In the district of Fatih, on the western side of the Golden Horn lies the historic neighborhoods of Fener and Balat. Finding the separation line between the two can be difficult to decipher at times, hence why it’s referred to and tagged with Fener-Balat. My recommendation, to explore Fatih start at Fener, walk through Balat and up to Edirnekapı.
Balat is the traditional Jewish quarter and one of the oldest districts of Istanbul. Constantly referred to as a ’photographer’s paradise’. The streets are lined with picturesque, historic, colorful buildings, lines of laundry and children playing in the streets. The streets themselves are reminiscent of San Francisco’s steep and winding streets, but here the cobble stoned streets are much harder to drive, navigate and walk on with their absurd angles.
Situated next to Fener, Istanbul’s Greek District, Balat was home to Greek-speaking Jews form the Byzantine Era onwards. During the reign of Sultan Bayezid II (1447 – 1512) Sephardic Jews flourished to Istanbul from Spain from the Spanish Inquisition. He welcomed them with open arms and granted them permission to settle in Balat along the Golden Horn.
During the Ottoman Empire this area flourished with street sellers, seamen and craftsmen. However after the earthquake of 1894, inhabitants left and moved to Galata. When Israel was established, another quarter of the population left (to immigrate to Israel). Leaving the area vacant, Jews migrated from the Black Sea region to fill the void, but the remaining Jews left Balat and moved to Sisli in the 1960’s.
Similar to Arnavutköy, this area was a melting pot of Jews, Turks, Muslims, Armenian and Greek communities – a reminder that for centuries after the Muslim Conquest, Jews and Christians made up around 40% of Istanbul’s population.
WHAT TO DO
Located along the Golden Horn, a bus from Eminönü to Fener (15 minutes) will drop you off near the start for a perfect walking tour. Explore Fener first and then walk towards the direction of the Chora Church, this will maximize your exposure to both neighbordhoods (Balat and Fener).
I highly recommend wearing comfortable walking shoes. At first the roads are flat along the water, but as you continue to explore, the streets becomes steep and slippery! This is an exploration and workout for sure so be prepared. My advice – go for a walk, take photographs, visit the historical buildings and get lost in Balat! Explore and see which way the wind takes you.
SITES TO SEE
The neighbourhood is rich in history and sits between the suriving ancient city walls of Constantinople and the shores of the Golden Horn. The quiet, non-touristy area is full of wooden houses, mansions, churches, synagogues and mosques filled with Byzantine and Ottoman Empire remnants. Some buildings are always open to the public, others are by appointment only – if you’re not sure knock or ring the doorbell and wait to see.
Other notbale stops along the way:
To note, some may technically be in Fener, but finding the separation line between the two can be difficult to decipher at times.
- Ahrida Synagogue Ahrida Sinagogu
One of the oldest and most beautiful synagogues in Istanbul. Founded before the Muslim Conquest with a capacity of 500 worshippers, and has been in use ever since.
- The Patriarchate Church of Saint George
The primary Greek Orthodox Cathedral in Istanbul (still in use today) and the seat of the Ecumenical Patriarchate in the city.
- Bulgarian St. Stephen Church Bulgar Kilisesi / Sveti Stefan Kilisesi
A Bulgarian Orthodox Church made entirely of cast iron and steel – a surviving example of prefabricated cast iron churches. The materials were produced in Vienna in 1871 and shipped along the Golden Horn where it was then assembled on shore. The church was needed for the Bulgarian community who had broken away from the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate just up the hill.
- Fener Greek Orthodox High School
The oldest surviving Greek Orthodox School in Istanbul.
- Chora Church Kariye Müzesi
Byzantine Greek Orthodox Church that was converted into a museum to preserve some of the oldest surviving Byzantine mosaics and frescoes.
- Pammakaristos Church Fethiye Camii
This Byzantine church held the seat of the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate from 1456-1587. It was later converted into a mosque in the late 16th century by Murat III and renamed to commemorate his conquest of Georgia and Azerbaijan.
- Church of St. Mary of the Mongols Kanlı Kilise
Constructed in the late 13th century, it’s the only Byzantine church that has never been converted to a mosque and has always remained in the hands of the Greek Orthodox Church, thanks to Fatih Sultan Mehmet II. Named after Maria Palaiologina, an illegitimate Byzantine princess who was married off to a Mongol Khan and lived with him in Persia for 15 years. After her husband’s assassination she returned to Constantinople and built this church and lived her remaining days as a nun until her death.