Galle Fort is a living museum, a little piece of Europe in Sri Lanka

The mighty tsunami that claimed upwards of 4,000 lives in neighboring Galle scarcely scuffed the heels of this proud little port town that is a repository of so much history.

The reason: The old Dutch fort’s 17th-century ramparts of granite and coral.

Towering waves threw themselves against those rugged walls time and again and fell back, defeated. Once more, the massive, muddy-brown, 3-foot-thick bastion that stretches for 1.8 miles had stood the test of time, protecting all 130 acres of Galle Fort from a rampaging force of nature that killed more than 35,000 across Sri Lanka.

Built to withstand cannon fire, it became the ultimate wave breaker, saving the little community within from devastation.

This is a place that knows how to survive.

The harbor had been attracting traders, sailors and explorers for centuries before the Portuguese built a makeshift fort of palm trees and mud on a rocky promontory here in 1589. The harbor appears on Ptolemy’s world map of 125-150 A.D. Marco Polo is said to have visited, along with trading ships from Greece, China, Arab nations and elsewhere.

When the Dutch seized the fort in 1640, they ridiculed the flimsy Portuguese fortifications and erected their own larger, stronger fort. The Dutch weren’t planning on leaving anytime soon so its imposing ramparts were built to last.

And last they have. The British took over in 1815, made a few modifications and left in 1948. The harbor’s influence waned when Colombo became England’s main port of operations, but the old Dutch walls of Galle Fort still stand.

They encircle an intriguing community like no other in Sri Lanka, full of Dutch Burghers, Germans, Spaniards, Moors, native Sri Lankans and architecture that is a mixture of Asian, Dutch and English.

Facing the sea, the fort community is surrounded by the much larger city of Galle (population 100,000-plus). During the tsunami, Galle could have used those Dutch ramparts, atop which residents like to hang out – strolling in the evening breeze, flying kites, leaping into the crashing waters below for tourist dollars.

Thanks to those walls, through natural disaster and war, Galle Fort has remained the same even with an influx of investors who would like to make the city more modern, more commercial. Heritage and history, however, are what drive and unite the town.

It is packed with historic sites, so many that it has been named a UNESCO World Heritage Site, a veritable living museum. There’s the old Dutch Reformed Church, built on the site of a former Portuguese convent in 1755, ancient cannons and the old Dutch powder magazine, the 1882 clock tower where a Dutch belfry once stood, the Dutch government house, the popular Amangalla Hotel built for the Dutch governor in 1684, austere white Anglican churches, pastel Iberian mansions with terra-cotta tiles, Buddhist shrines.

Want more history? There are museums a-plenty scattered along this warren of narrow streets, including the Galle National Museum stuffed with archaeological and anthropological exhibits, the National Maritime Archaeology Museum in a former Dutch warehouse, and the Historical Mansion Museum full of antiques in an old Dutch house.

For everything you must have the ambition and the liking of the job. And in this world, we have to show living things that we are kind. That we love everything in this world. Love is something that you can’t describe.

Samsudden Cassin

“There’s heritage here,” said Samsudden Cassin, who has lived here his whole life. He’s worked long and hard to keep the family business alive. “For over 30 to  40 years” he has sold tablecloths to make a living.

Like so many others here, the business has been passed down from generation to generation. He targets tourists to make ends meet, selling cloths of different colors and fabrics.

With more tourists coming to the island, business is picking up for Cassin. He likes to say he depends on luck and traffic and right now, plenty of tourist traffic is finding its way to Galle Fort.

He is seen every morning until dusk situated right across the rampart.

He’s also a storyteller. Some call him a historian.

Despite his old age and his daughter being away at college, the thought of retirement has not once crossed his mind. He shares often how much he loves the city and its heritage.

“We are family here,” he said.

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There is a strong and deep connection among Galle Fort’s diverse citizenry. The love of history and the fact that the fort is a melting pot is a source of great pride.

Diagonally across from Cassin’s shop on Rampart Street is a store where the amiable, bearded Ahamed Hassen has been a jewelry and antique salesman since 1959 focusing more on gems than antiques.

He was born and raised in this town of many cultures. Raised by Muslims and taught by Catholics, Hassen says the extraordinary mix makes this place special.

“We have the Sinhalese, the Muslims, the (Dutch) Burghers.”

It’s that delicious mix of people and cultures that has kept him here even through the tough times.

When Hassen was in his 20s, his parents got sick. He quit school to care for them. He wanted to be a mechanic but somewhere along the way he stumbled upon the world of gemstones and was fascinated. Meanwhile, after being told that he would be better off making a living as a painter than as a mechanic, he decided to settle for sales.

He collected antiques, opened his store. But the fascination with gems continued to grow. He wondered for years what attracted people to them. Why did they love them so? Why spend hard-earned money on shiny baubles? It became an obsession.

“That was my question. ‘Why do people wear gems?’” said Hassen.

Finally, through his extensive reading about gems and theories behind them, he came upon a set of beliefs.

“All stones have energy. I worked on it [the gem craft] and then I developed more of an interest in the healing powers of gems.”

His love for gems and his own theories about healing have drawn international attention in the gem world, winning him speaking appearances as far away as Austria to discuss the gem process and the deeper meaning behind the stones’ colors.

There are 200 gemstones in the world, and Sri Lanka’s soil produces a large percentage of that having more than 75 different types. Most are found in the hillsides, not along the sandy coast.

Some students of history may be outraged at more than three centuries of colonial rule and exploitation of Sri Lanka. Not Hassen.

If it had not been for the Dutch and the British coming to the island, the people of Galle Fort would not be where they are today, he said.

And neither would his business. Or his love for jewels.

“The Dutch have done something good for us. And so did the British with Sri Lanka.”

Despite the harsh conditions that came with colonialism, the salesman says Sri Lanka owes its economy to the Dutch and British. They even brought Ceylon tea to the island, he says.

He hopes that business in Galle Fort will only get better and the community will always cling to the heritage that makes it unique. It all goes back to love.

“For everything you must have the ambition and the liking of the job,” Hassen said. “And in this world, we have to show living things that we are kind. That we love everything in this world. Love is something that you can’t describe.”

Author Ethel Mwedziwendira

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