Another Istanbul, Greek Fener & Jewish Balat
One of the best places in Istanbul for a “vintage” local experience is definitely this area, from kids playing football on the streets, locals drinking tea, women at the windows, stray cats wandering around to laundry hanging from house to house. Unlike much of the rest of the city, the quarters have managed to retain an ancient flavour. The stark contrast of identities displays the multi-cultural history of Istanbul, caused by its status as the ruling capital for both the Byzantine and Ottoman empires.
Included in the UNESCO World Heritage List, the two towns are most probably the ones with the most character in Istanbul. Fener, once called Petrion due to its slopes, owes its current name deriving from the Greek word “fanari” (meaning lantern, lighthouse) to a column topped with a lantern standing there in the Byzantine period. Balat, on the other hand, has a name deriving from the word Palation, palace.
I also added Cibalikapı to the route as it’s pretty convenient to see it all together (in fact, Ayakapı is on our way, too). Cibali derives its name from a rampart gate where janisary Cebe Ali (transformed into Cibali) had entered the city during Istanbul’s conquest.
Once the address of those who liked to get off the beaten path, you will now witness the neighborhoods emerging when you see the growing interest of local guided walking tours. I think it’s a way of catching up of locals after all the neglect. Thanks to Unesco’s redevelopment project, the area has started to gain back its popularity in the last decade.
So, let’s take a look at these lovely neighborhoods one by one, in fact, following an ideal itinerary for you to visit easily, without getting lost. No harm in getting lost btw, just keep walking towards the sea to have a better feel of where you are. And bear in mind you need a whole day for this tour.
For a suggested walk, begin at Kadir Has University in Cibali. This old tobacco factory has been turned into a university and gained Europa Nostra restoration award. Rezan Has Museum within, is home to Byzantine structures, Ottoman hamams, and holds traces from Seljukians to Urartians.
From here, walk along the coast until Cibali Karakolu. This historic police station has given its name to an important play in Turkish theater. Originally built in 1564, the adjacent Sivrikoz Fountain has recently undergone through an unfortunate restoration, having only 4 of the original stones and a totally different look. Take a close look at the gate Cibali Kapı, as it is believed that, Cebe Ali actually carved the gate out by hand.
Enter through the gate and follow the parallel inland street, until the next stop Küçük Mustafa Paşa Hamamı, one of Istanbul’s oldest bathhouses, restored and converted into a culture venue. Gül Cami right in front, is originally Hagia Theodosia Church, a Byzantine pilgrimage believed to cure disease, then converted into a mosque. According to a legend, the story behind the name is that the church was full of roses (gül in Turkish) to commemorate St. Theodosia, on May 29, 1453 when the city was conquered by Ottomans. Behind the mosque you can find a rather interesting cafeteria, sisha place called Saklı Mahalle. Take a look inside to see the ancient times’ decoration.
Derviş Baba Kahvehanesi up in the center, is an interesting place. The owner Ali Denizci, an ex-architect, had quit his job to create a place to help those in need. Hundreds of families and children benefit from food, clothing and yet education; literacy, foreign languages, music lessons all provided by volunteers working here. Why not have a cup of tea to have a hand in?
Walking back to the coast, we find ourselves at Hagios Nikolaos Greek Orthodox Church. At its main door, a large gold and crystal carrack denoting St. Nicholas as the protector of those at sea, greets those entering. Keep straight ahead on the main avenue and you’ll see Atölye Kafası, a wonderful woodwork based atelier, which also doubles up as cafe. The spacious place is owned by two musicians and wood artists who actually make and sell cool wooden objects. A Mimar Sinan trace, Cibali Ayakapı Turkish Bath is in the corner of the street. Watch out as it is currently used as a storage place and holds no signs whatsoever. Sad to see it awaits a restoration.
As a prominent Greek neighbourhood housing wealthy citizens during 17-20th centuries, Fener enjoyed many lucrative times. Unfortunately, the disputes between the Greeks and Turks erupted before the Turkish War of Independence and resulted as a forced deportation of most of its Greek citizens due to the Treaty of Lausanne. The transformation of the rich zone began in 60s when the rest fled after the Cyprus dispute, and it became populated by immigrants of the lowest social classes. After Unesco’s touch, the area started flourishing again with cool cafes, vintage shops and artisan workshops.
On with the itinerary, go back in from Dr. Sadık Ahmet Avenue; this is where Ayakapı ends and Fener begins. In the beginning of the street, to your surprise a luxurious cafe / art gallery Perispri will greet you. Ground floor serves as a gallery whereas the first floor is where you can enjoy incredible Sunday brunches or meals with traditional recipes. It would be injustice to call it just a cafe, yet, they have found a better term “flavour home”. See for yourself as it is one of the few places around with the Golden Horn view. And remember, all that you eat / drink with is antique.
Marasli Greek Primary School (Maraşlı Rum İlkokulu), at the end of the street, looks like an ancient temple at first glance. A wealthy Greek merchant, Grigoris Maraslis, decided back in the late 19th century, to have a school built, as glorious as Phanar Greek Orthodox College. Some sources say, at one point it was shortage of money, others say it was Grigoris’ lack of interest after having seen the building far from his dreams, that the school needed funding after it started its school year. First the Patriarchate then the public helped survive the school. Unfortunately it’s not in use due to shortfall of students. Across the school, beautifully renovated houses, once the home of four daughters of a merchant, serve as a boutique hotel now.
The most notable fact about Fener is that it is the seat of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople, with the Church of Saint George as the spiritual center for the Greek Orthodox religion. It’s the second center of Christianity, after Rome. It is for the Orthodox believers the equivalent of St. Peter in Rome for the Catholics. The historic and symbolic importance of this place is huge. Pay a visit and apart from the ambiance, you’ll get a chance to see the 5th-century patriarchate throne inside.
Go back to the main avenue and you will not miss the massive Bulgarian Church of St. Stephen, acting as a watershed between Fener and Balat. The only church left on earth that is made entirely out of cast iron, had its 500 tons of prefabricated iron components shipped from Austria. The cross-shaped church has been unveiled just this month, after a seven-year restoration project.
The neighbourhoods across the sea were formerly industrial sites. The beautification and rehabilitation of intensive industrial pollution left only two mansions by the coast. One is the restored Byzantine mansion, next to the iron church, Camhane, where exhibition and workshop of glass art are presented. Should be closed at the weekends, though, check it out. Second is The Women’s Library (Kadın Eserleri Kütüphanesi), Turkey's largest women's archive and library. The center documents not only the fight of the Turkish women's movement but also women's struggle to become individuals in the country and build a bridge between the past and the future.
Back to inland for a break. Hip cafes, design shops and art galleries dot the area. Forno is a friendly pizzeria (try the turkish version pide perhaps?), Maide is good for a hot drink, Fanaraki to try meatballs and Naftalin or Fida Cafe to have a break, you name it. Check out the funky Ragn’ Roll vintage store for some goodies or visit the office of Az Laf Çok İcraat (translated as Less Talk More Work) if you need help with web design or social media 🙂 Just remember, most places are closed on Mondays in the area.
Ready for the rest of the trip? Continue the tour at the junction of Vodina Avenue & Sancaktar Hill with Dimitrie Cantemir Museum. It is a must see as there’s so much to say about this intellectual. Historian, philosopher, linguist, poet, ethnographer, geographer, statesman as well as a composer, Cantemir lived in Istanbul for 23 years as a hostage / envoy. Then during his voivodeship in 1710, he allied Bogdan with Russia in their war against Moldovia’s Ottoman overlords. Russia's defeat forced Cantemir's family into Russian exile. His house in Istanbul was restored and opened as a museum in 2007. It is said that he was the landowner of the orthodox college. Due to his many esteemed works, his name is among those considered as the brightest minds of the world on a plaque at the Library of Sainte-Genevieve in Paris, next to those of Newton, Piron and other great thinkers. In 1973, his name was given to a young city in southern Moldova, celebrating 300 years from his birth. A quick example of his marks on Turkey would be his high contribution to Turkish music, with some of his Ottoman compositions still performed today. So, in short, I’d say this place deserves attention.
Now get ready to step up the steep Sancaktar Hill and don’t forget to look back to see the iconic corner with the fountain and take a picture. These streets are also home to Ayıya Paraskevi Ayazması which is believed to have holy spring water that cures many distresses.
The climb onwards is worth the effort as the imposing “red castle” catches your eye out of nowhere. Phanar Greek Orthodox College, is a functioning high school for a Greek minority where instruction is in both Turkish and Greek. World’s oldest Greek school was built in 1454 with red brick brough from France. The tower was built as an observatory, home to a telescope aged more than a century. The structure is usually confused with the patriarchate, but now you know better 🙂
Walking around the school, you’ll end up at the 10th century Church of St. Mary of the Mongols (Moğolların Meryemi Kilisesi), also known as the Red or Bloody Church. Conserved always as a church, it’s named after the Byzantine Mary, (daughter of the emperor) who married Mongols to become allies. Across it, is Yoakim Greek Girls School (Yuvakimyon Rum Kız Lisesi) named after its benefactor Fener Greek Patriarchate 2nd, Yoakim, famous for its education quality. Closed since 1988, the building houses art events from theatres to exhibitons. I was able to attend Balat Monologlar Müzesi, where the building is mounted as a museum and one of 9 plays takes place in each room simultaneously. It was pretty interesting to watch the plays that are written by young writers who are inspired by the real stories that took place in Balat.
Did you know the house across, in the corner of Merdivenli Mektep Sokak, was home Russell Crowe’s Water Diviner movie? Walk through this alley, to glance at a beautiful view of Golden Horn at the top of the stairs (taking you down back to Dimitrie Cantemir Museum).
The fine line between grandeur and degradation in Balat produces a dazzling contrast. Century-old Ottoman houses lean against each other in a kaleidoscope of reds, blues, yellows and greens. The winding streets take you to bohemian cafes, restaurants, odd shops and even auction houses.
The first Jew settlement had begun right before the conquest of Istanbul, by those immigrating from Ohrid, Macedonia. Similar to its adjacent quarter in history on its degradation, Jews began to leave the area only after the strong earthquake in 1894 and the rest left in 60s after the birth of Israel.
Now on with the route, if you were able to take your eyes off of the view from Merdivenli Mektep Sokak, go back to Red Church. From here if you follow Kırık Tulumba Sokak until Kiremit Caddesi, you’ll find the famous colorful houses, nicknamed Palation Houses that are similar to San Francisco's “painted ladies”. The area is frequently used as a movie setting for several turkish serials and even James Bond’s Skyfall.
Walk down either from this very street or the parallel Kazancı Selim that reconnects via small stairs in the end. The street on the right parallel Çimen, will take you to ruins of Panagia Paramythia Church that served as the Patriarchate church between 1587-97, while the left parallel Fener Külhanı Street will take you to a renovated beautiful red brick house in the corner. Two quick notes while we are at it; first traditional Emin Bakery is in front of Panagia Paramythia Church if you fancy a simit. Second, behind the very same church, which is also next to Dimitrie Cantemir Museum, stands Metrology Church (Aya Yorgi Metakhion Kilisesi). It’s famous for discovered parchments of the physicist Archimed from 10th century. The documents were however smuggled and are now exhibited in Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, US.
Finishing the Fener Külhanı Street and taking a left from the first or second street will take you to Çorbacı Çeşmesi Sokak which climbs up to the picturesque slope Merdivenli Yokuşu. Needless to say, the Unesco project houses attract many visitors to the area. When you are done with the photos, go back down the slope, take the left, this time to see more colorful houses lined up next to each other.
When you come to Ayan Avenue, you’ll see on your left the Taksiyarhis Church built by the Greeks from Imbros. Walk down until Kürkçü Çeşmesi Sokak and you will see Ahrida Synagogue on your left 30 meters later. The biggest in Istanbul, the synagogue has an interesting fact and a story attached to it. Its prie-dieu is in the shape of a boat fore which some believe is a reference to Noah’s Ark and some think refers to the galley that carried sefarads from Spain. While you’re at it, pick any of the pretty coffee stops here Cumbalı Kahve, Kadraj Cafe or Coffee Department for a coffee.
If you keep down from Düriye Street, you will see Surp Hresdagabet Gregorian Armenian Church (Surp Hreşdagabet Ermeni Kilisesi) on the second street on left, Kamış Sokak. Known for its Ayios Andonios Ayazması (holy water) underneath and yearly healing masses every second week of September, the church welcomes any man regardless of religion for praying on that specific night. Further down a hundred meters is Ferruh Kethuda Mosque, believed to be the work of legendary architect, Mimar Sinan. Its yard has been used as a court and the street in front has been named after court (mahkeme).
Follow the very same Mahkeme Altı Caddesi towards Fener and this time at the cross roads, pick Lavanta Sokak. You’ll end up in Yanbol Synagogue. Making a u turn to Leblebiciler Sokak you’ll find yourself in Çıfıtçılar Çarşısı. Hence the name (meaning hodgepodge), this is where you can find anything from antique shops to shoemakers, bakeries to tailors. Another story behind the name çıfıt is, as it is the nickname Ottomans called Jews back then, the area is called after them.
Balat’s Agora Meyhanesi, on this street, is a 125-year-old restaurant. Serving meze, raki and meals from Anatolia, the Balkans and the Middle East, it was listed by Travel+Leisure, as one of the world’s best new restaurants in 2015. Other culinary suggestions in the area would be Mare Mosso, a cute little tea house nearby, Cafe Balatistan in midway, Cafe Vodina famous for its turkish dumplings (mantı) and yaprak sarma (filled vine leaves) on the other end of Balat.
Stop by Bal-Art Sanat Evi, if you’re curious about local art or visit Büyülü Fener, a nostalgia shop to bring back a fond memory or experience. Maison Balat serves both as a coffee & antique shop and is famous for its breakfasts. Bazen Açık Dükkan (translated as Shop Open Sometimes) is where you can find design products of badges, cloth bags, postcards, notebooks and jewelry.
Walk around the streets for more. Take a look around Hobbit House for instance, world’s smallest favor house where children are in charge and see if you can share anything. Refurbished by recycled material as a way of instilling the value of sustainability in the children, the center does not have a regular source of income other than donations or hosted breakfasts, to provide the children with books, clothes and other school materials.
Among all the reasons why you'd love the area, people take the lead. Do try to make up a conversation with them; you'll be surprised with the sincerity. For all of those motives and more, Fener & Balat are a true paradise for photographers and wanderlusters who walk among history to capture and witness the intricacies of a time past. With that said, the present does not fall short on capturing the thorough interest of explorers, either.
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