Balat is a historically Jewish neighborhood on the shores of the Golden Horn in Istanbul. The oldest settlement on the Golden Horn, Balat is like a miniature Istanbul with its uniform streets, its two and three-story houses with cantilevered balconies, its staircases jutting up the steep slopes, and its places of worship at every step.
Balat is a quarter that has extended its hospitality to a large number of different communities in its time. From the Byzantine Greeks to Jews that fled the Spanish Inquisition and the Armenians that settled in Istanbul, Balat has been a place of residence for numerous disparate ethnic groups. Many a migration route has ended in the old Golden Horn quarter of Balat, which to the outsider today appears mysterious and even a little forbidding.
GATEWAY TO PALACES
The shores of the Golden Horn were once lined with defense walls punctuated by a large number of gates to the city. Arriving at the palace by sea, the Byzantine emperors used the Balat Gate, known then as ‘Vasiliki Pili‘. This gate stood on the road leading to the Tekfur Saray, the only Byzantine palace still standing today and an annex of the Blachernae Palace as it was known by its old name, as well as to the notorious Anemas Dungeons. The name Balat is said to derive from the word ‘palation’, which means palace in Greek. Quiet and peaceful today, and almost deserted at nightfall, the streets of Balat once bustled at all hours of the day.
Holy Spring of the Virgin Mary
When I stepped into the street leading to Balat from the walls of the Ayvansaray where the tombs of the Sahabe (Companions of the Prophet Muhammed) are located, the first thing I encountered at the gate was the ‘Ayazma’ or Holy Spring of the Virgin Mary. A young priest here is telling visitors about the Golden Horn and Balat. Legend has it that there was once a rock fragment of dazzling whiteness sticking up out of the waters of the Bosphorus, the strait dividing the Asian and European continents, off the coast of Chalcedon. Startled by its brilliance, the pelamydes (the small tuna known in Turkish as ‘palamut’) took refuge at nightfall in the Golden Horn on their migration route from the Black Sea to the Aegean. So great were their numbers that the entire estuary glowed with their phosphorescence. According to some this is the origin of the name ‘Golden Horn’, while others claim it derives from the sheer abundance of the fish. All the people of Byzantium flocked down to the shore from the gates along the Golden Horn to catch fish there with their bare hands, and behind the walls Palation (Balat) became a scene of great festivity. Although the fish migrations steadily declined, Balat remained the last stop for communities in search of a new home.
DISTRICT OF ETHNIC MINORITIES
Balat has gone down in history as a district of ethnic minorities. Jews fleeing the Spanish Inquisition took refuge in Istanbul during the reign of Sultan Mehmed the Conqueror and were settled at Balat, which in those days was a final destination for Jews from all over the place. The altar of the Ahrida Synagogue on Vodina Avenue resembles a ship’s prow.
According to one legend, this structure is a fragment of Noah’s ark while according to another it is said to represent the galleons that brought the Jews from Spain to Istanbul. Another of the still active synagogues, located on Düriye Street, Yanbol Synagogue was built by Jews from Bulgaria. Practically every street where Jews lived had it own synagogue in those days.When the sultan on 27 August 1839 issue a firman declaring that ‘every community has a right to build its own hospital’, a hospital was constructed on the coast road to meet the needs of the Jewish population. Due to a lack of sufficient funds to build a hospital, health care previously had been provided at home.
In 1896, today’s magnificent Or-Ahayim Hospital was erected by a well-known architect of the period, Gabriel Tedesci. Continuing along the shore, one encounters the striking Bulgarian Church of Saint Stephen, which rises on an island right in the middle of the road. Rumor has it that this church was built in one month. Since the reigning Sultan Abdulaziz granted only a single month for its construction, it was prefabricated in Vienna of cast iron and shipped by sea to Istanbul where it was then assembled. Being distinguished architecturally as the only church of its kind in the world, it also boasts a unique icon of Jesus and the Virgin Mary whose like is not found in any other church.
The Armenian Church of Surp Hreshdagabed in Kamış Street attracts attention for its unusual architecture and its ‘ayazma’ or holy spring. Originally a Greek church, later it was converted into an Armenian church. The bones of Saint Artemios, which were found during a restoration, are on display in the ayazma section underneath the building. There are also numerous Greek churches in the quarter which only open their doors on holidays and other important occasions. The Greek Orthodox Patriarchate is located in Balat. As we proceed towards it along Vodina Avenue, we see the Greek Boys’ School at the end of the steep intersecting street known as the Sancaktar Yokuş, an imposing, eye-dazzling structure that dominates the quarter from its position on the hill. Next to it stands the Greek Girls’ School where education continues despite a gradually dwindling number of students. Immediately below the school is the house, now converted into a museum, of the Prince of Moldavia, Dimitri Kantemir, who made important contributions to classical Turkish music. When Muslims to began to make their homes here, mosques, dervish lodges, and even an entire mosque complex went up at Balat, where there had been not so much as a ‘mescid’ or small mosque in the time of Mehmed the Conqueror. The best known of these buildings is the Ferruh Kethuda Complex in the street of the same name, designed by the 16th century Ottoman architect known as Mimar Sinan and consisting of a mosque, a dervish lodge, a fountain and court buildings.
BACK TO THE OLD DAYS
Once at Balat the peal of church bells mingled with the drone of prayers rising from the synagogues and the ripple of water in the holy springs.
Most of the Jews emigrated to Israel in the 1940’s and in time the other non-Muslim minorities resettled in the more upscale Istanbul districts of Galata, Pera and Şişli. Later Balat continued to offer its traditional hospitality to poor people coming from other areas, including migrants from various parts of Anatolia and even some gypsies who abandoned their nomadic lifestyle to settle here. In recent years, restoration activities have gotten under way in Balat, under the auspices of the European Union in particular, with the aim of recreating its former texture.
The old two and three-story houses with their cantilevered balconies are being done up anew, and an effort is being made to restore the streets to their original appearance. But such restoration too brings change in its wake, and Balat is becoming more gentrified by the day. Whether it can return again to the old days is anybody’s guess, but it would seem it is going to continue to be a settlement of diverse communities as time goes on.