Galle Fort in Sri Lanka

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The Galle Fort, or Dutch Fort as it is also known, is a fortification first built by the Portugese on the Southwestern coast of Sri Lanka. The initial fortifications, which were built in the late 16th century, were quite basic. However the fort underwent extensive modifications in the 17th century by the Dutch, making it one of the most important archeological, architectural and historic monuments to illutrate the European influence in South East Asia between the 16th and 19th centuries. According to a statement by UNESCO the site was recognized as a World Heritage Site for its unique exposition of an urban ensemble which illustrates the interaction of European architecture and South Asian traditions from the 16th to the 19th centuries which is the criteterion number four for such recognition.

Early History of Galle

  • The earliest records of Galle trace back to its mention in Ptolemy’s World Map in the 2nd century AD.
  • It is said to have been a busy port trading with some of the biggest powers of that time; such as Greece, Arabia and China.
  • Galle is also mentioned in records of the 6th century traveller Cosmas Indicopleustes as a port of call of the ship Levant during his visit to Sri Lanka.
  • Another historically famed traveller, Ibn Batuta who lived in the 14th century also mentions having passed through the port on his visit to Sri Pada and Tenavaram Temple which were then some of the most famous sites of Sri Lanka.

The Fort Today

The fort has two major gates, both huge portcullises. The portcullis that forms the first gate of entry from the port is inscribed with the year ‘ANNO MDCLXIX’, as well as the image of the Dutch Coat of Arms, the rooster and lion insignia and the inscription VOC (which stands for Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie or United East Indian Company in Dutch).

The Main Gate entrance which is on the northern or landward side of the fort is very heavily fortified. A moat left from the Portugese era was widened by the Dutch after breaking the old fort walls. The moat is only crossed by a drawbridge which is also from the Dutch era; 1669 to be exact. There are records that date to 1897 in the British era, indicating renovations and additions being done on the gate area to facilitate traffic flow.

The Old Gate with its British and Dutch inscriptions can be seen if a visitor walks in a clockwise direction along the wall from the Main Gate. Further along in the same direction is the oldest bastion of the fort. The bastion which is called Zwart or Black bastion was built by the Portugese. This eastern wall of the fort ends up at the bastion, Point Ulrecht, where the remains of the powder house is also located. A more recent addition to this end is the 18m (59 feet) high Galle Lighthouse which was built in 1938.

The next section of wall has the Flag Rock bastion which was once used as a signalling station to warn ships of the dangerous underwater rocks as they approached. Warning musket shots were fired from the nearby Pigeon Island directing the ships. Another important bastion would be the next along the wall, Trion, which has the remains of a windmill that was used to draw water from the sea to moisten the dry roads. The location is also a great place to view some amazing sunsets. Many other bastions can be seen on the western curve of the fort wall back to the main entrance.

The town that came into being inside the fort at the time of the Dutch invasion is still in use today. With the streets laid in a rectangular grid and the low gabled houses and terraces in the Dutch Colonial style, the entire town gives a feeling of quaint but beautiful nostalgia. There are many things to see in the town; from historic churches and mosques to many government and commercial structures which have withstood the ages.

Some important monuments are:

The Dutch Reformed Church (Groote Kerk) which was built in 1640 with its historic belfry built in 1707. The bell rang every hour in its hayday. There are also other antiques to be seen within the church.

2. The 17th century New Orient Hotel which was once the exclusive use of the Dutch Governor and his staff before it was converted to a hotel in 1865. It is now a modernized franchise of Aman Resorts, and called Amangalla.

3. The old Dutch Government House.

4. The Residence of the Commander.

5. The National Maritime Museum which was once the Great Warehouse built in the 17th century by the Dutch to store spices and ship equipment.

6. The Old Dutch Hospital.

7. Meera Mosque built in 1904.

8. The Buddhist temple which was once the site of the Portuguese Roman Catholic church.

9. The All Saints Anglican church built in 1871.

10. The Clock Tower built in 1882 and the Galle Lighthouse mentioned above.

11. Some of the streets still retain the original Colonial Era names; such as the Moorish Pedlar Street or ‘Moorse Kramerstraat’, Lighthouse Street or ‘Zeeburgstraat’or ‘Middelpuntstraat’ named after the lighthouse destroyed in 1936, Hospital Street, where the Dutch Hospital, the House of the Surgeon and the Medical Gardens are, Leyn Baan Street or ‘Leyenbahnstraat’, Old Rope-Walk Street where coir rope was created, Parawa Street, Chando Street and Church street.

The Fort of Galle is a historic location that has seen many communities and ethnicities and, despite the changes made throughout the centuries, managed to hold its sense of glory and history. It has been praised as the ‘best example of a fortified city with a fusion of European architecture and South Asian traditions built by Europeans in South and Southeast Asia’. It has many secrets to tell and even more to hide. With its ruins and monuments; boutique hotels and pretty little shops, the Fort of Galle has much to offer whether you are a lover of history and archeology, or whether you are looking for a peaceful and fun holiday.

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