According to the Notitia urbus Constantinopolitanae – one of the oldest descriptions of the city – Istanbul was divided –like Rome- into 14 administrative regions. 13 of them were within the defense walls, which were built by Theodosius II around the Historical Peninsula. The only one outside the peninsula was Sykai, where Galata stands now. Galata was the XIIIth Region (Regio Sycaena) of the city of Constantinople.
Lying on the northern bank of Golden Horn opposite Byzantine Constantinople, Galata was populated with Genoese traders that first established a foothold in as far back as the thirteen-century. The district was granted by Byzantine empires to the Genoesea semi-independent colony.
The Genoese governed from the slopes of Galata a string of overseas trading centers around the Black Sea. Although they were forbidden to fortify the colony, the Genoese enclosed portions of the neighborhoods behind thick crenellated walls, 14th century traces of which can still be seen. With its own governor, podesta, appointed by the senate of the Italian republic of Genoa, Genoese traders maintained a presence even after the Ottoman Conquest of 1453.
Under Ottoman rule, defense walls were almost destroyed; Latin churches were converted into mosques. And large numbers of Muslims were settled in the eastern and western quarters of the Galata district. However, due to the predominance of foreigners and Christian minorities, Galata with its distinct Western character was always viewed as the European quarter of Istanbul.
Feeling insecure due to the town-razing fires and devastating black plague epidemics in over-crowded Galata, the wealthy European merchants and embassies started moving up the hill towards Pera vineyards in the 17th century. The northern hills of the walls formed a nucleus of a westernized residential district of Pera in the following centuries. The residents were mainly European traders, foreign diplomats and the local non-Muslims; mostly merchants and bankers of Jewish and Greek origin.
In the early 18th century Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, the wife of then the British ambassador wrote in her letters:
“I live in a place that very well represents Tower of Babel, in Galata/Pera, people speak Turkish, Greek, Hebrew, Armenian, Arabic, Persian, Russian, Slavonian, Wallachian, German, Dutch, French, English, Italian, Hungarian; and, what is worse, there is ten of these languages spoken in my own family.”
This colorful population of the district mainly concentrated along the Grande Rue de Pera (now called İstiklal Street), the district’s main artery.
The establishment of stock exchange in 1852 and the influx of British and French soldiers during the Crimean War of 1853-1856 propelled the need for effective municipal services in İstanbul.
Thus, empire’s first municipal organization was founded in 1857 in Şishane. (The town hall, built in 1860, can still be seen at the end of Ilk Belediye Sokak -First Municipal Street, close to the Meroddi Bağdatlıyan Hotel.)
Second half of the 19th century witnessed intense program of planned urban development and civic works in Galata that included street widening and paving, garbage collection, sewage system and street lighting. And Galata became a nucleus for outstanding example and a model for urban modernization in Istanbul.