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Balat

Updated: Apr 11

Balat, a neighborhood on the coast of the Golden Horn, is connected to the district of Fatih on the historical peninsula of Istanbul. Its name comes from the Greek word for palace (Παλάτιον, palation), with ties to the Byzantine Palace of Blachernae (τὸ ἐν Βλαχέρναις Παλάτιον, tó en Vlachérnais Palátion) in the nearby neighborhood of Ayvansaray. Until the 1453 conquest of Constantinople, Balat was named the “Sultan’s Gate” (Βασιλική Πύλη, Vasiliki Pili), referring to the gate through which emperors visiting the Palace of Blachernae entered the palace. 


Coastal view of Balat, featuring the Bulgarian Iron Church (Source: https://www.eskiistanbul.net/tag/balat/)

The later Greek-derived name hints at the long-existing Greek population in the neighborhood, despite it not being in the majority. In fact, Balat was the center of the Jewish community in Istanbul starting in the 15th century, when Shepardic Jews fled from the Spanish Inquisition and were settled in the area by Sultan Bayezid II. Since then, Balat has become colloquially known as the “Jewish Quarter” of Istanbul. This title should not mislead; there was also a notable Armenian, Bulgarian, and Greek presence in the neighborhood, with the Church of Saint Mary the Consoler (Παναγία Παραμυθία, Panagia Paramythia) once housing the Patriarchate of Constantinople from 1587 to 1597. Thus, Balat has long been treated as a hub of multiculturalism in the city, although there is a predominantly Muslim population today.



Aleksandros Paspatis (Source: AHEPA History)

Due to its proximity to Fanar (Φανάρι, Fener), Balat is often referred to in conjunction with its neighbor as “Fener-Balat.” While formally there are municipal borders between the neighborhoods, there is no defined street or distinct feature that separates the two when walking in the area. However, the historical reception and reputation of Balat have not always been as positive as Fanar. Aleksandros Paspatis (Αλέξανδρος Πασπάτης), a doctor in the Balıklı Rum Hastanesi, writes extensively about the filth of the neighborhood in his accounts of the hospital, as well as the Greek community and the lifestyle of minority populations in Istanbul between the years of 1830 and 1860. “After passing Fanar, we come to Balat, where many Jews live, in addition to Greeks and Armenians. The filth of this district is famous in Istanbul. The living conditions of most Jews living here are hard to believe and impossible to describe,” he says, yet he still proceeds to explain in length the wretchedness and poverty of the neighborhood. Around the same decade as Alexandros Paspatis, we encounter Greek scholar Skarlatos Byzantios’s commentary on the poor conditions in Balat, too. In his three-volume work titled Constantinople, he writes: “Residents, from birth till death, spend the largest part of their life lying in mud,” but also adds, “Every city has her own version of Balat, just as she has her own Champs-Elysées.” 


More recent scholarship has refrained from attributing these negative connotations to Balat for various reasons while acknowledging the problems Paspatis saw in the neighborhood. It is worth mentioning that the Jewish population residing in the neighborhood was segregated based on wealth, and that it was these poorer regions that were criticized for their filth. The Karabaş quarter, as an example, housed the poorest portion of the neighborhood’s population and was mostly occupied by boatmen and street sellers. ‘‘Balat proper,’’ on the other hand, was entered through the Balat Gate (Balat Kapısı) and included the kavafhane (street of shoemakers), where small business owners operated their shops and the historic Balat bazaar was set up. Fanar, being the relatively lavish and predominantly Greek Orthodox neighborhood right next to Balat, did not help improve the reputation of the criticized neighborhood either.


Townhouses in Balat (Source: "Fener, Balat, Ayvansaray" by Ahmet Özbilge).

Characteristics of Balat are the antiquarians, the historic bazaar, and, undoubtedly, the townhouses. Also called sıraevler in Turkish, these townhouses are attached, often three-story buildings that are built multiple times at a time and are identical in architecture to their neighboring houses. Merdivenli Yokuşu is among the streets famous for its colorful townhouses with bay windows (cumba in Turkish). The street was notably restored and renovated by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in the late 1990s and early 2000s and has been on their World Heritage List since 1985. Today, Merdivenli Yokuşu is a picturesque street that attracts tourists as well as locals.

 

Townhouses in Balat (Photographed by Lara Öge in 2020)

Landmarks


Balat has had layers of landmarks built and destroyed in various fires that often broke out in the small shops around the kavafhane. Particularly destructive was the Great Fire of 1729, which broke out in a grocery store and spread to destroy one-eighth of the city, according to Istanbul Fire Department records. Thus, only a very few of these landmarks survive today. While it is difficult to trace the development of residential buildings in the neighborhood due to the multiple fires that destroyed the area, there is one preserved wooden mansion in Balat. It remains unknown when this mansion was built, but it has survived to this day since the early 19th century. Among the brick buildings on the street (Pastırmacı Yokuşu), this three-story building stands out with its wooden exterior.


Most of the other landmarks are religious centers, which are largely inactive as the currently residing population is predominantly Muslim.


Churches: 

Interior of the Church of St. Stephen (Photographed by Lara Öge in 2020)
  • Church of St. Stephen (The Iron Church): A Bulgarian Orthodox Church opened in 1898, often recognized for its iron-cast elements produced in Vienna and transported to Istanbul in the late 19th century.

  • Surp Hıreşdagabet Armenian Orthodox Church: An Armenian Orthodox church first built in the 13th century, renovated multiple times, and largely destroyed in the fire of 1729.


Synagogues: 

  • İştipol Synagogue was built by Greek Jews in the early

  • 15th century and primarily served Shepardic Jews from the late 15th century on. A decree from November 1, 1898, indicates the synagogue burned down in a fire and was rebuilt. Today, the building is under preservation, and the synagogue is not open to worship.

İştipol Synagogue (Source: Alberto Modiano, Facebook)
  • Yambol Synagogue: Built by Bulgarian Jews who moved from Yambol, Bulgaria, in the 15th century, the synagogue underwent many repairs over the centuries, the most significant one being in the late 19th century. A firman (ferman in Turkish) dated May 21, 1693, indicates the synagogue was present and active during the Byzantine era, too. Due to the decrease in the Jewish population of the neighborhood, this religious landmark has been only open for Shabbat services recently. 


 

References


Acar, Duygu. “Tur-i Si̇na (Balatkapi İoannes Prodromos Metokhi̇on) Ki̇li̇sesi̇ Koruma Projesi̇.” MA thesis, Istanbul Technical University, 2012.


Achladi, Evangelia. "Rum Communities of Istanbul in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries : A Historical Survey." Journal of the Ottoman and Turkish Studies Association 9, no. 1 (2022): 19-49. https://doi.org/10.2979/jottturstuass.9.1.04.


Karaca, Zafer. İstanbul’da Tanzimat Öncesi Rum Ortodoks Kiliseleri. Istanbul: Yapı Kredi Yayınları, 2008. 


Kasap, Serdar, and Sezer Yörük. “Reading the Streets of Balat and Urban Identity.” The Online Journal of Science and Technology 10, no. 2 (April 2020): 50–62.


Olt, Marina. “The Balat Life Is Really Unique - Narratives of Place and Belonging in the Historical Fener-Balat District of Istanbul.” MA thesis, Kadir Has University, 2016.


Verdön, İrem. “Balat Ayan Caddesi̇ 14-18-22 No’lu Sıra Evleri̇n Restorasyon Projesi̇.’’ MA thesis, Istanbul Technical University, 2016.


Vyzantios, Skarlatos. Constantinople: A Topographical, Archaeological & Historical Description Vol. 1. Translated by Haris Rigas. Istanbul: istos yayın, 2019.


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