Once the most densely populated area of the Byzantine Empire’s Constantinople, later, under the Ottoman Empire, home to Jewish and Orthodox communities in Istanbul, Fener and Balat are now two adjecent neighborhoods that offer peerless insight into historic Istanbul.
Today the area is dominated by Muslim population, and, unfortunately, the ‘minority’ culture is on the verge of being forgotten. But, at least to understand how important diversity is to the city’s culture, I believe that everyone who set foot in Istanbul should explore Fener and Balat. That’s why I decided to start the new “Istanbul Insider” series with this post.
On My Way to Fener
Fener and Balat are along the Golden Horn (Turkish: Halic), on the northwest of the Historic Peninsula.
During weekends I prefer taking the Ferry while traveling between the two continents, because the city takes traffic to a whole new level every other week, and the ferry allows me to capture the Bosphorus from a different point of view.
Gül (Rose) Mosque or Hagia Theodosia Church
Turkish: Gül Camii
The actual date of the church’s construction is not known. However, it is widely believed that it was built in the 11th century.
Hagia Theodosia had been a Byzantine church until the Ottoman Conquest. After the conquest in 1453, the church was converted into a mosque.
As the building is still used as a mosque today,
- Women should cover shoulders, knees, and hair,
- Men should cover shoulders and knees inside.
The current central dome of Gul Mosque is an Ottoman dome with four calligraphic panes and illustrations of the Seal of Solomon on both sides.
According to a myth, the indent in the wall (right) hides the real tomb of one of the twelve apostles.
Kucuk Mustafa Pasha Hammam (Turkish Bath)
Turkish: Küçük Mustafa Paşa Hamamı
Built in 1477, Kucuk Mustafa Pasha (Little Mustafa Pasha) Hammam is one of the oldest Turkish baths in Istanbul.
The hammam was bought by Mermerci Holding in 1995, and its restoration took 18 years*. Since the end of the restoration, the building has been hosting contemporary art exhibitions and other major art events.
Perispri Café by Cahide Erel
Perispri Café combines two experiences into one. Inside the cafe, you can see the works of Cahide Erel, a ceramics and glass artist from Turkey, and have lunch/dinner.
The menu covers an array of Byzantine and Ottoman dishes. Food is served on antique plates that belong to the 19th and 20th centuries.
Across the street is an abandoned Greek school (below), which was built by a Greek family from Maraş (Marash) – a city in the Mediterranean region of Turkey.
Patriarchate of Constantinople or Phanar Greek Orthodox Patriarchate
Turkish: Fener Rum Patrikhanesi
Greek Orthodox Patriarchate is an Eastern Orthodox jurisdiction and one of the churches that together constitute the Eastern Orthodox Church*. Bartholomew I (Turkish: I. Bartholomeos) is the Ecumenical Patriarch. He is regarded as the Primus Inter Pares (English: the First Among Equals) among the Eastern Orthodox Patriarchs.
The cathedral of the Patriarchate is St. George’s Church (Turkish: Aya Yorgi Kilisesi). Since the 1600s, the church has seen many reconstructions. The last major reconstruction in the late 19th century brought the church into its current form.
The double-headed eagle figure above the main entrance of the cathedral is commonly interpreted as a symbol of power. Besides, the figure had been the emblem of the Palaiologos dynasty of the late Byzantine Empire.
The tombs of two saints were taken by the Crusaders during the plunder of Istanbul in the 13th century, and they were returned to the Patriarchate by Vatican in 2004.
Probably the most valuable of all is the throne of Patriarch. The throne is preserved in original form since the 5th century.
The streets of Fener and Balat are places of many contrasts. Some old houses are properly renovated, but the remaining majority is either ruined or poorly reconstructed.
On every corner, you can see a similar scene as below: Colorful, renovated houses alongside ruined buildings.
Founded and operated with the aim of encouraging women into the workforce by Soroptimists, Vodina Cafe employs local women from Fener and Balat. The cafe offers traditional Turkish food and desserts.
Turkish: Sancaktar Yokuşu
Sancaktar Ramp lies between Vodina Street and Phanar Greek Orthodox College.
As you can see here, some signs are not yet translated. So, learning some useful translations can save you a great deal of time.
- Rum Ortodoks Patrikhanesi: Phanar Greek Orthodox Patriarchate
- Fener Rum Erkek Lisesi: Phanar Greek Orthodox College
You may recognize the below house from Russell Crowe’s movie, The Water Diviner.
Phanar Greek Orthodox College
Turkish: Fener Rum Lisesi
Established in 1454, Phanar Greek Orthodox College is the oldest surviving Greek Orthodox School in Istanbul. It is referred as the Red Castle (Turkish: Kırmızı Kale) by the locals.
The current structure was built between 1881 and 1883 by the architect Konstantinos Dimadis, who was also graduated from the same college.
More Streets of Balat
Church of Saint Mary of the Mongols
This humble church takes its name from a woman, who lived in Constantinople under Byzantine rule. “Mary” or Maria was sent to Mongolia to marry a prince. It is believed that, after her return to Istanbul, she rebuilt this old church and lived a secluded life in it.
The thing that is really special about this church is, it is the only church in Istanbul that has never been converted into a mosque in the Ottoman Empire.
Photographs aren’t allowed inside the church. However, if you take a look inside, you will see the copies of Mehmet the Conqueror’s Imperial Edict regarding the status of the church.
Ahrida Synagogue is one of the oldest synagogues in Istanbul. It was built by the Jews of Ohri (in Macedonia) about 550 years ago*. Today, the synagogue can only be visited at 10 am on weekdays.
Surp Hıreşdagabet Armenian Church
According to the myth, this beautiful church and the illustration of Mary in it make miracles happen. On the second Saturday night of every September, people gather here to pray for miracles.
Çıfıt Market or the Jewish Market
Çıfıt Market is a circle-shaped ancient market in Balat. Though for touristic purposes, traditional shops like shoemakers still remain there.
Café ‘Atölye Kafası’
Besides its original design and colorful decoration, what makes this café special is hidden inside one of its walls. The wall you can see in the below picture (behind the blue chair) is a part of the remains of a 12th-century Byzantine chapel.