Of the whole Istanbul, the areas of Fatih, Fener and Balat are certainly the richest in history, the most fascinating and characteristic. For these reasons they have been included in the UNESCO World Heritage List. Even so, less than 1% of the tourists in Istanbul visit these sites. How is that possible?
The reasons are many; however, the main culprit is surely the so-called “tourism industry”, which simplifies everything and conveys an artificial image of the city, in order to maximize its profits. A stereotyped image of the city is promoted and substitutes the more heterogeneous existing one and, unfortunately, it is only the former that is visited by almost all tourists.
Along our lines of thought, we are opposed to all this and we hope that people will have the curiosity and the desire to discover the real beauties of Istanbul.
Hence, it is our intention to introduce three neighbourhoods really central for the full understanding of the history and culture of this city. In these areas different communities and religions have converged and mingled in the course of time, bestowing us up to the present day with an extraordinary wealth of architecture, religious monuments, colours and gastronomic delicacies. The three districts are located within the old city walls, to the west of Eminönü, and overlook the Golden Horn. Unless accompanied by people who know the surroundings, these areas could be difficult to visit, not because they are dangerous, but just because they are totally off the tourist beaten track and it could be easy to lose one’s bearings through the maze of houses, consequently missing the monuments one is looking for.
Fatih is considered one of the most “conservative” districts of Istanbul, is the most observant area from a religious point of view, with at its centre the monumental complex of the Fatih Mosque. Walking through its streets, in the area of Malta Çarşı, the zone of the market, is an experience that cannot leave one blase’. Nowadays in Fatih are living mostly immigrants coming from the Eastern Anatolia region, so people here respect more the dictates of religion, but also preserve their extraordinary regional culinary traditions. It is in fact precisely for this reason that the district is now accepted as the gastronomic centre of the city. It is here, therefore, that one must come to experience the authentic flavours of Turkish cuisine: restaurants or small shops are specialized in kebabs, pide, sarma, köfte, all delicious and at very low prices. After lunch or a snack, you could then visit the beautiful Zeyrek Mosque, which was once the Byzantine Monastery of Christ Pantokrator, after Aya Sofia the second largest building of the Byzantine period still existing in Istanbul. The area of Zeyrek, with its Ottoman wooden houses 200 years old, is one of the most picturesque ones of the whole Istanbul. Leaving behind Fatih and heading towards Fener, one will pass through the Çarşamba neighbourhood. Here lies one of the most famous Byzantine churches of Istanbul, the Church of Theotokos Pammakaristos, now known as Fethiye Camii, since presently it is half mosque and half museum
Once entered in the quarter of Fener, the historic Greek neighbourhood, the roads will start to get narrower and labyrinthine, the slopes will get more steep, and the risk of losing the way higher and higher. It is on these centenarian cobblestones, among coloured Ottoman houses, some superbly restored, others irremediably ruined, that one can feel the history of Istanbul. Devout Byzantine priests, coarse Crusaders, proud Ottoman Paşas with their bevy of servants, Armenian traders, Jewish shopkeepers and gypsy fortune tellers have populated, over the centuries, often at the same time, these areas of the city, giving rise to the cultural wealth we can still admire today. Walking among houses of bizarre colours and shapes, among children playing soccer in the streets, one will arrive in front of Rum Lisesi, the Greek Orthodox College, the magnificent and peculiar red-brick building that dominates the hill of Fener. Climbing up a picturesque staircase one will then reach the top of the hill, where once the ancient walls of Constantinople ran, and it is precisely here that in the 13th century was built a church unknown to most, but of fundamental importance in the history of the city. This is the graceful Church of St. Mary of the Mongols, also known as the Red Church. Its history is so beautiful and charming that should deserve a book, but unfortunately there are no related publications and it almost seems forgotten by everyone.
Moreover, in the neighborhood of Fener is situated one of the most important locus for Christianity: the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople. 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. It is one of the five main centres of Christianity: in fact, in order of hierarchy, the Patriarchate of Constantinople is the second after Rome and precedes Alexandria, Antioch and Jerusalem. The visit of the Cathedral of St. George should therefore be a “must” for a tourist in Istanbul, although I think less than 1% of the tourists actually visit it, since probably ignoring even its existence.
On the banks of the Golden Horn, acting as a watershed between Fener and Balat, one finds the Sveti Stefan Kilisesi (the Bulgarian Church of St. Stephen), famous for being built entirely of iron and for its rich interior ornaments.
Balat is the historic Jewish Quarter: it had been so for a long time, during the Byzantine period as well as during the Ottoman period, this to demonstrate the atmosphere of inter-religious coexistence that has always characterized Istanbul. The Jews began to leave the area only after the strong earthquake of 1894, moving to the neighbourhood of Galata and, partly, emigrating to Israel. After 1960 the remaining wealthy Jewish minority of Balat moved to the district of Şişli and the result was a complete transformation of the neighbourhood. From an extremely rich area it quickly became a zone populated by immigrants of the lowest social classes. As a consequence, Balat had been greatly neglected until just lately when the neighbourhood has eventually been the focus of an ambitious redevelopment project sponsored by UNESCO. The fine line between grandeur and degradation in Balat produces a dazzling contrast. The area, where there are as many as three synagogues (including the beautiful Arhida Synagogue, still functioning and open to visitors prior contact with the rabbi), remains still nowadays a real gem. Arriving then at the top of Balat one will enter a park from where it is possible to enjoy a breathtaking view of the Golden Horn.
Continuing on foot and with the risk, always real, to get lost, one can afterwards reach the famous church of Holy Saviour in Chora, now known as Kariye Müzesi. Its magnificent mosaics and frescoes have nothing to envy to those of Aya Sofia, rather they are objectively much more beautiful. It is, without a doubt, one of the most important historical monuments of Istanbul, an extraordinary example of Byzantine stylistic perfection.
Exploring Fatih, Fener and Balat is challenging, but does indeed offer unique emotions, even to those who like us are by now accustomed to visit these places. We would like to remind that visiting these areas by oneself is not easy, often the names of the streets on the maps are incorrect or are not reported: one might end up walking around to no avail and thus wasting a lot of time. The percentage of people who speak English in these areas is close to zero and, therefore, it is impossible to ask for information. We have to admit that the first few times we also got lost, although we can ask information in Turkish!
If you are interested in making a guided tour with us of these neighbourhoods, please, do not hesitate to contact us via email or leave a comment below.
We started 5 years ago to make guided tours with italian groups and you can read hundreds of feedback on our italian version of the blog and on tripadvisor. We organize tours almost every day in english, italian and spanish.