Hoş geldiniz! Welcome to Istanbul. A sprawling metropolis of 13+ million and the only city in the world to have one Turkish slippered foot in Europe and the other in Asia.
As the song goes, Istanbul was Constantinople, now it’s Istanbul, not Constantinople. In actual fact, the history is way more complicated than that, with a zillion name changes just to keep things interesting. Definitely not something I can do justice to here. But in warp speed it goes something like this: began as Greek in 7th century BC (Byzantium), then Roman (Constantinople), then Ottoman in the 15th century (Istanbul) and finally became a Republic in 1923.
I’ve been to Istanbul twice before. But only as a typical tourist, visiting the usual suspects in the tourist precinct of Sultanahmet – Topkapi Palace, the Blue Mosque, Basilica Cistern and Haghia Sophia. They are all insanely good – and I don’t usually warm to the big stuff – but that’s really all I knew about the place.
What was Istanbul like beyond the postcard cliches I wondered? And so here we are.
The suburb I’ve chosen for week one is Balat, recommended to me by a 52 Suburbs follower who knows Istanbul intimately (thanks Angelo). Well, Balat and neighbouring Fener actually. It’s hard to know when you leave one and enter the other. And their tales are so similar; both populated by non-Muslims and filled with fine mansions once upon a time, but now poor-ish and run-down with many buildings close to ruin.
On the map they’re located on the European side, alongside the Golden Horn. While they’re actually not that far from scrubbed up Sultanahmet, they are rarely visited. My kind of place! Let’s go Balat and Fener…
Part 1: What happens when you wander without a map
So as I said, way back the area was largely non-Muslim – Greek, Armenian, Jewish. Hence the presence of churches and synagogues, including the big cheese of the Greek Orthodox Christians, the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate in Fener. While trying to find said church, Coco (yes, she’s back out ‘blogging’) and I got a little lost and stumbled across two beautiful mosques, the Sultan Selim Camii and the Fatih Camii.
Head spins all round really. Given this city’s history, I think it’s going to be hard to avoid amazing monuments even when trying to.
Realising, eventually, that we’d strayed out of Fener and Balat, we made our way down the hill, through a very conservative Muslim area. Most people refused my camera but luckily a few obliged…
Finally we found the Greek church. (Note to self: map. Getting lost is good but not when it’s two degrees and your young companion is hungry/thirsty/tired.)
On the way to the church we passed by a hill-top Greek school that was on my list – even I couldn’t miss it given its size and colour.
Part 2: A neighbourhood under threat
As impressive as the mosques, church and school were, I was more interested in finding some of the old mansions and homes I’d read about.
While we couldn’t find any ‘mansions’ as such, we did see endless examples of the typical Fener-Balat house – colourful with a bay window out front. While some of them have been well cared for, many are struggling to survive with a number of them close to ruin.
Close to the Greek church, we found a small shop selling ceramic models of the Fener-Balat houses, pre-dilapidation. I so wanted to quiz the woman inside about the history of the houses but we couldn’t communicate at all. The only thing I could understand was that the yellow model was a mini version of the house directly next door.
On day two, I noticed a woman wearing flash gloves and a fur collared coat striding down a street in Balat. Selva, it turns out, is an architect who works in the area with her architect husband, Halim. Coco and I met them later at their office, a renovated stable, where I learned the reason why many of the houses in Fener particularly have been left to rot – around the 1950s many of the Greeks were expelled from the area, leaving their homes as they stood on the day. Unable to be sold to anyone else, they remain abandoned and unloved.
Halim and Selva explained that they are trying to revitalise some of the buildings but are constantly hampered by the ownership issues. But that there is hope – some of the homes are being restored and the area is gradually changing, with artists and small businesses moving in.
One of the new arrivals we found was a shoe and design business run by three women, again close to the Greek church.
Part 3: Eat, drink
The staples of Turkish life – round simit bread, strong black tea and sweet treats – are all in abundance on the streets of Balat and Fener.
There wasn’t much in the way of old charm in the shops of Balat with one lovely exception. Merkez Sekercisi, a 134 year old sweet and cake shop right across the lane from the architects’ office. Halim translated my questions to the owner, Mustafa, who explained that he inherited the shop from his grandfather and has been working here ever since he was a young boy, some 50 odd years.
Forget the historic mosques, churches or charming houses – the lolly shop was the highlight for Coco.
Aside from Mustafa’s sweet shop, there were a handful of coffee houses or kahvehane, all of them the domain of men.
And of course fish. Lots of fish.
Part 4: Walls and windows
Random beauty in the walls, windows and doors of Balat and Fener.
If you squint hard you can imagine what Fener and Balat might have looked and felt like in their heyday. But despite the dilapidation, there’s still so much beauty in the area – the steep hills with colourful houses climbing up them, the impressive churches and mosques, and those ingenious washing lines that stretch across the streets. Quite what happens if you fall out with your neighbour I’ll never know – but I’d sure like to find out.
On the ‘home front’
As you may have noticed this post is a few days late. Why? Rain and snow. Or was it sleet? Not sure but whatever it was, it melted as soon as you looked at it and far from being picturesque just made getting around slippery and annoying. Grumble, grumble. Still, Coco had her first viewing of the white stuff and it was kind of novel.
Other news on the home front? We’re happily parked in a cosy little apartment I’ve rented for the month through Airbnb and I’m back on deck, big time. Mum, cook, cleaner, photographer, blogger and whoa, home schooler. Not sure if I’m cut out for that last one. Actually, no, that’s a lie. I’m positively, absolutely sure I’m not cut out for it. Given the weather challenges, the moment I see sunlight break through the grey I want to be out, snapping – not in, trying to explain equivalent fractions, snapping.
But there it is. It was my choice to take my child out of a perfectly good school so I could explore the globe. I’ve given myself a good talking to and hopefully from now on my attitude will improve. Depending on how things go I may even give myself a gold star.
This suburb was brought to you by Adelaide Perry Gallery, Presbyterian Ladies’ College, Sydney
See you next week, and if the rain and ‘snow’ hold off, on time.