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BALAT

balat1On the southern shore of the Golden Horn, Balat was once the heart of Jewish İstanbul and is home to the Ahrida Synagogue, the most beautiful of İstanbul's surviving synagogues. Always poorer than neighbouring Fener, it is full of small terraced houses, some of them newly restored with money from a joint UNESCO-EU project.

As in Fener the inland side of the coast road is still partially followed by pieces of the old Sea Walls that used to keep enemies out of the Golden Horn suburbs.

This is an area with many Byzantine, Jewish and Ottoman monuments that are relatively little known or visited.

Recently Balat has become extremely popular with film crews including the one that shot Skyfall, the latest James Bond blockbuster.

bala2Tossing the bridal bouquet on Stepped StreetAround Balat

A stroll along Vodina Caddesi inside the Walls will take you past many of Balat's sights and bring you eventually to its lively and inviting small market.

Soon you will come to Merdivenli Mektep Sokağı (Stepped Street) which heads uphill inland. At the foot of the steps is the house where the historian Dimitri Cantemir (1673-1723) lived for 20 years.

Exiled to İstanbul as a teenager from his Moldavian homeland, Cantemir was a Greek philosopher and historian who wrote a History of the Growth and Decay of the Ottoman Empire, which remains an important source of information for the years 1688 to 1710. He also translated the Koran into Greek and wrote a treatise on Ottoman music. As the Prince of Moldavia, Cantemir fought alongside Peter the Great of Russia against the Ottomans. Following their defeat in 1711, he ended his life in Moscow. Despite EU-funded restoration there's no sign of the house ever actually be opening.

marymongolIf you continue up the steps and turn right at the top you will come to the Byzantine Church of Panagia Muhlitotissa, more commonly known as St Mary of the Mongols. This is the only Byzantine church in the city to have stayed in Greek hands throughout the ages and to retain its original shape - not that this is particularly obvious from the outside which has been subjected to somewhat insensitive restoration that makes it look less Byzantine than many of the churches that were turned into mosques. You can see inside it on Sundays.

An old schoolhouse and yemekhane (canteen) still survive nearby. 

bala4There are great views of the redbrick Fener High School for Boys from near St Mary of the Mongols. Afterwards if you return to Vodina Caddesi and continue eastwards you will pass a walled compound behind which stand the remains of two churches: Hagios Giorgios (St George) and Panagia Paramithas (St Mary the Comforter), also known as the Vlach Saray (Wallachian Palace) because it seems to have belonged to the Cantacuzenos family who regularly served as governors of Wallachia. 

On the waterside of the Walls you will find a string of battered brick mansions with, behind them, the appallingly restored Church of Hagios Ioaanis Prodromos (St John the Baptist) built in 1830 on a site that had probably been occupied by a church since the 14th century and that was part of a metochion (embassy church) associated with the monastic church of St Catherine's in Sinai, Egypt.

Two of the battered buildings were once a library and guesthouse belonging to the church while the one facing the main road was the private mansion of a 17th-century politician named Panagotaki Nikosi. metochionMetochion buildings

As Vodina Caddesi finally reaches the Balat market an unexpected Sinan mosque crops up. The simple Ferruh Kethüda Cami was built in 1562 and used to provide a backdrop for meetings of one of İstanbul's four religious courts. Sadly, its portico has been glassed-in with little regard for the original architectural concept.

yanbolEntrance to Yanbol SynagogueAs you walk through the market look out for the locked gate of the Yanbol Synagogue built in 1895 for a Bulgarian congregation. 

Far more impressive is the Ahrida Synagogue, whose congregation arrived in the city from Ohrid in Macedonia in the 15th century. The current building dates back to 1694 and features a dome that could not be seen from outside as well as a wooden bema (pulpit) possibly designed to evoke Noah's Ark. To visit it you need advance permission from the Rabbinate in Galata. You are unlikely to recieve a warm reception.

Not far away in Kamış Caddesi is the much larger and more conspicuous Armenian Church of Surp Hreşdagabed (the Archangels), built in 1835 on the site of a Greek Orthodox church going back to the 13th century but that was given to the Armenians in 1627. It stands on the site of an ayazma (sacred spring) dedicated to St Anthony. 

Normally kept locked, it is known for feast days attended by both Christians and Muslims in search of miracles that are characterized by animal sacrifices. The warehouse adjoining it was originally a schoolhouse attached to the church.

Back on the waterfront you will come to an area where more of the old Sea Wall has survived. A modern memorial commemorates the start of the siege of the city in 1453. In solitary spendour on the water side of the road stands the stately Or-Ahayim Jewish Hospital designed by Gabriel Tedesçi in 1899.

If you walk back behind the wall you will come to the 18th-century Greek Orthodox Church of Hagios Demetrios Kanabu and then to the 19th-century Church of Panagia Balinu. Neither is of any great architectural significance.bala5Schoolhouse of St Mary of the Mongols used to exhibit sculpture by Kalliopi Lemos during Biennale

Transport info

Frequent buses from Eminönü and Taksim run along the Golden Horn coast road, passing through Balat.

The Balat pier for the Golden Horn ferry has been out of action for some time.

Nearby areas

Ayvansaray

Çarşamba

Cibali

Fatih

Fener

bala1Interior of St Mary of the Mongols

 

 

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