Exploring Fener and Balat – the old Greek and Jewish quarters of Istanbul

The haunted streets of Istanbul

The haunted streets of Istanbul

The tour began at Çibali, where we followed the sea wall in a northerly direction along the western side of the Golden Horn. Here, in another age, stood the proud Greek Fanariot mansions – squat, medieval domiciles with pediments, domed ceilings and stairs to upper levels. They were for a period the pleasure palaces of patrician and mercantile Greek families that thrived under Ottoman rule. Now neglected and fallen into disrepair, they are surrounded by traffic on one side and the Horn on the other. Once, they had been closer to the water, but the shoreline receded in direct proportion to the street levels rising, so that these intriguing buildings appear to be stranded on traffic islands and sinking into the ground. Interestingly, the dwellings are built of alternate layers of brick and stone to withstand earthquakes.

My friend Alex and I risked our lives on a busy road to visit the church of Hagios Nikolaos. The press of a button set in forbidding masonry summoned an Orthodox woman from Antioch. She has been the caretaker for fifteen years and has, she told us, three children. She looked under the weather; nevertheless, she gave us access to a rare gem.

From a covered inner courtyard she opened a heavy door to reveal a modestly sized church with a marble iconostasis. The feeble light, struggling through high dirty windows, revealed icons of saints and the Virgin. They were almost entirely obscured by soot and a cloud of incense that hung in the air. An Epitaphio covered in wilted flowers reminded us that Greek Easter had been celebrated a week earlier. Here and there burnished colour drew the eye up to the domed ceiling hung with three chandeliers.

Spying the icon of Hagios Dimitrios in a dark corner brought on unexpected surge of nostalgia. Without thinking, I asked if I may light a candle. The woman rushed off and returned with oil and a wick so that I could light the oil lamp that hangs before my namesake. It was rather disconcerting taking part in a ceremony I hadn’t performed since childhood.

On the opposite side of the courtyard is a phenomenon: the only standing Fanariot mansion visitors can safely enter without incurring personal injury. Ascending the stairs to the second storey and wandering in the early baroque Ottoman room was heartbreaking. Here were small niches built into the wall and enclosed with elegant doors, a safe; kitchen, bedrooms, all dank and dark and filled with masonry and cobwebs. Like much of what’s left from this time, it is empty and displays a siege mentality. Certainly it is forgotten and largely unknown to the world rushing by outside.

Following the remnants of the sea wall brought us to Fener. Fresh cheese borek and tea were served by a good-natured though none-too-bright boy at a local cafe.

From there we headed up the steep street to the Fener Greek Orthodox College. Established in 1454, it’s a massive red-brick edifice that dominates the neighbourhood with the arrogance of a citadel. Looming over the houses now occupied by Anatolian peasants and Kurds, the college is the emblem of a once thriving Greek community. Now it schools a mere fifty-seven students, most of whom are from Antioch and speak mainly Turkish.

The upper storey has a sprung floor to withstand earthquakes. At the end of a long corridor is an assembly hall with murals containing examples of continued Greek presence in Asia Minor for millennia, not that those who surround the school know or care. The place has an other-wordly air, as though it’s mired in an irrelevant past. What will become of the building when the school eventually closes, as it surely must, is anyone’s guess.
On the way out we met three young Israelis searching for their roots. Nearby Balat housed a substantial Jewish population, their synagogues and bathhouses still dot the area. Listening to the young men, it seemed to me that Istanbul is the place where people come to find themselves in a shattered past. Even their words sounded haunted.

My friend Alex is scathing about the current occupants of Fener and Balat.

They have no education, no respect, no understanding and no knowledge of the area’s significance. Shoddy, slap-dash renovations abound. They stick a Koranic verse above the door and think they’ve exorcised the Christian presence. Simple folk with no understanding squat in the ruins of the Theodosian wall and in the crumbling remnants of once-grand mansions. Cats wander everywhere. Washing hangs between houses. Giant elms reach over high walls that guard disused churches.

It’s picturesque but melancholy. You feel as if every footstep is in remembrance of times past; as if life here had once been very different to what it is now. Not drained and diminished but sophisticated, cosmopolitan, lived according to forgotten daily rhythms and rituals.
The point hit home when we visited another Fanariot mansion. This one stood in a seedy park by the water; it was comparatively well-preserved. I objected when Alex pushed open a make-do gate and ushered me into a courtyard occupied by a man in religious garb.
“Why?” Alex snapped. “You have more right to be here than they do.”

Indeed, the old man had no idea why we should be interested in his remarkable hovel. His bent back, the kind, vapid smile and the hands that fiddled with worry beads brought on pity. He reminded me of my father. After a quick inspection of the graceful arched colonnade and the balcony above it, I thanked the man and guided Alex out.

As we rested in a cafe, I reflected that no Greek can visit Istanbul without feelings of intense primal loss and longing. There is a deep connection to the place. You can’t help thinking of what might have been had things worked out differently. The regret, the conflicting feelings, are so powerful, they make you catch your breath. For a minute you think that if one or two variables were to change, Greek voices might still ring in the streets instead of Turkish ones. Greeks might come down the hill on the way to church. And then you hear the muezzin’s call to prayer, first from one minaret and then a multitude, and all illusions melt. This is modern Istanbul. Not Constantinople.

* Dmetri Kakmi is a writer and editor. His book Mother Land was shortlisted for the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards. He will be speaking about the book on September 17 at 10.00 am at the Collingwood Library, 11 Station St Abbotsford.

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