I saw them from the above, a rare treat for a city like Istanbul, where landings seldom come from the north: huddled close together, squashed between the Golden Horn and the minarets of Ottoman mosques, were the houses and streets of Fener and Balat, my destination.
Click on the photos to enlarge.
It’s been a while since I realised my incurable love for anything decadent or marginal. You know, the stuff that lies in the shadows cast by anything more palatable (Freud, I’m sure, would go berserk to explain it). This particular inclination of my psyche also applies to cities: over the years, in facts, I’ve found myself favouring Naples over Rome, Marseilles over Nice, Sarajevo over Dublin, Genoa over Zurich, Tbilisi over Stockholm. Or, if we talk about Istanbul districts, Fener/Balat – which my mind disrespectfully coagulates in Felat – over Sultanahmet or Galata.
Let’s be honest about it; I’m guilty. I’ve strolled past them many times, and I’ve always ignored them. Whenever I looked left from the Süleymaniye mosque, or from Eminönü, I never considered them. Fener and Balat were a nondescript mass of houses, a silent scenography useful to make the Fatih mosque look more dramatic in my pictures taken from the vapur to Eyüp. The thought that people actually lived there, that there was something worth seeing, hardly ever crossed my mind. But slowly, through readings and time, things changed.
Fener and Balat, Balat and Fener. A clot of houses staggering uphill, huddled so close to one another that you’d expect them to tumble down, were you to demolish one on the waterfront. After the fall of Constantinople, this is where most of the losers – Greeks, Bulgars – ended up living, relocating their Patriarchates and mixing with the other odd ones out, the Jews (who, truth be told, had it better than in Europe).
After my approach from the air, I elect to arrive by sea. The vapur drops me at Ayvansaray, having skipped mooring at Fener proper. Between me and the daedalus of streets that makes up the borough lie the automatic sprinklers of the riverside park, a fraction of that green ribbon that is now embellishing the south bank of the Golden Horn, from the bus depot at Eminönü to Eyüp, where the new sultan used to be girded with Osman Gazi’s sword. Arguably, this is one of the symptoms of gentrification that sends a few Istanbulite bloggers up in arms, even though if what’s happening in London’s Brixton or East End is anything to go by, they needn’t worry. Gentrification is a million miles away from this corner of Istanbul.
The first few streets I encounter confirm my inkling. Commerce is thriving, and there is a constant hubbub of activity made of scooters, dented cars and carts, all whilst men sit outside their shops, çay at the ready, and cats slip silently along the walls. But turn a corner, and here they are, before your eyes: the hollowed shell of a tenement, the charred remains of a once-elegant wooden mansion, the gaping hole of a demolished house.
I’ve seen it happen before, in Tbilisi and elsewhere. A borough is emptied of a community that made it thriving, through violence or emigration, and the hole they left behind can’t be filled soon enough, or those seeping in don’t have the means to keep the place as it was before.
Fener and Balat used to be the Greek and Jewish quarters of Constantinople and Istanbul. The establishment of Israel attracted the latter; population redistributions and pogroms contributed to the dwindling of the former. The imprint of these ancient dwellers is still visible, under the form of shops and cafes still adorned with writings in Greek or Yiddish, or buildings sporting rather incongruous Doric columns and tympanums.
I stop in a bakery for a fresh simit, which is delightful, and a sponge-like loaf of bread, which isn’t. Clutching my plastic bag I start ascending a steep flight of stairs, accompanied by the flapping of laundry hanging out to dry on a line strewn from building to building. Above me, another Turkish Airlines widebody rumbles towards Atatürk airport.
At the end of the staircase the incline gives way to a gentler altiplano of sorts, with villas enriched by a beautiful view over Galata and the Bosphorus and chairs left on the streets for pensioners to sit on and watch the world go by. I walk past a Koranic school at the end of the lessons, with kids erupting out of the main gate under the eyes of their teachers, clerics wearing the robes that Sultan Mahmut II prohibited to the layman some 200 years ago.
Proceeding erratically, moving from alley to alley as I fancy, I find myself in the shadow of the imposing Phanar Greek Orthodox College, a behemoth of red stone – half castle, half Moorish palace and wholly out of place – looming over the surrounding streets like a granitic Polyphemus. Hiding in its orbit, hidden away behind an ancient wall and the detritus of old buildings now slowly turning to rubble, is a small church. Above its only door, guarded by a Turkish flag and the omnipresent stray cats, is a simple sign. Meryem Ana Rum Ortodoks Kilisesi. A look around the corner to its bulging apse confirms that, yes, this is the church I know as Saint Mary of the Mongols, the Greeks as Theotokos Panaghiótissa and the Turks as Kanlı Kilise. Saint Mary of the Mongols, first established in the 7th century AD as a nunnery, rebuilt in 1281 by Maria Palaiologina and always consecrated to the Orthodox faith.
I am conscious of painting quite an odd figure, a tourist in an area where visitors don’t bother coming, shoulders turned against the most eye-catching building in the neighbourhood, stuck gazing at a rust-red wall; but this church is, for me, the epicentre and epitome of Fener. Something you wouldn’t grace with a second glance, but bursting with history and peculiarity. Who, looking at it, would have guessed that its alleged restorer, Maria Palaiologina, was married to the Mongol khan Abaqa, descendent of Genghis Khan? And who would’ve guessed that the Turkish name – Bloody Church – derived from the desperate, ferocious last stand that the doomed Byzantines opposed to the invading Ottomans, on this hill, in May 1453? The road I ascended, coming here, was still named after an Ottoman standard bearer who fell in the peak of the battle. Inside those closed door, I knew, were two firman, or decrees, of Mehmet II and his successor Bayazid, which granted the church to the Greeks out of respect for their sacrifice.
I stand thinking all this, clutching my plastic bread bag, when I spot her. A little girl, not older than 10, dressed in an old-fashioned fleece track suit, her hair arranged in a ponytail, with a mischievous smile and a broken windscreen wiper as her only toy. She smirks at me, and we wave at each other. She starts speaking in a halting Turkish and then, realising that I don’t have a clue, reverts to another idiom, with the breathed consonants that I usually associate to Arabic. When even that doesn’t work, she points interrogatively at my plastic bag.
Khoubz. Out of the recesses of my mind, one of the four Arabic words I know, the one for bread, bubbles to the surface. I say it and, surprisingly given my atrocious pronunciation, hit jackpot. She looks at me, and smiles: I open the bag and show her the booty, secretly hoping she’ll go for the spongy loaf. Obviously, her tiny hands go for the simit, leaving me with the sponge.