The intertwined fate of Genoa and Beyoğlu

The intertwined fate of Genoa and Beyoğlu

The intertwined fate of Genoa and Beyoğlu

Galata Tower, a citadel in Istanbul’s Beyoğlu district the Genoese built in 1348 and symbolizes the relation between Genoa and Beyoğlu, Istanbul. DAILY NEWS photo, Emrah GÜREL

Ten days ago, the Italian city of Genoa’s mayor, Marco Doria, signed an agreement making his city the sister city of Istanbul’s Beyoğlu municipality under Ahmet Misbah Demircan. 

The treaty put the seal on the centuries old relationship between the two entities which is best symbolized by Galata Tower, a citadel in Istanbul’s Beyoğlu district the Genoese built in 1348. Perhaps even more symbolic is the fact that Doria is a descendant of the ancient and noble family of Doria which played an important role in Genoa from the 12th to the 15th centuries. Students of Ottoman history will remember the name of Admiral Andrea Doria who fought with the Ottoman fleet for supremacy in the Mediterranean.

The Genoese had been there trading with the Byzantines as early as 1261, after the latter recaptured Constantinople from the Latin Crusaders. But it wasn’t until six years later that the Byzantine emperor granted the area to the Genoese and only in 1303 were the boundaries set out along with the proviso that they not fortify it. That didn’t stop the Genoese from doing so and even expanding it.

Relations between the Genoese and the Turks, however, started even before the Turks had conquered Constantinople. Over time Genoa went from being a sleepy port on the west coast of today’s Italy into a city state that had trading interests in the Adriatic, Black Sea, Aegean Sea and the eastern Mediterranean. It was in the Aegean area that the two first came in contact with each other as the Ottoman Turks were beginning the expansion drive in the 14th century that would result in the largest empire ever seen in the world until then. They concluded an alliance in 1352 which the Genoese hoped would help them break the dominant position the Venetians, their long-time rivals, held in the Byzantine Empire. From then until the conquest of Constantinople by the Turks in 1453, relations were mostly good.

In 1451 prior to the conquest of Constantinople, the Genoese made an agreement with Sultan Mehmed. The former wanted to maintain the independence it had had under the Byzantine emperors and the Ottoman ruler had not wanted to use force to conquer the quarter. He was very well aware that the Genoese traders were important for the continued prosperity of the city he intended to conquer. This agreement was renewed during the siege; however, after the city was conquered, the Ottomans discovered that there were men from Galata among the dead. Fatih Sultan Mehmed then considered the agreement broken and treated the Genoese and other residents of the Galata district as though they had been conquered. Their lands were confiscated and parts of the walls of the fortress were torn down. Those who could, fled or attempted to; however, the sultan decided that the confiscated property should belong to the state treasury and anyone occupying such land would be required to pay rent. 

According to Professor Halil İnalcık in an article on Ottoman Galata, the inhabitants were divided into two groups. A detailed survey was taken of Galata in 1455. There were those who were considered permanent residents, known in Ottoman as dhimmis. They had to agree to submit and to pay an annual poll tax levied on non-Muslim subjects in accordance with Muslim law throughout the Ottoman Empire. “In return for submission and yearly individual payment of the djizya, poll tax, the sultan enumerated the usual guarantees for the dhimmis, that is, he pledged not to take military action against the city and its inhabitants, recognized their ownership rights of property, and promised security for their people, families, and slaves, free circulation in the Ottoman lands, and the free exercise of their religion in their churches.”

Republic of Genoa

The second group consisted of foreigners who were the subjects of other countries such as the Republic of Genoa and were there only temporarily to conduct business. These businessmen were guaranteed freedom of trade in Ottoman territories provided they paid the customs duties required by law. However, the Ottoman acceptance of an agreement with the Genoese termed a capitulation meant that these businessmen paid 2 percent duty instead of the regular 4 percent. The Genoese had monopolized the overseas trade given its control of the Aegean and the Black Sea and so the population was dependent for its wheat and fish from the Black Sea colonies of the Genoese – Caffa, Kilia and Akkerman. But once the Ottomans took over these colonies, the Genoese were no longer needed and the businessmen who were native to these Black Sea towns took over. Still, they benefited from the lower rate of duty. The Genoese also became significantly involved in the silk trade emanating from Bursa and Iran and contributed to the expansion of the silk industry in Genoa.

The city-state of Genoa became a republic under Andrea Doria, mentioned above, in 1528. Its importance was due to the economic and financial power to its bankers and ship owners who wielded such strength that the period became known as “The Century of the Genoese.” However the republic was losing ground to the growing strength of the Ottomans, and in 1556 it apparently began negotiations to establish diplomatic and commercial ties with the Ottomans but this came to nothing, perhaps because somewhat earlier in the middle of the sixteenth century, Genoa had moved to strengthen its ties with the Spanish monarchy which was hardly friends with the Ottomans. The Genoese provided ships and financial services to the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. To counter this, the Ottomans concluded an alliance with the French who had been involved in frequent wars in their attempt to conquer the Italian city states. In all of this, the Genoese did manage to hang on to the islands they possessed in the Aegean until 1566 when the Ottoman navy captured the island of Sakız (Chios). Their ships also participated in the 1571 Battle of Lepanto when the Ottoman fleet was seriously defeated. 

Genoa’s significant financial clout allowed it to wield substantial power even as it declined over the ensuing centuries as a political power. It was occupied by the Austrians in the eighteenth century and later by the French. It also participated in the unification movements of the nineteenth century, even as it kept and even increased its financial strength.

And now it is as if history has come full circle with the pairing of Beyoğlu and Genoa as sister cities.