Galle has always been an important trading harbour. As far back as 1400BC traders from Asia, Europe and the Middle East have come to the city to trade in spices, ivory and peacock feathers. In 1411 a trilingual commemorative stone tablet was placed inside the city in Chinese, Tamil and Persian to celebrate the arrival of the famed Chinese admiral, Zheng He. There is even speculation that Galle is in fact the mysterious city of Tarshish, mentioned in the old testament as the city from which King Solomon bought his luxury items.
Galle as we know it today finds its roots in 1502, with the arrival of the Portuguese by accident when a storm blew them to the shore. It remained in portugues hands until 1640, when the Dutch East India Company took control and built the present day fort out of solid granite mixed with layers of coral. When the British wrested control from the Dutch in 1796 the fort remained unchanged and became an administration centre for the empire in Sri Lanka. The fort was in fact so well built that during the tsunami in 2004 the old town inside the battlements were spared damage whilst the rest of new Galle was severely damaged. Aside from a few changes the fortified old city has remained as it was since the 17th century, and taking a walk down the streets is to walk into history.
The fort itself is an interesting sight. It is very much a fortified European city, with the star bastion shape and thick walls to defend against cannon fire and provide cross-fire from all sides. However, local building styles and influences are apparent if you know what to look for. The distances and measurements used for building the streets and the walls are all based on local rather than European measurements, and the use of coral in the building of the fortification is very much a Sri Lankan influence. Even the design of the houses are only partially influenced by European architectural design, as the wide streets and personal gardens and verandas conform to the local weather and seasonal demands.
Written by Thomas Oliver