After visiting the Patriarchate of Constantinople, my guide and I wandered around two of the oldest neighborhoods in Istanbul, Fener and Balat. My guide grew up in Balat and shared many interesting stories from her childhood with me. (More on that below.)
History. While actually two different neighborhoods, the names "Fener" and "Balat" today are almost interchangeable.
The name Fener comes from the Greek "Fanarion," meaning lighthouse, suggesting that there was once a lighthouse nearby. Due to its position on the coast, Fener was a busy trading hub that flourished for hundreds of years. After the capture of Constantinople, Mehmet the Conqueror encouraged the Orthodox Greeks to settle there. The Greek"Fanariots" were typically well-educated, cultured, and wealthy. Many worked as translators and foreign dignitaries for the Ottoman state.
Meanwhile, the nearby Balat was a famous Jewish neighborhood. Some speculate that it was a Jewish neighborhood even in the Byzantine era, but particularly under Ottoman rule, Jewish citizens from all over immigrated to the area in waves. For many years, the neighborhood was a lively commercial hub filled with Jewish-owned stores that produced everything from glass to fez to baked goods.
Signs of a broken past.
From Prosperity to Disrepair. Fener was prosperous for many years, but towards the end of the Ottoman Empire, it fell into decline. This was exacerbated when, in 1955, Prime Minister Adnan Menderes incited a heinous pogrom, or riot, against the Greek population in Istanbul. At the time, many Turks were unhappy and resented the Greeks, who, by and large, were more prosperous than the rest of the country. To distract the citizens from the country's real problems, Menderes made false accusations against the Greeks and, in essence, turned his people against them. The resulting suffering and destruction was unthinkable. (Check out this article for more details.)
Although never subjected to a pogrom, the neighborhood of Balat, too, slowly fell into decline. An earthquake in 1894, as well as a series of fires, damaged the area and other parts of the city. Gradually, many Jews moved to other sections of the city, such as Galata, or returned to Israel when it became a nation-state in 1948. Around this time, a new wave of immigrants came from the Black Sea, too, and many other Jews emigrated to Şişli.
Today. In 2000, Fener and Balat were included in a UNESCO restoration and development plan. Since then, the neighborhoods have been greatly revitalized. Today, tourists from all over the world visit the neighborhood to get a glimpse of what the area was once like. Currently there are three active synagogues in Balat. The Ahrida Synagogue (pictured above) is the oldest in Istanbul and can only be entered with an invitation from the rabbi.
The Neighborhood Bakery. Though not Jewish, my tour guide grew up in Balat. Sadly, her father died when she was young, and her mother was left to care for her and her sister on her own. At the time, they didn't even have an oven in their home. This meant that whenever something needed baking, she would send *G or her sister to this bakery with a tray of ready-to-bake goods. The girls would then get in line and wait for their turn at the oven. G told me the bakery looks the same now as it did when she was a child.
My Take. If ever you visit Istanbul, you absolutely must visit Fener and Balat. I wish I'd been able to spend more time there. In fact, it would be a lovely area to stay. The area contains many quaint hotels, restaurants, and coffee shops, and compared to the rest of Istanbul, it is very quiet!
*G is not her full name.
Sources: Greek Reporter, TooIstanbul, JGuide Europe, Wow Cappadocia