In areas such as Balat, all the originality and versatility of the past way of life of ancient Constantinople is reflected. In Balat, you can truly penetrate the soul of the colorful and vibrant Istanbul, leisurely passing street after street, corner after corner, going down, going up, the powerful pavement of this unusual quarter.
Balat, opened for me relatively recently, although it was always under my nose during my trips to Turkey, and I visit Istanbul several times a year. Any beautiful sign always has a reverse side, and so every time passing Balat, this district of Istanbul seemed to me a kind of “bad corner” that needs to be bypassed a mile away and it is better not to meddle there. The catalyst for visiting the area was a motley and unusual photo of the streets with bright houses, an incredibly sharp slope and unusual architecture. Having rummaged on the Internet, I was surprised to find that this place is located just in Balat. Having decided to take the risk, I decided to visit this place, which for a long time was a major gap on the map of Istanbul.
Fall in love with the Balat area the first time, this is nothing to say: everything is beautiful here – smells, graffiti on the walls, stunted slums, textures of old building facades, sounds and creaks of door hinges, signs and mailboxes, squeaks and exclamations of home auctions for sale antiques and unnecessary things, dim lanterns… the list is endless. As in the ancient aphorism “Diabolus est in singulis” – The devil is in the details!
And with intricate details you will come across on every corner, on every porch of the house or on the railings of fancy balconies that hang over the Balat kaldaryms (pavements).
The historical district of Balat is comfortably located between the gypsy quarter of Avansaray, the Greek Fener, the religious Eyüp and is part of the powerful settlement formation Fatih. Balat is washed by the battered Golden Horn (Haliç) Bay and is an integral part of the ancient history of Constantinople. It was inhabited by Greek-speaking Jews from the very Byzantine period, and by the end of the 15th century, Spanish Sephardic Jews began to settle in these places, with whom Turks, Greeks and even Armenians lived peacefully and side by side. The name of the Balat area, most likely, comes from the Latin “palatium”, which means a palace, presumably the foundation for the name was the Blaherne Sarayı Palace, which was located next door.
The strong earthquake of 1894 and the subsequent series of large fires significantly influenced the formation of the social structure of this place. The wealthiest inhabitants of Balat moved to the Galata region, where today is the largest synagogue in Istanbul – Neve Şalom Sinagogu and, in fact, the Turkish Rabbinate itself.
Balat was the focus of the Jewish population, who moved here under the protection of the Turkish Sultan, who guaranteed them religious immunity. For more than 400 years, people peacefully coexisted here, until, due to constant persecution, the Jews began to leave the area and immigrate to their historical homeland in Israel. The deserted houses were eventually occupied by Anatolian nomads, Kurds and Gypsies. After the departure of the Jews, Balat fell into desolation and became one of the poorest districts of Istanbul. On some streets of Balat, real abandonment, devastation and decay reign, but with the proper creative approach and the right look at things, old buildings appear in a completely different light, and this is very popular with tourists who want to touch the authentic Istanbul.
Today, the Fener and Balat districts retain a certain charm of old Istanbul, where a leisurely life flows along narrow and not always clean streets, from which the veil of pretended gloss has been pulled off. It is here that one can understand and feel the life of the working class and ordinary Turks, see a certain sadness in the eyes of the countless dogs and cats of the region. The first reaction and perception of the place passes through the prism of surprise and rejection, with a certain gloom of abandoned and dilapidated houses … but literally an hour later you are immersed in the atmosphere of the streets, where a shred and an echo of the great history of this place are hidden around every corner. Balat is not about pathos, gloss, tinsel and expensive windows of modern Istanbul. Balat is primarily the authenticity of urbanization and historical processes, which, like ancient stalactites, layered and stuck into this place.
Balat’s calling card is mud-clay buildings, private houses and small residential condominiums with tile roofs, clotheslines intertwining with each other and bundles of wires for satellite dishes that seem to be about to burst under the weight of wet clothes.
The roar of modern cars, cobblestone roads, sagging embossed balconies, a variety of shapes, lines, proportions of different times, will be able to impress any guest who looks here for a light and calls a lot of questions in the head of a modern architect or engineer. But amid the seeming chaos, lack of space, rusty gratings on the windows and completely asymmetrical intersections, life is born and warm, which takes your imagination into an affectionate grip, makes you move deeper and deeper into the labyrinth of alleys and feel with all the fibers of the soul that are here on these streets history was being made. Ancient, different and intricate. A real treasure trove of Istanbul under the open sky.
When Constantinople fell under the onslaught of the famous conqueror Fatih, in 1453 almost all the Greeks who remained in the city lived in Balat and Fener. It is here that you can find the residence of the Patriarch of Constantinople or Ecumenical Patriarch. The Greeks were called Phanariots, and the Patriarchy itself is sometimes called simply “Phanar” or “Phanarion”.
For centuries, Istanbul’s Fener and Balat region was the supplier of the administrative and business elite for the Turkish empire. Many inhabitants of Fener have always held the most important posts of the Sultan’s personal translators.
With such a rich history, on the territory of Fener and Balat, you can find a fairly large number of interesting historical, religious and architectural monuments.
Greek Lyceum, which is the main landmark of Fener Balat, which is perfectly visible from the embankment of the Golden Horn.
Patriarchate of Constantinople (Rum Patrikhanesi), which marks the Christian borders of the Fener district with a gate with a cross behind a blank wall. Since 1821, these gates have always been locked, since the time when the Turks hung Patriarch Gregory the Fifth on them.
Patriarchal Church of St. George (Aya Yorgi Rum Kilisesi ve Fener Rum Patrikhanesi) 18th century. Several unique relics are kept here: mosaic icons of John the Baptist and the Mother of God, which date from the middle of the 11th – the end of the 12th century. Plus the ceremonial cross of Byzantium, which, according to legend, was carved from the wood of the Holy Cross. A stone column to which Christ and the patriarchal throne were tied, where John Chrysostom himself sat.
Another attraction of Istanbul’s Fener district is the Church of Our Lady of Mongolia (Kanlı Kilise ya da Moğolların Azize Meryem Kilisesi). It is famous for being the only Byzantine holy monastery in Istanbul that has not been turned into a mosque.
The 19th century Bulgarian Church of St. Stephen (Sveti Stefan Kilisesi), which stands in a park on one of the shores of the Golden Cape. The entire church – from the very foundation to the domed cross – is made of iron. If you’ve ever heard of the Iron Church, then this is it!
Our days. Balat has many cute little family shops, cafes and tiny bistros with local food. Coffee houses are expanding and multiplying, where you can always taste Turkish sweets, drink a cup of steaming coffee or cheer up with strong tea. The prices are very comfortable and surprisingly low in comparison with the well-known and promoted areas of Istanbul. At a completely leisurely pace, you can take a small gastronomic tour of the area and plunge into the welcoming atmosphere of local establishments.
The streets of Balat are not popular among the tourist elite and fashionable youth, but this gap is slowly filling in and over the past few years, Balat has become an attractive place for photographers, creative personalities, artists, art creators and street art lovers. The number of various graffiti on the streets of Balat is becoming more and more. Numerous antique shops and shops selling vintage things (borokholki) will add a special flavor, live music with melodic Turkish rock sounds in many cafes, and young djs hone their skills in front of a small audience.
The Fener and Balat districts are now actively developing in economic, tourist and social terms. Old buildings are being redesigned and reconstructed, themed cafes, restaurants and youth hostels are opening everywhere. Constant filming of Turkish TV series and films is of great importance in the development of the region. Many scenes from the Turkish hit Çukur were filmed here.
You can and should walk in the Fener and Balat districts on your own. Until the conveyor belt of the tourist skating rink directs Balat to another “fashionable” hackneyed area, hurry up to visit such an interesting and authentic place.
Despite the fact that Istanbul is relatively safe and tourists are treated well, you should be careful in sparsely populated places, especially in the evening and at night. In case of problems, be sure to contact the tourist police for help, which is specially created to help tourists.