Sunday, November 30, 2014

Sunday, November 30, 2014

I was sitting at one of the chairs outside the Simit Sarayi near the Sirkeci train station sipping my hot coffee with my favorite simit bread chatting with an old friend I have not seen since my stay with them in Ayvalik.  I like the way this café meticulously make their coffee, with heart-shaped foam.  I was telling him about the Chora Church which I have seen before and he suggested that I go to Balat and look for a Byzantine church.  I was thinking of doing a stroll anyway so after a brief chat, I bade goodbye to my friend who is on his way to work.

I walked to the nearby Eminonu port and jumped on bus no. 99A heading to Eyup, and got off at the Balat bus stop.  What I will be looking for is the Pammakaristos Church but I’ve never been to the Fener-Balat neighborhood so I thought about walking around first. This will be another exciting walking tour off the proverbial beaten path, I always like visiting local neighborhood that has diverse character.

Just about getting at the interior, almost in front of the bus stop is the 14th century Ioannes Prodromos Greek Orthodox Church.  According to inscription it was called Prodromos Baptistis Knigon in 1334, then again in 1394 as Tou Kyrou Nikolaou'  or Church of Nicholas. The Sinai Monastery renovated the church in 1729 and eventually became a lodging to the monatery's monks.

Ioannes Prodromos Greek Orthodox Church.

Then, I started uphill at the back of this Greek church along the Cicekli Bostan Sokak, and just about few meters onto the first street intersection – it felt like a world uniquely different from the touristy Sultanahmet area.  This is what I was looking for quite a long while, it’s a spectacle of daily life in an authentic local neighborhood brimming in ethnicity, customs, mores and traditions.  

It’s full of character, not only among the residents going about their everyday routine but the sketch of the whole picture with colorful clothes lines hanging along the buildings or across both sides of the streets, children playing football, beautiful old wooden houses alongside concrete contrasting-colored old buildings, mosques, churches and synagogues.

Fener is a Greek neighborhood since the Byzantine era.  It used to be a bourgeois quarter, an upper-class residential area of Greeks holding high government positions during the 17th century.  New stone and wooden houses started to sprout during the 18th century.  Whereas, its twin neighborhood - Balat - was a Jewish quarter before their exodus to Galata, the present-day Beyoglu, after the 1894 earthquake and fires that razed the city.

Turning left to Fener Kulhane Sokak (sokak is Turkish word for street) and on to Kiremit Cadessi, I know I’m already lost on my way to the Byzantine church I was looking for but I like getting lost especially when I’m starting to get engulfed by the charm of the street scene.  I asked an old man sitting in front of a shop the way to the church or better known as the Fethiye Camii (or Fethiye Mosque), and he told me to go inside his woodwork shop and exit at the back door to get to the street going there, that way I don’t have to go all the way around the long winding and steep street again.  Turning left to Usturumca Cadessi I caught a sight of a resplendent dome and what look like a red castle - the Phanar Greek Orthodox College.

This learning institution built in 1881 is considered to be the most prestigious oldest surviving Greek orthodox school in Istanbul.  It is often referred to as Europe’s 5th largest castle owing to its castle-like design, the locals call it the Red Castle for obvious reason.  The dome visible at the end of the street is the college’s astronomy class observatory.  The Church of St. Mary of the Mongols is beside it but the gate is closed.

I went down back to the street to Istanbul Anadolu Imam Hatip Lisesi and finally found the Fethiye Mosque.

The Church of Theotokos Pammakaristos built in 1292 was the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate headquarters from 1456 to 1586.  Although it was converted to a mosque in 1591 by the Sultan Murat III, an impressive elaborate 14th century Byzantine mosaic survived in the funerary chapel or Parakklesion which is the main focus of a visit to the church.  The main dome has an elaborate image of Jesus Christ and flanking under it are several images of Christian prophets, the Virgin Mary and John the Baptist.  It is not as impressive as the Chora Church in terms of size and mosaic density but it’s remarkable considering its small dimension.  The church was restored in 1949 and opened to the public as the Fethiye Museum.  Entry fee is TL5 sold by the friendly security staff at the gate.

The minaret of Fethiye Mosque and the Pammakaristos Church on the right.

The Fethiye Mosque entrance is at the back, along the road down the street. I really wanted to enter the mosque but unfortunately, they're closing it after prayer times.

Meandering my way through the neighborhood streets back to the main highway along the bosphorous, I passed by the St. Stephen Bulgarian Orthodox Church.  The original wooden edifice church was donated by Stefan Bogoridim, a high ranking Ottoman statesman, it was razed by a fire and the new church was built in its place.  The neo-baroque church which is just down the street where the red Phanar Greek Orthodox College is, was inaugurated in 1898.

St. Stephen Bulgarian Orthodox Church.

Taking a walking tour of the Fener and Balat quarters can fill up a whole day, unless you just want to go direct to the Fethiye Museum.  But I would suggest any visitor to linger around, get absorbed into its unique atmosphere and observe the daily life right in the midst of a real Istanbul neighborhood, a contrast to the touristy side of Sultanahmet or Taksim Square area where tourists normally see.  

Be observant and considerate while wandering around as the place is rather religious.  Expect to see moslem women covered in black garb or the “abaya”, pretty much a usual sight in Saudi Arabia.  Men are wearing shorter than the usual long pants signifying devoutness, long beards, and “taqiyah” or head cap.  Others may find the place a bit dodgy, perhaps in physical appearance.

But having said that, it should not intimidate any visitor, people living in this neighborhood are genuinely friendly and welcoming.  I was greeted many times by men coming out of the Fethiye Mosque, couple of them have even invited me for a tea.

I know I have seen only a fraction of the sights around the neighborhood - there are other churches, synagogues and mosques – but I’ll save it for the next visits.


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