The Galle Fortress, also called Galle Old Town, can be regarded as an early symbol of globalization, as it is the best-preserved example of a fortified city built by Western colonial powers in tropical Asia. Earlier on, it was known as an important seaport at the Indian Ocean already to Roman geographers and in the Middle Ages frequently used by Muslim merchants from Arabia and Persia.
You could even say, Galle has been a port city since biblical times. Due to rocky peninsulars sheltering the bay, Galle has the best natural harbour along the south-western coastline of the island and thus the port closest to the Ratnapura mining area in Sabaragamuwa Province. The “gem island’s” blue sapphires have been held in high esteem in the European and Mediterraneay civilizations since antiquity. Besides exporting Sri Lankan gems, it was a major port for shipping cinnnamon, too. Indeed, legends have it that King Solomon got cinnamon as well as a peacock from the port of Galle.
The Greek geographer Cosmas Indicopluestas of Alexandria, living in the era of Emperor Justinian, mentions Galle as an important port for ships from the Middle-East. It’s not quite sure, if Cosmas himself travelled to India and Sri Lanka, however, he visited the African coasts at the Indian Ocean and shipping to Sri Lanka with the help of monsoon winds had been practiced by Arab sailors sinde the first century BC.
Arabian and Persian Muslims dominated the trade on the Indian Ocean from the 8th century onwards. They were welcome partners, they did not occupy land nor did they persecute other religions. When the most famous Muslim traveller, Ibn Batuta, arrived in Sri Lanka in 1344, Galle was the principal port of the island.
In the early 15th century, the Chinese admiral Zheng He, also arrived at Galle. Zheng He’s fleet, much larger than those of later European maritime powers, was engaged in trade in the first place. The “Galle Trilingual Inscription” left by Zheng He was discovered in in 1911, it is now kept in the National Museum in Colombo. The three languages used in this inscription were Chinese, Tamil and Persian. Indeed, Persian was more widespread among Muslim traders in Asia than Arabic, and Tamil was an international trade language, too. The inscription praises Buddha and mentions donations to the famous Hindu temple of Tondeswaram, located at the island’s southernmost oint, Dondra Head.
In 1505, thee first Portuguese ship, under the command of Lorenzo de Almeida, arrived in Galle. The Portuguese were eager to trade Sri Lanka’s cinnamon. In contrast to Muslim and Chinese sailors, the Christian forces persecuted local religions and destroyed their temples and mosques. Indeed the Portuguese controlled trade militarily all over the Indian Ocean by occupying places of strategical significance and founding fortresses. Goa was the administrative centre of their maritime empire. Their most important fortification on the island of Sri Lanka was Colombo, since 1507. Nevertheless, in 1588, when the Dutch became dangerous rivals, the Portuguese started to fortify the Galle peninsula, too, by constucting earth banks and palisades, only at the land side. Some vestiges subsist from a Franciscan chapel built in 1543.
In 1640, their Dutch rivals managed to evict them from Galle and later on from Colombo, too, and started persecuting Roman Catholics. The Dutch built the ramparts and most edifices of the Galle Fortress you can see today. The city walls enclose an area of 52 hectares. Most of the curtain walls in between the 14 bastions of Galle Fort were constructed in 1663. At the fortified northern gate (not today’s main entrance, which is from the British period) you will see the the date 1669. A ditch separated the for from the rest of the small peninsula. 500 families lived in the fortified city in the 18th century. The Dutch reformed church called “Groote Kerk” (Grand Church) was constructed 1755 in the Baroque-style. You can see Dutch inscriptions on grave slabs inside and outside the church.
One week after the surrender of Colombo Fort, the Galle Fort surrendered to the British in 1796. The British filled in the ditches built a new main gate. In 1868 they founded the Anglican Church of “All Saints” in the Neo-gothic style.
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