It’s easy to get trapped among the historic streets and sites of Sultanahmet on a short trip to Istanbul, when venturing further afield mean taking a few cocktails up in Beyoğlu, a climb up Galata Tower or a cruise on the Bosporus. I only had four days to enjoy Istanbul, and while I could lose myself in the mosques of Sultanahmet and in the labyrinthine Grand Bazaar or the nearby street markets for days, I wanted to see a different side of life in the city.
I was lucky a friend recently moved back to town, so we grabbed a local bus from Eminönü towards Balat and Fener on the inner part of the Golden Horn to explore her neighbourhood.
Fener was once the home of Istanbul’s old Greek community, where it once housed vibrant population prior to the population exchange of the Greeks and Turks between their respective countries. My interest in the Anatolian Greeks and the population exchange manifested years ago in the village of Kayaköy, situated in south-west Turkey just outside Fethiye and the famous blue lagoon Olü Deniz. A ghost town wrapped up of narrow streets and crumbling stone houses houses consumed by vegetation.
The abandoned town that was never repopulated, standing as relic from the 1923 population exchange, where 1.5 million Greeks residing in Anatolia and 500,000 Muslims in Greece were forcibly made to switch countries following the Greco-Turkish War that took place in 1919-1922. However, the Greeks in Istanbul were exempt from the exchange and were allowed to remain in the city, but the population steadily declined and in the 1960s and 70s, most of the remaining Greek families fled after the Cyprus dispute.
As you enter Fener, the city’s topography curves into narrow streets, crumbling buildings and labyrinthine roads that crawl up steepening slopes. The brightly coloured houses, either from the original flaking paint or creative street art, are set between crawling strands of ivy that punctuate new and trendy little cafés that would fit in perfectly in Berlin or Budapest, filled with vintage bric-a-brac and eclectic furniture.
Up a slight incline, on a cobbled street strewn with sunbathing cats, lies one of the most important hubs of Christianity, hidden behind a fence. The Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople is the Greek Orthodox equivalent of St. Peter’s in Rome, although it’s more downscaled than its Catholic counterpart. The original Patriarchate moved into the modest Church of St. George in the late 16th century. Arriving late on a Saturday afternoon, a priest in a black robe told us Patriarchate was closing for the afternoon, but after pleading, he waved us through. We only had 5 minutes to catch a glimpse of what is supposed to be one of the five main centres of Christianity in the world. It comes in second after Rome, but less than 1% of Istanbul’s tourists make it out here.
In the entrance hall, candles still burned in the sand set in a gilded the box, but the lights inside the church were already extinguished. We could still make out the icons on the wall and a tease of the gold leaf glinting in the shadows. The faded scent of incense hung in the air before we were ushered out for closing time.
As we wandered the streets, it was easy to get the feel for local life here. Women walked in headscarves side-by-side with small children kicking a red ball around the tight streets, narrowly missing an unguarded shoe shiner’s kit painted with a vintage landscape of Istanbul. The sound a megaphone called out, offering a verbal catalogue vegetables and their respective prices. The small white van drove past with a 12-year-old boy sitting in the back with his legs dangling over the edge clutching onto a blue plastic box filled with tomatoes.
At the base of a steep hill, I glimpsed the red-bricked Greek Orthodox College towering over the whole of Fener and the bay. This college, Rum Lisesi, stands on the site where the ancient walls of Constantinople once stood. Founded in 1454 it is also the world’s oldest Greek school.
On first glance, Fener is sleepy, but secrets lie tucked round each corner and the neighbourhood falls under UNESCO protection. We stopped by a stone wall, a small iron gate lay ajar. My friend commented she knows the caretaker of the property – which is actually the site of an orthodox monastery – but he was, alas, away. Overhearing our conversation, woman just inside the gate invited us in. She asked me to put my camera away, but allowed us to look around the grounds. The old monastery belongs to the Greek Orthodox Church. It is not as grand as the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople, rather resembling an old stone farm house with goats hobbling on the crumbling wall above and among the large, broken pots that were once used to store olive oil.
The lady guided into the house, which was dusty and filled with musty old furniture. Icons lined the flaking walls set against portraits of the monastery’s former patriarchs. The room felt like an old farmhouse that failed to catch up with the modern world with a mahogany desk covered in fabric- and leather-bound books and flanked by tapestried armchairs. The lady gestured to a door, which on first impressions appeared to be an ordinary wooden door with a frosted-glass panel set into it, but when she opened it, another door appeared – an antique door made from iron.
“She says it’s few centuries old,” my friend translated from the Turkish. The door with a giant metal ring for a handle appeared as if it guarded a secret vault full of treasure. But considering the Greek community left behind in Istanbul is negligible, and also consdering the modesty of the grander Patriarchate, meant it probably only guarded the inner hall of the monastery. Still, I left with fantasies of frescoes and artefacts lying behind that ancient door.
Fener’s streets still echoed with the crackle of the vegetable vendor on his megaphone doing the rounds.
Among the crumbling buildings and corrugated iron fences painted in bright scenes of urban art there is an undertone of optimism. Fener and neighbouring Balat, the Jewish Quarter, are set to be the new exciting hubs of the creative community and innovation. But it’s not only the design studios, trendy cafés and art ateliers that are bringing the historic neighbourhood back to life, but even Greeks are returning to Fener – to their old home.
Overlooking the Golden Horn, Fener to the east and Balat to the west at the golden hour, it’s quiet, but feels alive at the same time.
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This is my second story from my collection of moments from my recent trip to Istanbul (you can read my first story here: Moments from Istanbul: The Women’s Hamam, and the second: Moments from Istanbul: Mosques and Painted Sufi Treasures.
I was invited to Istanbul as the guest of the co-founders of Roomkita, a Turkish startup company that offers hotel search via partners such as Booking, Hotels.com, HRS, Otel, among others, with over 600,000 properties in more than 200 countries. This new meta-search site helps travellers not only to find the best hotel to suit their budget, but also offers them the chance to find the best place by location, TripAdvisor ratings, as well as other factors such as amenities.
I would also like to thank the Great Fortune Hotel for hosting me in conjunction with Roomkita.