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Traveller Ibn Batuta who visited the island in the 14th century, referred to it as Kalanpu.

Arabs, whose prime interests were trade, began to settle in Colombo around the 8th century AD mostly because the port helped their business by the way of controlling much of the trade between the Sinhalese kingdoms and the outside world.

During their initial visit they made a treaty with the King of Kotte, Parakramabahu VIII (1484–1508), which enabled them to trade in the island's crop of cinnamon, which lay along the coastal areas of the island, including in Colombo.

As part of the treaty, the Portuguese were given full authority over the coastline in exchange for the promise of guarding the coast against invaders.

This part of Colombo is still known as Fort and houses the presidential palace and the majority of Colombo's five star hotels.

The area immediately outside Fort is known as Pettah (Sinhala පිට කොටුව piṭa koṭuva, "outer fort") and is a commercial hub.

It was the legislative capital of Sri Lanka until 1982.

The Dutch captured Colombo in 1656 after an epic siege, at the end of which a mere 93 Portuguese survivors were given safe conduct out of the fort.

Although the Dutch (e.g., Rijcklof van Goens) initially restored the captured area back to the Sinhalese kings, they later refused to turn them over and gained control over the island's richest cinnamon lands including Colombo which then served as the capital of the Dutch maritime provinces under the control of the Dutch East India Company until 1796.

Kolamba may also be the source of the name of the commercial capital Colombo.

As Colombo possesses a natural harbour, it was known to Indian, Greeks, Persians, Romans, Arabs, and Chinese traders over 2,000 years ago.

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