a street near-by the water, and today many financial centres and be seen dotting Bakalar Caddesi.
Also, the extremely popular Galatasaray S.K. football and sports club was founded in 1905, with Galata as the base of its operations – specifically the renowned Galatasaray High School on Istiklal Avenue. It was as after the First World War that Beyoglu, and Galata in particular, started to slowly but steadily degenerate. The legacies of this decline are still being overcome. Although Beyoglu as a whole never truly lost its cosmopolitan atmosphere, there were a great number of set-backs over the years to peace and comfort in the region. In Galata it was political violence that was particularly endemic. The area saw the rise of a number of race riots in the 1950s, and in the 1970s was the site of intense fighting between leftist and rightist political groups. Many historians regard the most striking development at this time to be the wide-spread departure of the middle classes, who left to other parts of Istanbul to escape the troubled atmosphere. If you notice abandoned residences around Galata and Taksim, they may very well be a result of this recent exodus.
By the 1980s and 1990s, Galata and the surrounding regions had reached their most degenerate. It was at this time however, that official reconstruction campaigns began. Buildings facades were refurbished, and many buildings of historical importance were developed into areas of public interest. Istiklal Street, Taksim, and their immediate environs bore the most fruits of these reconstruction efforts, and quickly became flourishing districts, home to many cultural events, entertainment and nightlife venues, and tourist industries.
The lower areas including Galata, however, remained relatively untouched, and obscure to travellers until very recently. It was only over the last couple of years that the areas around the Galata Tower, the surroundings streets with their many craftsmen, bakeries, and quaint residences, and all the immediate environs of World House, have gained the vibrancy and international presence they have today. As well, the Turkish government has recently begun to recognize these quarters for the vast historical importance they have. These are exciting times to be staying in Galata: an area with an amazing history of diversity and change, now once again a fledgling cultural sphere. As new life, new prospects, and new fascinations breathe renewed life into the region, one might say that a type of neighbourhood renaissance is only underway.