The neighborhood of Samatya, located just a few train stops away from the central tourist areas of Sultanahmet and Eminönü, is one of Istanbul’s forgotten treasures. Although it has been through some changes due to a renovation project led by The Tourist Research Association (TURAD) to put this authentic Istanbul neighborhood back on the map, the neighborhood is known for its interesting and long history.
The first village at this site was established over 3000 years ago and the area has been continually inhabited since then, making it older than the city of Istanbul itself. The name comes from the Greek “Psamathion,” meaning sandy – a moniker that pays homage to the beaches that once lined its shore.
Churches, Mosques, and Monasteries
Under Emperor Theodosius I (379-395 AD) Samatya became an important center for churches and monasteries. In the 5th century the monastery of St John of Studius was built. This complex was home to over 1000 monks at its peak and during the 9th century it was the most powerful and influential monastery in the Byzantine Empire. Shortly after celebrating its millennium, the church was converted to a mosque by İlyas Bey, the Sultan’s Stable Master (or imrahor in Turkish). The mosque came to be known as the İmrahor Mosque and was in use until 1894 when it was destroyed by an earthquake. Today, the remaining walls of the Church of St John make it the oldest surviving church structure in the city.
Another church that underwent a change in faith is St Andrew of Krisei, which was built on the foundations of an earlier church from the 6th century. In 1491, St Andrew of Krisei was converted to a mosque by Koca Mustafa Paşa, an Ottoman Grand Vizier. Koca Mustafa Paşa Mosque is still in use and it is a popular shrine. The tombs of the dervish leader Sümbül Efendi and his daughter Rahine are both here and attract crowds of people who come to pray to them for help. Rahine is especially known to provide help for unmarried women who are looking for husbands.
Surp Kevork Armenian Church (known as Sulu Manastır in Turkish) is probably the area’s most important church. Originally built by Byzantine Emperor Romanos III around 1030 AD, it later became a Greek orthodox church, and was later handed over to the Armenian community by the Sultan. This church was the seat of the Armenian Patriarchy of Istanbul from 1461 to 1644 (when the patriarchy moved to Kumkapı). The church is still in use today, although much of the original structure had to be rebuilt after a disastrous fire in 1782, which destroyed much of Samatya.
After the Ottomans took control of the city, they began to add mosques to this area, either converting churches or building new structures. The Empire’s most famous architect Sinan is responsible for both the Abdi Çelebi Mosque and Ramazan Efendi Mosque. The latter is notable not only for the beautiful İznik faience that adorns it, but also because it was the last mosque that Sinan built. The Agha Public Bath in Samatya is also one of Sinan’s constructions.
The Armenian District
Beginning in 1458, Fatih Sultan Mehmet began settling Armenians in Samatya. These immigrants were brought primarily from Karaman as part of the Sultan’s policy of bringing master craftsmen, artisans, and scholars to his new capital. He also brought the Armenian religious leader Episcopos Havagim from Bursa, giving him Surp Kevork Church from which to lead his followers. (Later sultans continued this trend and also settled non-Muslims in this area. So, while it may sometimes be referred to as the Armenian District, other Christians and Jews also played a significant role in the neighborhood’s history.)
One of the most famous Armenian craftsmen of the area was named Avedis. Legend has it that he was an alchemist who, while looking for the formula for gold, discovered a metal alloy that had very unique sound qualities. (Some stories also refer to him as being an apprentice bell maker when he discovered the formula, which is probably more likely.) He discovered that this new alloy could also be shaped easily without breaking. He created huge cymbals that produced amazing sounds from the alloy. His fame spread and soon the Sultan heard about him and called him to the palace. He wanted Avedis to create cymbals to be used by his military band as weapons of sound, emulating the clash of swords and shields, and announcing the power and strength of the Ottoman army. As a reward for his fine work, the Sultan gave him the surname Zilciyan, which means bell maker, and permission to leave the palace and start his own business. In 1623, the Zilciyan Cymbal Company was formed in Samatya.
Over the centuries the secret formula was handed down from father to son. Their handmade cymbals became popular all over the world and have been used by everyone from European orchestras to American rock stars. In the 1930s the foundry was moved out of Samatya after residents complained about the noise produced by the constant hammering. In 1977, the company finally closed down. However, some friends of the Zilciyan family who knew the secret formula decided that they wanted to carry on the art and tradition of cymbal making and opened their own companies. Today Istanbul is the only city in the world where handmade cymbals are still produced.