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Notes on the Geography of Sri Lanka: Galle

Galle is a story of decline and revival, decline with the obsolescence of the town's historic port but revival with heritage tourism.

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Sri Lanka: Galle picture 1

We're looking past the rough surf toward the rocky and roughly square fortress of historic Galle, which sticks out into the Indian Ocean like a hernia on the island's otherwise smooth south coast.

Sri Lanka: Galle picture 2

The fort is protected on the west side by a wave-breaking reef.

Sri Lanka: Galle picture 3

That's why the waves lapping against the fortress are considerably gentler than you'd expect.  The view here is from the mainland side toward the southwest corner of the fort.

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We've come around to that southwest corner and are looking to the southeast corner.  The lighthouse used to be where the camera is positioned, but it burned in 1934 and was rebuilt at the present site.  Beyond lie the calm though commercially deserted waters of Galle Harbor.

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We're looking back toward the corner where the lighthouse formerly stood.

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The third side of the fort. The harbor, to the left, was very crowded until the development of an artificial one at Colombo. The Chinese have recently built another new port about 70 miles to the east, at Hambantota.

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The wall on the land side of the fort.

Sri Lanka: Galle picture 8

The same wall, with a city gate.

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The British coat-of-arms is a 19th century addition; on the cornerstone below you see the earlier logo of the VOC, for the United East India Company.

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The other side of the same gate, showing the old warehouse once integrated into the wall.

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Again: the VOC, 1699.

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Stepping back: the gate is about three-quarters of the way down the length of the warehouse.

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We're in the building now, where one part has been converted to government land registry.

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The record room.

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A block away: the New Oriental Hotel, long decrepit but recently renovated by Aman Resorts into one of Sri Lanka's most expensive hotels.

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The hotel is in the background.  On this side of it is the Dutch Reformed Church, of which more later.  The building in the foreground contains government offices, including a post office.

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The same office building, looking in the opposite direction, past All Saints, the Anglican church.  The streets form a small grid.

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This has been a post office since 1815.

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All Saints is a johnny-come-lately, opening in 1871.

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The nave.

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The stone columns are awkwardly juxtaposed against the brilliantly white plastered brick.

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The Dutch Reformed Church, from 1755, may be more interesting.

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The interior is simple.

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Perhaps the most striking furnishing is the pulpit.

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But then you see the floor, into which tombstones have been moved from the nearby cemetery.  They're amazingly sharp, unweathered.

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"Hereunder lies the body of Elizabeth Margaret Heynen, wife of the Gezaghebber of Galle, Imam de Jonge.  Born at Batavia, 29th March 1689, and died at the resthouse at Amblangodde, in the District of Galle, on the 4th December, 1735, and buried on the 5th.  Aged 45 years, 8 months, and 5 days."

Sri Lanka: Galle picture 27

"To the memory of the Hon. Carel Pieter Swensen, Sea Captain and Equipagie Meester (Market Attendant) of Galle.  Born at Colombo, 9th June 1691.  Died at Galle, 13th December, 1739.  Aged 48 years, 6 months, and 4 days."

Sri Lanka: Galle picture 28

"To the memory of Clara Josina, beloved daughter of the Hon. Pieter Sluysken, Commandeur of the City of Galle and the Lands of Matara.  Born 14th May 1776, and, to the bitter sorrow of all who knew her virtues, laid to her rest in the Lord on the 26th November, 1791, at the age of 15 years, 4 months, and 12 days."

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"Hereunder lies buried Sandrina Reets, born in Utrecht, 7th April, 1668, the good wife of Jacobus van Outshoorn van Sonnevelt, Onderkoopman and Soldy-Boekhonder here, also retired Fiscaal of the Malabar Coast.  Died 1st January, 1706.  Aged 37 years, 8 months, and 29 days."

Sri Lanka: Galle picture 30

"Here lies buried Johanna van Rhee, wife of Cornelis Taay van Wezel, retired Gezaghebber of this Commandement and Dissave of Matara.  Born at Negapatnam, 19th May, 1668, Died 15th July, 1719.  Aged 46 years, 1 month, and 26 days." 

These (and many other) translations come from F.H. De Vos, who published them in "Monumental Remains of the Dutch East India Company in Ceylon," scattered over several numbers of The Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, Ceylon Branch, beginning with Volume 15, 1898.

Sri Lanka: Galle picture 31

Near the south wall stands what looks like another church.  In fact it's a mosque.

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The sign on the lean-to reads: "Ladies Prayer Hall."  

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The cock is a town symbol.

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Walk down the street away from these public buildings and you're likely to be approached by a real-estate tout, quick to explain what it will cost to buy and renovate a house. His idea is that you will then offer it for rent as a vacation villa. Of course someone will have to manage it.

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For sale at a very steep price.  The opening of the Aman property has had a dramatic effect on land values.

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An already renovated property.

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Front porch.

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Another, occupied by the Australian owners of a nearby hotel.

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For sale, as is, for about USD 100,000.  That's just the building behind the pink facade.  You'll have to gut it.

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From the roof, toward All Saints.

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The opposite view, past the mosque and across Galle Harbor.  A steady and cooling sea breeze blows.

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Although the buildings inside the fort were not damaged by the tsunami of December 26, 2004, buildings outside were decimated, even when made of solid materials.

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It takes a minute to realize what's happened.

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Temporary housing.

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