Seeking the Genoese in Turkey!


Seeking the Genoese in Turkey!

If you stand on the galata Bridge and look north towards the Beyoğlu skyline, far and away the most dominant feature is a solid cylindrical tower surmounted by a witch’s hat roof. This is the Galata Tower, best known to visitors for a balcony from which they can take in a panoramic view of the old city.

The Galata Tower is also known for the curious story of Hezarfen Ahmed Çelebi who, according to the 17th-century Ottoman travel writer Evliya Çelebi (no relation), strapped on a pair of home-made wings and flew from its balcony right across the Bosporus to land in Üsküdar. This event may or may not have happened (Evliya Çelebi was fond of rather tall stories), but attached to the tower is a plaque that records something else that certainly did. On May 29, 1453, it says, the genoese handed the keys of their colony to Sultan Mehmed II, and behind that bald statement lies an interesting story that goes largely untold.

For the Galata Tower had started life in 1349 as the Tower of Christ, built by the Genoese on the site of an older Byzantine tower at the apex of a set of walls surrounding what was effectively a separate city. This had been granted independence by the Emperor Michael VIII Paleologos in 1261 when he had recovered Constantinople from the occupying Crusaders with the help of the Genoese. Before that, Genoese traders had, like their counterparts from Venice, Amalfi and Pisa, hunkered down on the shores of the Golden Horn.

The walls dated back to the fourth century but had been extensively rebuilt in the sixth century by Emperor Justinian. Michael Paleologos ordered their demolition and only agreed that the Genoese should be able to surround their colony with trenches, but by dint of building tall houses alongside the trenches and then filling in the gaps in between them they had soon managed to recreate parts of the walls. New stretches were stealthily built over time; new towers were still being added in the early 15th century.

At their greatest extent the walls of the Genoese city ran down from the Galata Tower to the Golden Horn at what is now Azapkapı beside the Atatürk Bridge, and to the Bosporus at Tophane. Tucked up inside them the Genoese were governed by a podesta (governor) whose battered palace just about survives near the top of the Kamondo Steps where there is also another building said to have been built by the Genoese in 1314.

Mehmet the Conqueror insisted that the walls of Galata be lowered, but they were not torn down and survived in large part, with their gates and towers, right through until 1863 when orders were given to demolish them as part of efforts to modernize this part of the city.

Today the Galata Tower is the most significant surviving relic of the lost walls. One other round tower also lives on, albeit in a shockingly battered condition, in a parking lot off Şair Ziya Paşa Caddesi, which in turn runs south from Büyük Hendek Caddesi (Great Trench Street), whose name also commemorates the lost fortifications. At Azapkapı near a Sinan-built mosque, a small stretch of the wall survives while on the inland side of the main road more of it just about hangs along with the Yanıkkapı (Burnt Gate), which still bears several Genoese coats of arms (last time I visited it was blocked due to Metro building work).

Reminders of a time when the Genoese ruled the roost in Galata also came to light when excavations around the Arap Cami in Karaköy were carried out. The mosque started life as a vast church built for the Dominicans, but the many gravestones uncovered there suggested that its congregation was largely Genoese.

The Genoese presence in İstanbul certainly didn’t come to an end in 1453 even if they were never to be so important again. That some of them remained extremely wealthy is evidenced by the Church of St. Mary Draperis on İstiklal Caddesi, named after Clara Bratola Draperis, the Genoese woman who donated the land for it. The Old American Consulate building on Meşrutiyet Caddesi, which is now being restored to house a Soho House hotel, also started life as the Palazzo Corpi, built for the wealthy Genoese shipbuilder, Ignazio Corpi. Its architects were Italian and all the materials used to decorate it were imported from Italy.

But the reach of the Genoese extended far beyond Galata. In 2013 a rather unexpected addition was made to Turkey’s list of tentative world heritage sites. “The Trading Posts and Fortifications on Genoese Trade routes from the Mediterranean to the Black Sea” is rather an odd listing given that the properties identified are all along the Aegean and Black Seas. Still, Genoese traders certainly were active around all the Turkish coasts as evinced, for example, by Ceneviz Limanı, the name given to a bay near Adrasan.

Aside from Galata Tower, the tentative UNESCO listing specifically covers the castles at Anadolu Kavağı on the Bosporus, Eski Foça and Çandarlı on the Aegean, and Akçakoca, Amasra and Sinop on the Black Sea. Oddly, it omits the contemporary castle at Kuşadası.

Anadolu Kavağı

Anadolu Kavağı is the last stop made by the ferries offering long Bosporus cruises out of Eminönü. Many passengers just disembark to grab a quick fish lunch at one of the harbor side cafes before reboarding the boat. Hardier types strike uphill in search of the view that opens out onto the Black Sea at this point. There they discover that the summit is covered with the remains of what was once the most extensive castle along the Bosporus. Built either over or near the site of a temple to Zeus Ourios, the god of winds fit for sailing, Yoros Kalesi is actually a Byzantine fortress largely erected for Emperor Justinian. However, from 1352 it fell into the hands of the Genoese, who maintained control of it for almost 50 years. Accordingly, it is sometimes referred to as the Ceneviz Kalesi (the Genoese Castle).

Ongoing excavations at the site should eventually mean that a great deal more is known about the castle’s history and development.

The Foças

In the 13th century what is now Eski Foça was the Genoese settlement of Foglia Vecchia, while what is Yeni Foça was Foglia Nuova. In 1275 Emperor Michael Paleologos gave this entire peninsula to brothers Benedetto and Manuele Zaccaria so that they could develop a port for exporting the local alum that was popular for dyeing. The Zaccarias built a fortified port at Foglia Nuovo, which, according to John Freely, became one of the richest towns in the Levent; sadly, nothing now survives to tell the story. They also strengthened the wall surrounding the headland between Foglia Vecchia’s two harbors, while neighboring Beşkapılar Kalesi (the Castle of Five Gates) was probably rebuilt at the same time, even if its latest incarnation mainly shows off repairs carried out by the Ottomans. The Foça peninsula remained in Genoese hands until 1455, when it was ceded to the Ottomans.


The newly restored 13th-century castle at Çandarlı on the Aegean coast north of Foça was also extensively strengthened by the Genoese, who made use of the bay as another port. Despite reports that it was now open to the public, when I visited a few months ago you could still only admire its sturdy exterior.


In the 14th century Kuşadası was Scala Nuova, another harbor used by the Genoese. Once again the history may be obscure, but the small offshore Güvercin Adası (Pigeon Castle) appears to have been built or rebuilt at that time.


Akçakoca is a popular Turkish beach resort east of İstanbul near Düzce. West of the town on a cliff top stand the remains of a castle that is widely believed to have been built or rebuilt on Byzantine foundations by the Genoese in the 14th century.


The Genoese controlled Amasra from 1398 to 1461 and some of the clearest evidence of their presence in Turkey can be seen in the Genoese coats of arms inserted over the gates in what are largely Byzantine walls. One such coat of arms reflects the way in which events in the home city played out in the trading colonies since it belongs to Duke Visconti of Milan, who governed Genoa from 1421 to 1436.


Although Sinop had been fortified since Roman times, the Genoese are believed to have rebuilt parts of the walls so that they could use Sinop as a base for trade, particularly with Kaffa (modern Feodosia) in the Crimea where they had another colony. Unlike in Amasra they don’t ever seem to have controlled the city, which was seized from the Byzantines by the Selçuks in 1265.


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