This is the neighborhood where Safarad Jews, expelled from Spain, settled in the 15th century. Much of the Jewish population have since moved elswhere in the country or emigrated to Israil over the last 50 or so years. Nevertheless, a walk through the narrow streets of this timeworn neighborhood is very likely to take you to a different era in history.
You may want to start your tour at the The Chora Church which is currently serving as a museum where visitors are dazzled by the most beautiful surviving icons of Byzantine Art and Architecture. The word ‘chora’ (khôra) means ‘in the country’ in Greek. This probably is an indication that the church was built outside the city proper. The building and its mosaic frescoes have been preserved better than many other Byzantine architectural works in the world.
The stories behind the frescoes are fascinating. My favorite is the one about how suitors of Mary the Blessed Virgin had to leave their walking sticks at the altar. The one whose cane would generate a bud and then a twig would gain the right to marry the Virgin. Joseph turned out to be the lucky man. You see, the visit to the museum becomes immensely more interesting if you do a little reading beforehand.
It is interesting to note that the museum is located in one of the most conservative neighborhoods in Istanbul. As one steps out of the building into the surrounding area he/she can not help but feel the jolt of the transition from one milieu into an entirely different one.
Many visitors of the Balat district include a stop at the Phanar Greek Orthodox College.
After five hundred sixty some years the Turks took over the city, the Greeks insist on calling the Patriachate as theThe Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople. It is one of the fourteen autocephalous churches (or “jurisdictions”) that together compose the Eastern Orthodox Church. Because of its historical location at the capital of the former Eastern Roman (Byzantine) Empire and its role as the Mother Church of most modern Orthodox churches, the Ecumenical Patriarchate holds a special place of honor within Orthodoxy and serves as the seat for the Ecumenical Patriarch, who enjoys the status of ‘Primus Inter Pares (first among equals)’ among the world’s Eastern Orthodox prelates and is widely regarded as the representative and spiritual leader of the world’s 300 million Orthodox Christians.
A popular stop incorporated into a tour of the area is a lunch break at the Asithane Restaurant. This establishment is known for food prepared in the same manner it was common in the Ottoman era. An example would be the chestnut soup recipe of which dates back to 1653. If you do not want to fill yourself with a full meal, you may opt for a traditional light pudding, the Su Muhallebisi, which is made with milk and starch and sweetened with confectioner’s sugar and rose-water and sprinkled with pomegranate seeds and pine nuts.
Once a tasty lunch is under your belt you may continue your tour of the Balat district by checking out the Çifit Çarsisi. This is basically a street lined with small shops. It is the type of shopping area that is referred to as the ‘cheap market’ in many cities around the world. The Çifit Çarsisi in Istanbul is the earliest Jewish quarter in the city. Unlike the traditional market streets of the past which were mostly populated by shops run by Muslims, where all the shops were engaged in the same type of trade, like the wool-fluffers, the silversmiths or the knitters, the shops on this street carried many different types of merchandise. Regrettably, the area has long lost its original state. Many of the shops are not occupied any more. However, there are still many tiny shops like those of yesteryears.
There are numerous points of interest in the Balat district. The Kucuk Mustafa Pasha Turkish Bath, Ayios Strati Orthodox Church, Surp Hresdegabet Church, Ferruh Kathuda Mosque and the all metal Bulgarian Orthodox Church are some of the few to mention. You will probably need more than one day in case you desire to visit all. We will dedicate full future articles to many of these places in the Istanbul On My Mind web site.