The Golden Horn

With its matchless beauty and cultural, religious and historic landmarks, the Golden Horn is an Istanbul fixture. The old buildings being restored today are preparing to contribute to modern life with new centers of culture and entertainment.

The Golden Horn is an 18th century dream… Excursions to Sadabad, the splendor of the Tulip Era, gardens and palaces most of which were destroyed by fire and are known to us only from old engravings and books. On every corner of the deeply spiritual quarter of Eyüp stands türbe or mosque awash in prayer. A sacred silence rises from the cypress-dotted cemeteries as Pierre Loti’s platonic love calls out from the hills to the lovely Aziyade. Selim III composes his haunting melodies, and caiques glide over the water as veiled beauties bat their eyelashes and the squeals of children echo across the meadows. Proud Phanariote gentlemen spruce up their houses and streets. And all the while another atmosphere reigns at Balat…

The Haliç in Turkish, the estuary has been known since ancient times as the Golden Horn, a name of uncertain provenance. Some believe it comes from its horn-like shape, which extends wertward from the southern end of the Bosphorus, dividing the Historic Peninsula in half from Pera (Beyoğlu) and awash in the sun’s golden rays. Some historians say it is so-named because of the abundance here of palamut (bonito), a fish shaped like a horn. Still others connect the name with the familiar Bosphorus legend of the maiden Io, who was turned into a cow by Hera, wife of Zeus. Io ran the length of the strait, giving rise to the name Bosphorus (literally Cow Crossing). When she beat her horns against its banks to fend off a nasty fly, she created clefts which she called the Golden Horn. Whichever story is the right one, the Golden Horn has always been a popular spot in Istanbul. But its fate changed in the 20th century when the area was allocated for industry in the city plan. In the 1980’s it was cleaned up and decked with green areas. But only now, like the Phoenix rising from its own ashes, it is enjoying a true renaissance. What’s more, it has a new mission: As it tries to preserve its past as best it can, is it no longer just a place where the past is recalled with nostalgia but a new center of culture and entertainment.

Three bridges join the two banks of the Golden Horn: the Unkapanı, Eminönü and Haliç Bridges. While the last may be the oldest, it is the Galata Bridge at Eminönü that sticks in the memories of Istanbul natives for the fishermen on top of it and the bohemian cafes below. While the new bridge is less charming than the old, fishermen still fish here all day long. And makeshift caiques once again ply its purified waters. You can watch them as you enjoy the sunset from Galata on a misty evening; you can even use one to cross to the other side. Not only that but there is an Imperial Caique waiting to take passengers up to Eyüp to soak up, memories of the old days.

When you enter the Golden Horn from the Historic Peninsula the first quarter you come to is Cibali. Easily recognizable from the water, the old tobacco factory is a gleaming university today, Kadir Has University, which has brought a much-needed breath of fresh air to the district. Built in the 1880’s, the building also houses the Golden Horn Cultures Museum. A little further up the former Hagia Theodosia Church was converted into the Gül (Rose) Mosque at the time of the conquest in 1453.

The quarter of Phanar (Fener) is the center of the Golden Horn’s Greek aristocracy. Balat, another district on the Golden Horn, opened its arms to the Jewish community during the reign of Bayezid II. Both are undergoing a feverish process of restoration today. At Çarşamba, the Mosque of Sultan Selim the Grim is visible atop the hill at the end of the steep slope rising from Fener. A little lower down is the Baroque-influenced red building of the Greek High School, often taken for the Patriarchate because of its magnificent architecture. As the headquarters of the Greek orthodox sect, the patriarchate, which moved here in 1601 and was entirely rebuilt following a fire in 1941, and its church, Hagia Georghi, harbor many valuable icons and other sacred relics. These are the modest buildings that you will see when you look up from the water, and even if they lack pomp and splendor they harmonize nicely with the simplicity of their surroundings. Another fascinating structure in the district is the gothic Stevi Stefan Bulgarian Church on the water’s edge, dating to 1870 and made entirely of cast iron. The relief-adorned house of the Ypsilanti family and the Balat Jewish Hospital are here as well, alongside Greek and Armenian churches, a string of synagogues, and the Ferruh Kethüda Mosque, built by the Ottoman architect Sinan - all visited by people of different religions and proof positive of the religious mosaic that characterizes the district. The old Galata Bridge, which only last month hosted Istanbul Design Week at Balat, is eye-catching with its eccentric green color.

We arrive in the spiritual center of Eyüp after passing through the quarter known as Defterdar, where you can see the mosque of the same name, also built by Sinan. First you will see the pinkish-red Feshane, or Ottoman fez factory, one of the oldest Ottoman industrial enterprises and a new congress and culture center today. This is followed by the Cezeri Kasımpaşa Mosque and the Mosque of Zal Mahmut Paşa, yet another Sinan work. Opposite lies the quarter’s most prominent monument, the Mosque of Eyüp Sultan. Built over the grave of Eyüb-el Ensari, the Prophet Muhammed’s companion and standard-bearer, this Baroque structure, restored in the 19th century, is a sacred venue, brimful of visitors seeking cures and a must-stop for newly circumcised boys. A little further ahead is the cemetery which contributes most significantly to the quarter’s mystical atmosphere. At the top of the hill is a touristic teahouse named for Pierre Loti as well as other cafes and hotels. Built just a few years ago, the cable car that rises from the shore is never without passengers, because the best view of Istanbul is to be had from here.

Ending at Eyüp, the Golden Horn is crowned by two islands. Also known as the Bahariye Islands, they have delighted Istanbul natives by opening their arms to nature in the form of gulls, cormorants and rabbits. A new landscape architecture project is being undertaken right now to open them up to tourism as well. This spot, where the Golden Horn ends, is also the location of the new culture centers. The Dolphin Show Center going up near the Eyüp Sultan Türbe is about to be completed and will soon be offering live dolphin shows on the Golden Horn. Following a flurry of activity at the old Silahtarağa Power Plant on the edge of Alibeyköy, Bilgi University has given the city a museum of modern art here as well.

And at Sütlüce on the Golden Horn’s other shore Miniatürk welcomes a constant stream of visitors. Right next to it, the construction of the Sütlüce Culture Center continues apace. When it is finished the cultural traffic on the Golden Horn looks set to vie with the maritime traffic. Meanwhile the Rahmi Koç Museum’s submarine has raised its head from the estuary’s now pure waters and awaits visitors.

In short, Istanbul now has a Golden Horn that is set to give the Bosphorus a run for its money. Just like in the old days except richer, more beautiful and bursting with all kinds of new things…