FENER BALAT TOUR
Fener-Balat: The Heartbeat of Istanbul
Istanbul is a city of many famous landmarks. Most people come to see sites such as the Grand Bazaar, Sultanahmet and Hagia Sophia. But, there is more in Istanbul than these fascinating but obvious and jam-packed tourist magnets.
If you want a richer, deeper, and more unique experience of the character, authenticity and traditions of this multi-civilizational city, then a guided walking tour of the Fener and Balat areas in the old city is for you. You will see churches, synagogues and mosques side by side and see impressive sights of religious co-existence dating back centuries ago.
One of our several qualified and licenced English speaking tour guides, Cem Balsun, was born and raised in this area of Istanbul and can guide you, as part of a customised tour suited to your wants and needs, through the subtle magic of the narrow, steep and winding streets, detailing their history and present day significance whilst sharing his personal insight.
Putting The Mosaic of Istanbul Together
Embedded within Turkey’s historical culture is a philosophy that life is best appreciated and enjoyed through trusted guidance. This can be seen in the guilds set up during the Ottoman era, known as esnafs, which provided mentoring for practitioners of different trades and crafts. It is more famously evidenced in Turkey’s most popular luminary, the poet Rumi, who himself was taught by a master (hoca in Turkish) and then went on to teach the art of fulfilled living to his own students.
As the Fener and Balat areas are in many ways microcosms of Istanbul, a guided tour will give you a complete and well-structured narrative, bringing together the vast and diverse pieces of this mosaic-like city for you to remember and share with others.
If you are someone with an appetite for the authentic and wondrous but inconspicuous, this tour will open your eyes to new perspectives that will continue to enrich your daily life after returning home.
Read on to find out why as we describe the different sites of the tour.
Disclaimer: The route and sites of the tour can be tailored to individual or group needs; below is the general itinerary. The general length is 2km and can take approximately 8 hours, with breaks included.
Engage Your Senses, Travel Through Time
We start the tour in Edirnekapi, an area built on one of the highest hills within Istanbul’s old, walled city. This is where the last of the Byzantine soldiers surrendered to the Ottoman army; where one age ended and a new civilization began.
As you walk along the narrow roads you will see the sandy brown and fiery red remains of the Theodosian walls built in the 5th century CE, penetrated in 1453 by the Ottomans and where the world of the east merged with the west, as it continues to do so today.
The rampart consisted of three layers. Between the first two layers was a 20 metre wide ditch. Between the second was a terrace and this tour will take you along the third, innermost layer which today is largely residential.
Though the most strategic parts of the Theodosian walls were destroyed centuries ago, in many ways Istanbul is still a city of layers. Fener and Balat lie at the core. Walking from Edirnekapi towards the Chora Museum, you will see, in the distance, parts of the other layers. You will see the skyscrapers of Levent, the upmarket, modern financial district, where the wealthy work, invest and dwell.
As we stop at Tekfur Palace Museum, you’ll be able to see Halic bridge, taking ordinary people in buses, cars and taxis back and forth from work, school and university, up against the stresses and pressures of daily life known to all of us wherever we may be from.
The most common sounds you will here in most parts of Istanbul are tooting car horns, revving engines, traffic police shouting through loudspeakers and the high-pitched three note melody that rings every time passengers press their public transport passes on electronic card readers.
However, on the cobbled streets of Edirnekapi you will see, hear and feel something different. You are more likely to hear water being splashed on to the road, as buckets of hand washed clothes are emptied, and -in the summer- hear kerbside fruit merchants slicing gigantic watermelons. You’ll see old women in colourfully patterned sarong-like trousers and loose flowing headscarves with young children going in and out of decaying huts they call homes, reminiscent of shanty towns. Though in commercial parts of the city you may feel there are more familiar sights and sounds to comfort you (regular clothing, international coffee brands, more English or Spanish speakers), here you will be surprised at how warm and contented the genuine happiness- the almost care-free nature- of the traditional living residents, makes you feel; though not a single word may be communicated between you.
The Romance Continues
Next, we’ll visit Mihrimah Sultan Mosque. There are two mosques with this name in Istanbul. The other is across the Bosphorus, in Uskudar. Both were designed by chief Ottoman architect Mimar Sinan during the mid to late 16th century. This is a crucial site which captures the creativity, romance and artful expression that enriches Istanbul.
The mosques are named after the daughter of Sultan Suleyman, Princess Mihrimah, whose name means sun and moon in Persian. It is believed Sinan fell in love with the young woman and was unable to express this love directly. Instead, he poured his affection into designing these mosques where, on the 21st of March and September each year, the equinox, (also the date of Mihrimah’s birthday) the sun can be seen setting between the minarets of the Uskudar mosque as the moon rises between those in Edirnekapi.
Perhaps you have an unrequited love of your own (we were all teenagers once) which makes a visit to this mosque even more meaningful for you.
This museum symbolises the beauty of Istanbul in many ways. Hidden at the bottom of an inconspicuous street consisting of traditional, colourful wooden buildings, it is only for those who truly want to discover the diversity and authenticity of this colourful capital of previous world leading empires. It was originally the Church of the Holy Saviour, built under Justinian’s rule (527-565).
In 1511 the Ottomans converted it to a mosque. After the Ottoman empire gave way to the Turkish republic the building was turned into a museum.
It houses stunning mosaics and frescoes depicting the biblical narrative of Jesus’ birth. As you walk around this building you will get a sense of the bedrock of transition that Istanbul is.
Home Sweet Home
Next we go to a residential area, Egrikapi. This is where our tour guide was born and raised and he will share insight into how the place has changed over the years, perhaps introducing you to some childhood friends who may be passing by.
You’ll feel you’ve entered a village within a village: an inner layer of a metropolis maze and you may find that you discover, by looking at and feeling what is going on around you, a connection to a deeper part of your inner self. In these streets you can smell the scent of the washing powder from people’s clothes hung outside to dry and the cooking of traditional Turkish meals wafting from kitchens. Present in the aroma is the familial love that goes into the cooking. In the homes here, there is pride, passion and honour associated with cooking for your family. You, as a tourist, may be abroad on holiday but don’t be surprised if you feel right at home.
Most of the streets in this area are cobbled, built centuries ago by Albanian stonemasons. However, the street in which Tourever’s tour guide Cem grew up was converted to asphalt when he was a child and an increasing number of other streets are currently undergoing this change.
This, Cem says, is a symbol of how the city, and life in general, is changing.
“The whole city was once covered in this type of stone. In Turkish it is called Arnavut Kaldirimi. If you are someone who grew up on cobblestones you can recall memories whenever you put your feet on them. When you walk on asphalt you feel nothing. If you are a child growing up on this flat surface you won’t feel your feet on the ground. When we were kids we had a connection with cobbles, they spoke to us. I was very sad when they resurfaced the road even though on asphalt it became easier for us to play soccer”.
Though gentrification is slowly morphing the area you will still see glimpses of traditional communal living in the backstreets. You will see clothes lines hung between flats across the street as neighbours share space for drying clothes. Neighbouring families (not just individuals) will be seen sitting and eating together on kerbs as children run around them.
Even in the gentrification you will see echoes of authentic architecture reflecting the lifestyle of the past. Some of the modern apartments contain the cumba– a protruding upper storey with an enclosed balcony. These were designed to give the women of the house greater privacy from passers by who may peer in. Today, their purpose is mostly aesthetic.
As the tour continues along the shore of the remarkable Golden Horn we’ll pass the Anemas Dungeon atop a windy narrow cobbled street. This was built in Byzantine times to imprison those attempting to revolt.
This building, protected by an outer wall, is discreet and easily missed by unguided tourists and even locals. This Greek Orthodox church is hugely important to the followers of this denomination of Christianity. Its current form was constructed in 1867 but the site has housed previous buildings of Christian worship. It holds significance for being the only church in the world to celebrate Mass on Fridays. This being, because in 626 Constantinople was sieged by the Avars, an ethnic group belonging to modern day Dagestan. The city was destroyed except for the church located there at the time. The siege ended on a Friday and since then this has been marked their day of mass.
That spirit of protection and honourable survival lives on in the area and is very much a part of the Turkish, indeed the human character, regardless of race, religion or nationality. It is clearly seen in this area where, when you come here, you will see with your own eyes the hard-working and humble labourers working hard to provide for their families, amongst a backdrop of economic transformation that has moved some people out of the area their families have known as home for generations.
As we cross into the area of Balat you will notice a change as the area is more commercial than the likes of Egrikapi. Here you will find traditional, aesthetically plain Turkish teahouses known as kahvehane (where old men gather to share their troubles); traditional bakers, barbers and Turkish street food shops selling kokorec: sheep’s intestines.
The name is derived from the old Greek word for palace- palateon. This area was home to large Greek Orthodox and Jewish communities in the late Byzantine and early Ottoman periods. Today their numbers have dwindled but you will see active synagogues and churches alongside mosques. The tour encompasses the Ahrida Synagogue, Bulgarian St Stephen Church, Phanar Greek Orthodox College and St George’s Cathedral.
A World of Colour
One of the most photographed streets in Istanbul is that which houses the Fener Mansions. Here you will see houses painted a variety of colours including green, pink and blue. It is often used as a backdrop for wedding, fashion and film shoots.
These houses, known today in English as the Fener Mansions, were owned by wealthy Greek families of the Byzantine era. After the Ottoman siege, Sultan Mehmet II was impressed by their resilience and commitment to protecting their city against his army. He rewarded them with jobs in the palace as translators and diplomats.
A City of Contrast
As the tour goes deeper into Fener, another change in the environment emerges. You’ll be surrounded by modern cafes and shops with an international feel, fading out the village like atmosphere of the earlier part of the tour. Some of the shop signs will be in English and you’ll hear a wide variety of music playing from them, from contemporary Turkish pop, to classic American jazz. The streets are so narrow here that the music can be heard bouncing off the walls of buildings on the other side, making you feel you are at some sort of festival.
As we head towards the other landmarks mentioned above, in this area, such as St George’s Cathedral, we get closer to the Golden Horn and busy main roads, bringing back that familiar sound of Istanbul: traffic. As you pass the walls of impressive graffiti, on a street commonly used by local film production companies, you’ll be reminded you are in a mega metropolis of about 16 million people. This, again, is the magic of Istanbul- a city of contrasts.
If you simply visit the more popular touristic areas of Istanbul, from Taksim to Sultanahmet, you may think it is a city of chaos, contradictions and confusion. But if you come with us on a journey to Fener and Balat, you will see it is a city that reveals much about human history and where we are heading in the future. As this tour will clearly show you, Istanbul is the city of change.
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