Fener & Balat

The districts of Fener and Balat, which reflect the multi-cultural social structure of Ottoman Istanbul, are about to recover their former vibrancy without forfeiting any of their traditional fabric.

W hen I went to Fener and surveyed Istanbul’s proverbial seven hills, I had a sudden urge to belt out the lyrics from the old operetta, ‘A Life of Luxury’, but with a perverse twist: “Neither an apartment in Şişli nor a flat in Nişantaşı, no chrome furniture, no cooks and servants, no oil paintings on the walls...” In fact, I had only one thing on my mind as I climbed up those slopes: to get a close-up view of the Fener Greek High School, which appears from shore like some surreal chateau, to touch its red bricks, said to have been brought from France in the late 19th century. But when you reach the top of the hill, your attention is distracted instead by the sky-blue waters of the Golden Horn behind the blossoming fruit trees and the Istanbul panorama on the opposite shore. Over time some of the old residents of Fener and Balat abandoned the area for the more salubrious districts of Şişli, Nişantaşı, the Princes’ Islands or Beyoğlu. I now understand why, following the Golden Horn cleanup, they want to come back and take up residence again in free-standing houses with a view of the water.

I encounter small, modest Fener houses on the steep slope leading up the hill. Two or three-storey attached houses of 40-50 square meters at most, built of brick, with jutting bay windows. Some of the old Greek houses, which are thought to have belonged to the shopkeepers, merchants and artisans who once lived in Fener, have recently been restored. In front of some of them, women have tossed down cushions and sit chatting with their neighbors while attending to some household task. Since the streets are steep and narrow, traffic is no problem and not a horn can be heard honking.
Despite the earthquakes, frequent fires and other ravages it suffered throughout its history, the area within the city walls has undergone little change since the second half of the 19th century, nor, miraculously, has it fallen victim to the otherwise ubiquitous concrete. Consequently, what we find is a placid neighborhood that still preserves its historic texture.
Even though the Fener Greek High School, with its unusual architecture, retains the status of a lycée providing a classical education. Directly adjacent to it, a small church surrounded by a high garden wall seems to play the dwarf to the school’s imposing giant. Be sure not to miss this tiny church, so appealing with its modest architecture and charming tiled dome, for this 13th century structure, the Aya Maria, is the only one to have been used continuously since Byzantine times, a role it owes to the privileged status conferred on the district of Fener by Mehmed the Conqueror.

In the Ottoman period, Fener and its environs were inhabited mainly by Greeks with a scattering of well-to-do Jewish families among them. Eager to turn Istanbul into a major center of trade and culture, Mehmed the Conqueror invited its former residents to return to the city by granting them freedom of religion and trade. Known in history as the ‘Phanariot Princes’, these residents not only assumed important posts in Ottoman diplomacy but also plied their trades as moneylenders, bankers, merchants and shipping agents. One of the many concessions granted by Mehmed the Conqueror to this Byzantine aristocratic class that returned to the city to settle at Fener was the right to build their own churches and elect a patriarch. Fener today is of international importance as the seat of the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate, the world capital of Orthodox Christianity.
Very few of the opulent mansions where the Phanariots once lived have survived to our day. One of these historic monuments that we still have a chance to see is the now Women’s Library that opened following a restoration by architect Cengiz Bektaş. Another landmark on the shore is the Bulgarian Church (Sveti Stefan), a somewhat coldly forbidding structure on account of its greenish-gray color. A rather remarkable building, it was prefabricated at Vienna entirely out of cast iron and assembled in a single month on the banks of the Golden Horn.

The districts of Fener and Balat are joined by Vodina and Yıldırım Avenues, which run parallel to the road opposite the church. Its identity shaped by the Jewish community that came here from Macedonia upon a firman issued by Mehmed the Conqueror, as well as Jews by fleeing the Spanish Inquisition, who came to Istanbul at the invitation of Bayezid II, Balat was never as affluent as Fener despite a golden era in the 17th century. Its plight is manifested even today in the small, two and three-storey brick houses of the old Jewish community with their protruding bay windows. And the Ahrida Synagogue, where services are still held, has been the district’s most illustrious for close on six centuries.
A characteristic feature of the Ottomans was their eminently multi-cultural society. And a small Armenian community, centered around the Surp Hreşdagabet Gregorian Armenian Church, also grew up in mainly Jewish Balat. The church remains open to visitors even today. The Ferruh Kethuda Mosque immediately next to it is a work of the Ottoman architect Sinan. The Balat Market, consisting of low single-storey shops most of which were owned by Jews, was once a microcosm of the world where a multitude of languages were spoken. With all these qualities, the quarter constitutes a perfect example of the phenomenon of communities living side by side in the Ottoman empire. And now Balat, with its fishermen, ironmongers, bakers, cobblers and drapers, as well as its market shopkeepers, is about to recover its former vitality following a series of restorations.

When Istanbul’s historical peninsula, a place of continuous urban dwelling for 2600 years, was added by UNESCO to its list of World Heritage Sites, the first rehabilitation project was undertaken in Fener and Balat. Twenty-six houses have been restored up to now within the framework of this project, which is being funded by the European Union with the cooperation of Fatih Municipality. And the brick houses, coffeehouses and shops that have emerged, like so many jewels, following the restoration of doors and windows, repair of roofs and facades and removal of inauthentic accretions, can be seen now on the streets of both districts. The streets laid out on a grid, the row houses and the houses of Balat in particular with their arched entryways and windows and their facades adorned with columns, are especially noteworthy. According to the plan, when the project is complete, close to a hundred structures, including some shops in the historic Balat Market, will have been restored, and the mansion of Dimitri Cantemir, one of the voyvodas of Ottoman Moldavia and an 18th century intellectual and Ottoman historian, will have been converted into a museum.
In other words, the star of Fener and Balat looks set to shine again, even more brilliantly, with the return of its former residents, its transformation into a key stop for faith tourism with no damage to its traditional structure, and the designation of Istanbul as the Cultural Capital of Europe in 2010.