There’s a myriad of cliches that get thrown around when talking about Istanbul. East meets west, old meets new. But one of the ones I find that really does ring true is how Istanbul is really a bunch of villages clumped together to make one giant metropolis. The areas differ vastly; you could easily be in another city, or even country. One such area is that of Balat and Fener. I’ve been meaning to make it to Balat for almost as long as I’ve been living in Istanbul, but it wasn’t until the week before Turkey’s local elections in March that we finally made it to this fascinating pocket of the city.
It’s something I do on my commute every day, but crossing the Golden Horn into historical district of Fatih never ceases to feel like arriving in a different city. Life moves a little slower in this part of the world; sure, it’s as hectic as ever, but when you have that much history to fall back on, worrying about the present moment seems somewhat trivial. Our bus takes us through the whole district, which is currently under a sea of blue and orange flags thanks to the upcoming local elections. This is the homeland of the ruling AKP, the Justice and Development party that’s increasingly become less about justice and more about development at all costs. Buses adorned in the party flags whisk supporters to a rally in nearby Yenikapı, but unfortunately as we’re going in the opposite direction we have to pay regular fare and aren’t given sandwiches and water.
We disembark by the city walls in Edirnekapı. The gates sit on the highest of the seven hills of old Istanbul, and after scrambling up a very loose definition of stairs we are rewarded with stunning views of the city. From here you can see all the mosques of Fatih, from the nearby Mimar Sinan (named after the architect who designed many of the city’s famous places of worship, including the Blue Mosque) all the way down to the Aya Sofya. In stark contrast are the skyscrapers piercing the clouds across the Golden Horn and the endless sprawl of concrete in every direction. This is a city of such incredible beauty, but depending on where you look it’s also very soulless.
Further along the city walls we stumble upon the Edirnekapı Kuş Pazarı, Istanbul’s largest bird market. In a city full of fantastic markets, this is definitely one of the most bizarre. It’s a bombardment of the senses. The sound of pigeons frantically trying to fly away while attached to string while their owners boast of their pedigree. The smell of bird poo and bird seed and the one lone man brave enough to sell simit to the market-goers. Men yelling, attempting to hawk their wares. It’s a fascinating insight into an Istanbul long forgotten by the rest of the city, but the cruelty of keeping hundreds of birds in a tiny cage sours the experience.
We spend the next hour or so traipsing up and down the hills in search of Balat’s famous coloured houses. We pass one of the more recognisable buildings in the area, the old Greek School. Traditionally Balat was home to many of the city’s non-Muslim population, although after the fall of the Ottoman Empire and the subsequent ethnic cleansings that occurred with the rise of the Turkish Republic, most of the more international residents have returned to their countries of origin. Even if the inhabitants may not be as multicultural as they once were, the buildings betray a time where Turks, Greeks and Armenians lived side by side in relative harmony.
Özge walks through a nondescript gate in a concrete wall and we follow. The tranquil courtyard inside is a million miles away from the chaos of the streets surrounding. It’s an Orthodox church that’s been around as long as the city; the man who appears to be almost as old talks about its colourful history; surviving three different empires. The current state of politics in the country seems so insignificant in comparison. We ask to see inside the church, but it is only open once a year; on the 23rd of April- the memorial day of St. George, one of the most venerated saints in the Eastern Orthodox church. It also happens to be Children’s Day in Turkey.
We climb yet another steep hill and another invisible border, this time arriving in mini-Mecca. Murmurs of the students studying the Holy Koran at the local medrese echo through the avenues. Women in niqabs stroll along with their husbands whose beards put any Istanbul hipster to shame. We suddenly feel very under-dressed. But it doesn’t feel hostile; not in the slightest. When we ask for directions the men are more than willing to help us, even if they act like they’ve never talked to a woman before (perhaps they haven’t). We make our way to the Yavuz Sultan Selim mosque, on another of Istanbul’s seven hills. We’ve been spoiled for choice when it comes to views today.
Eventually we find our prize: Balat’s famous coloured houses. These days everything is looking a little run down – the area is much poorer than it once was – but the beauty still shines through the grime. As the sun starts to set the streets fill with children playing football with makeshift goals, the tatlıcı wandering through the streets boasting the merits of his cart of sweets. Even though Balat is only a couple of kilometres from the tourist haven of Sultanahmet, it couldn’t feel further away. As Özge says, “It’s my favourite place in Istanbul because its not in Turkey”.