Ömer Koç is the second son of Rahmi Koç and current president of Koç Holdings, the only Turkish company on the Fortune 500 list. In November of 1992 at the age of 30 Koç, who majored in Ancient Greek, had some amazing advice for Istanbul explorers itching to get off the beaten path.
By Ömer Koç, 1992
I have not much advice to give to the voracious sightseer. There are a thousand and one guide books for those determined to see as many monuments as possible. But people miss so much in their frenetic eagerness to see “monuments.” Seeing is not feeling.
My advice to the leisurely traveler who has more than 48 hours to spend in Istanbul would be to roam the streets. There is no better way of getting a feel for a city. The first time I went to Venice, I spent a month simply strolling along its labyrinthine streets—with frequent stops at cafes and an occasional peep at whichever building presented itself along the way. On the last day I visited the Basilica and the Doge’s Palace to set my mind at rest.
This disdain for the more obvious monuments and sights should not be mistaken as a misplaced and ridiculous snobbery. If the aim is to enter into the spirit of the place, to sympathize with it, strolling in the streets of Istanbul ensures this goal more than a mere visit to Hagia Sophia or the Blue Mosque.
The quarters of Fener and Balat along the shore of the upper Golden Horn are rarely visited by tourists. Yet it is one of the few remaining areas of the city which still retain an aura of old Istanbul. Being a poorer part of the city, not having “monuments of the first order” and no panoramic view has left it unfrequented.
Travelers will sigh with relief at the lack of crudely restored and garishly painted houses converted into hotels, pensions, or tourist shops. You can take an evocative walk along the remaining stretches of sea-walls that formed part of the formidable fortifications of Byzantium. A few streets behind the Aya Kapı, the Holy Gate, one of the many gates that pierced the walls along the Golden Horn, you come across Gül Camii, one of the impressive Byzantine churches in the city, identified by some as the church of St. Theodosia.
Just behind it is one of the oldest and most imposing Turkish baths, Küçük Mustafa Paşa Hamamı, built during the latter years of the reign of Beyazit II. Further towards the land walls is the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate in Sadrazam Ali Paşa Street. The gate of the existing church, a small basilica built only in 1720, is the site where the Patriarch Gregory V was hanged for treason in 1821.
The quarter of Fener received its name from a nearby lighthouse, no longer standing, and is synonymous with the Greek families that rose to prominence in the late 17th and 18th centuries. Also in the district of Fener is a rose-colored church, the church of St. Mary of the Mongols, named after an illegitimate daughter of the Emperor Michael VIII Palaeologus. As you leave the church, you cannot help but notice an imposing red brick building – the Greek Lycee of Fener. Although the building dates only from 1881, it houses the oldest continuous Greek school of secular education. The building itself is one of the most curious in the city. The unconfirmed rumour has it that it was modeled from some palace castle in southern Germany.
Another building more odd looking than beautiful in this quarter is the church of St. Stephen of the Bulgars, built in 1871 to mark the independence of the Bulgarian Church from the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate. According to Strolling Through Istanbul (still the most concise, amusing and informative guide book on the city), the entire church was prefabricated in Vienna and sent via the Danube to be erected here.
The Metochion of Mount Sinai very near the Bulgarian church is one of the few surviving ancient mansions with which Fener used to be dotted. It was built in the 17th century and was the residence of the representative of the Monastery of St. Catherine on Mount Sinai from 1686 until 1967, when it was confiscated by the government.
After Fener comes the picturesque former Jewish quarter of Balat with its half a dozen synagogues dating from the last century. Of more interest, however, in this part of the city are the mosques of Ferruh Kethüda, Atik Mustafa Paşa, Ivaz Efendi, and the ruined towers and vestiges of the famous Palace of Blachernae, the principal residence of Byzantine emperors from 1261 until the fall of the city in 1453.
For lunch, I would cross the Golden Horn and go to Liman Lokantası in Karaköy [no longer open]. I prefer it to the more obvious Pandelli, as it is less crowded, more spacious and, above all, enjoys a splendid view of the Seraglio Point, Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque, when not partially blocked by mammoth Russian ferry boats. With its unpretentious and rather shabby decor reminiscent of the 1950s, and its delicious rice with aubergines cooked in olive oil, Liman is my favorite restaurant for lunch.
For bibliophiles, a visit to Yüksek Kaldırım between Pera and Galata is to be recommended. There is Librairie de Pera in Yüksek Kaldırım on Galip Dede Street, and Levent Bookshop [now Kırmızıkedi Kitabevi] opposite the underground funicular railway, both in Tünel. Don’t expect to find very rare books, But for the compulsive collector whose motto is not to leave any shop without something, there is plenty of choice.
For the afternoon, I would travel to Salacak, my favorite quarter on the Asian side, 700-800 meters from Uskudar, toward Harem. Just after the point where the Bosphorus flows into the Marmara, opposite the Seraglio, the view is sublimely beautiful. The streets in Salacak are no longer crowded with as many old wooden houses as they used to be, but you can always relax for tea in on the of the coffee house-cum-bars, just below Salacak, where the view is almost as good.