Authenticity is what we look for in a world that is increasingly moving toward total automation. Losing one’s way while wandering the upward sloping labyrinth of Balat is rewarded through authenticity begotten by simplicity. We look up to see children’s t-shirts dangling haphazardly to dry on a clothesline that stretches from window to tree. We find remaining institutions of faith and culture where an adamancy to be found withstands the slight crumble due to the impertinence of time. And we find small ateliers, cafes, and shops that are coming into existence like a small secret that is about to be divulged entirely.
What remains of the neighborhood’s history, which dates as far back as the Byzantine period, are structures of religion clad in opulent frescoes, gold bedecked chancels, and saints peering down from inspiring heights. While some of these impressive sites are open to the public, others can only be viewed with a guided tour.
The journey in Balat begins with the large gold and crystal carrack denoting Aya Nichola (St. Nicholas) as the protector of those at sea. This decorative vessel greets those entering through the main door of the Aya Nichola Greek Orthodox church, which dates back to 1576. Another church in the area, which was later turned into a mosque, is the Gül Camii (St. Theodosia), which, when viewed from above, reveals the visual clue of its past as it remains in the shape of a large cross. According to legend, the remains of Saint Theodosia, an Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic martyr and saint, were displayed in an open coffin, and were visited by the devout who were convinced of their healing powers. The legend also states that when the Ottomans entered the city, the church was decorated with roses to honor Theodosia, hence its name in Turkish, which translates to Rose Mosque. Aya Nikola (St. Nicholas) Tour Only, Yavuz Sultan Selim Mh., Fatih; Gül Camii (St. Theodosia) Open to Public, Yavuz Sultan Selim Mh., Fatih
More roses are present in the fading rose-colored hue of the Meryem Ana Kilisesi (Church of St. Mary), also known as Moğolların Meryemi (Church of St. Mary of the Mongols). The church gets its peculiar name after a story that unravels a bit like a fairy tale. The arranged marriage of Maria Palaiologina (an illegitimate daughter of the Byzantine Emperor Michael VIII Palaiologos who ruled in the 13th century) to Mongol emperor Hulagu Khan (the grandson of Genghis Khan) is thwarted when Hulagu suddenly dies making his brother Abaqa Khan the next best candidate. Maria becomes a widow after being married to Abaqa Khan for fifteen years, and spends the rest of her life in the monastery named after her. A portrait of St. Mary still hangs inside as well as an imperial order by Fatih Sultan Mehmet that prevented the site form being converted into a mosque. Tour Only, Balat Mh., Fatih
The stunning red flash that is the Fener Rum Lisesi (Greek Lycee of the Fener) rises above Balat like a castle entertained in active imaginations. Even though the building was constructed in 1881 by the architect Dimadis, the area was used as a site of instruction as far back as the Byzantine Empire. After the Ottoman conquest of Istanbul, secular studies continued to be held here while religious studies were carried to institutions on Heybeliada, one of the Princes’ Islands with a heavy Greek population. As such, the high school carries the significance of being the first Greek secular pedagogical institution, and nearly sixty students still attend the school today where instruction is in both Turkish and Greek. Tour Only, Balat Mh., Fatih
Another fairy-tale-like sight is the lush golden imprints of the basilica’s chancel belonging to the Rum Ortodoks Patrikhanesi (Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople). This was once the center of the entire Orthodox Church, with the Patriarch of Constantinople dominating the affairs of the Eastern Christian world. However, the walk toward the structure begins rather ominously with the infamous black and welded shut gate called the ‘Orta Kapı’ (middle door) where Gregory V, Patriarch of Constantinople, was hanged for treason in 1821. Open to Public between 8:30am-4:30pm, Fener- Haliç; P: (0212) 531 9670
A similarly mesmerizing vision is the antique door inside the Armenian Surp Reşdagabat (Holy Archangels).The door was uncovered in 1742 during excavations and fashioned to fit into the doorway where it now stands in a kind of heavy iron clad yet silent glory. Carved with the most intricate designs are scenes such as Jesus’ whipping of the money-changers and Saint George’s killing of the dragon. Tour Only, Balat Mh., Fatih
The last spectacle on our journey is the Blachernae Ayazma (Holy Spring of Blachernae), which was believed to have miraculous healing powers and was, therefore, one of the most popular in the city. Set on two marble posts, the holy spring’s keystone has the engraving of a two-headed eagle as well as a relief of Virgin Mary whose original was broken in the 1960s and replaced by a replica. Open to Public between 10am-3:30pm, Mustafa Paşa Bostanı Sokak, Ayvansaray Mh., Fatih,
For all of those reasons and more, Balat is a paradise for photographers who wander among history to capture the intricacies of a time past. However, the present does not fall short on capturing the thorough interest (and appetite) of Balat explorers. In terms of food, simplicity is emphasized, just like the laughter of children playing soccer in the streets echoing upward and out.
Café Vodina, located in the Balat Culture House, is the kind of old wood paneled abode with a winding staircase that instigates an architectural shame among the city’s numerous box-like apartment structures. It has a garden, where flowerpots in the shape of women’s hats decorate the walls, and the food arrives with the ingredients of love and generations of family recipe perfectionism. The mantı can be described as pillows of thin dough that hold the perfect portion of soft beef filling and a sauce of yoghurt and fresh tomato that lingers with every bite. Also highly recommended is the special yaprak sarması, with a meat, bulgur, and rice filling inside of tightly wrapped vine leaves, topped with yoghurt.
Çanak offers an updated version of the simple kuru fasulye pilav (rice and beans). Here, the tenderness of the beans in sauce and the buttery taste of the rice harmonize with the slightly sweet yoghurt brought from Adapazarı. For meat lovers, the burger-patty sized köfte with herbs and spices is the option to go for, grilled to a tender juiciness with a plate of turşu (pickled vegetables) to add a bit of saltiness to the overall taste. Another worthy endeavor of sustenance can be found at Fındık Kabuğunda Köfte, which literally translates to ‘Köfte in a Hazelnut Shell.’ Even though the meatballs are not directly served in a shell as presumed by the name, they are grilled over a burning mass of organic hazelnut shell coals, for a product whose texture is more rough than but equally delicious as the traditional köfte.
Those feasting on the homemade dishes in Balat naturally wonder about the origins of the fresh ingredients. This leads us to Kastamonu Pazarı (Kastamonu Open Market) that is set up every Sunday from 7am to about 11am on Mahkemealtı Caddesi. Apart from the standard organic fruits, vegetables, and dairy varieties; the small market is famous for fresh garlic, or ‘beyaz altın’ (white gold) as it is called as well as organic pembe domates (pink tomato), the lighter and juicier version of the regular tomato. On one of the less than dozen stands at the market, you’ll also find displays of berry varieties, such as kızılcık (cranberry), which is also present in a special kind of ready-made tarhana soup (yoghurt-based soup).
Apart from the history and the local food, another cause of attraction is to be found in the form of an increased opportunity to do business. The business we speak of are the small boutiques and ateliers that are present in the area, where the handmade have a chance to flourish. The first among these is Minush, a boutique that sells handmade products that are 100% natural, and acts as a harbinger for what this neighborhood will continue to become. Created in 2009 by graphic and packaging designer Mine Atalar, the small shop displays unique handmade pillows, handbags, ceramics, and shoes made of genuine leather. Designs are derived straight from Atalar’s imagination and sketchbooks, where pudgy little birds, lush raspberries, shiny hearts, and scoops of ice cream float about.
Housed in a historic building that was renovated by the municipality in 2005 to be used as an art space, Camhane is like a little mansion by the sea where artistry is poured into phantasmic glass surfaces. Behind the exhibition of glass art is the overtly amiable Yasemin Aslan Bakiri who has been producing beautiful designs for the last twenty-five years. In the two main spaces located on the top floor of the two buildings that overlook a courtyard, glistening glass rainbows are captured like an unblinking eye in the center of Bakiri’s pieces. Kaftans made entirely of glass with cross sections of varying textures and colors or a delicate mass of colorful glass swirls are all included in the display. Workshops are also available in the atelier on the ground floor for those who will inevitably find inspiration in Bakiri’s beautiful work.
Getting lost in conversation with Bakiri in her office, where an original stove awaits the winter months to return to function, the feeling returns: That here, a few miles away from the sometimes chaotic center of our metropolitan city, the balance of coexistence between the past and a sort of homemade, human, natural, and most of all genuine present, continues taking deep breaths, undisturbed.