Hugging the Golden Horn, this area holds many of Istanbul’s Christian treasures where you’ll be visiting Byzantine, Greek, Bulgarian and Armenian churches. Not that it’s all grandeur; a magnet for migrants from rural Turkey since the Greeks were expelled in the 1960s, the area’s wooden houses on narrow cobbled lanes have fallen into despair. Good news is that you’ll see patches of renovation, funded by the European Union, bringing new life into the area. START: Bus 86 or 87 to Vefa Stadyumu (stadium).
1- Fethiye Camii (Church of the Pammakaristos).
This rarely visited mosque, originally a church and now a museum, has amazingly well-preserved Byzantine frescoes and mosaics from the years it housed the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate (head of the church). Its serene portraits include the dome with Pantocreator surrounded by the prophets. Built in 1292, this has been a nunnery, seat of the Patriarchate (1456–1568), and converted to a mosque by Murat III in 1573 and renamed Fethiye (victory) to celebrate his conquests over Georgia and Azerbaijan. After conversion, the Patriarchate moved to Fener (see bullet 7). @1 hr. Fethiye Kapisi,off Fethiye Cad. Tues–Sun 9.30am–4.30am. 5 TL. From Vefa Stayumu, walk down Selma Toruk, turn right onto Draman Cad. 15-min walk (or taxi).
2- Vodina Caddesi.
This is one of my favorite Istanbul streets, laden with Fener’s ramshackle charm and showcasing the neglected neighborhood’s restoration. From Fethiye Kapisi, walk down Draman Ç[email protected] Sokak and look out for Astarci Sokak’s traditional wooden houses—if they’re still there!—then down Vodina Caddesi, passing the old Greek house at the corner. This is also the area of the old Çifit Ç[email protected], Jewish Market (see Special Interest Toursp 39). Along Leblebiciler Sokak, Agora at #20 is one of Turkey’s oldest meyhaneshosting happy diners since 1890 (currently being renovated by a journalist friend of mine). Newly restored houses here punctuate the street otherwise filled with original buildings, like the shop selling aluminium at #17, with Byzantine arched roof inside. For a souvenir of local culture, Balart (36 Hizirçavus Köprü Sokak) sells pretty paintings and tiny models of Balat houses by resident artist Beyhan Gürsoy. @30 min. Most shops open daily, 9am–7pm.
3- Surp Hirestagabet Ermenikilisesi (Holy Angels Armenian Church).
Around the corner from Vodina Caddesi, the church and its icons have survived three fires, a miracle in itself. Dating back to Byzantine times, with the sacred spring underneath still in full Old Greek house perched on the corner of Balat market. flow, the Armenian community took the nondescript church in the 17th century and restored it in 1835. Also known as Mary of Wonders, every year on 16 September worshippers from all faiths come from throughout Turkey for all-night prayers, believing that the sacred spring has miraculous powers on just one congregant. It reminds me of the similar prayers and celebrations at Aya Yorgi monastery on Büyükada (see Princes’ Islandsp 150). @20 min. 2 Kamiş Sokagi.
Before your steep climb up to the Greek School (bullet 5), recharge at this bright café with savory pastries, cakes and tea, served by the owner. 102 Vodina Cad. y0212 524 8611. $.
5- Özel Fener Rum Lisesi (Greek School).
Originally named Great Patriarchal School of the Nation, today fewer than 50 students attend this immense neo-Gothic redbrick monolith, still a dramatic sight crowning the steep Fener street. What you see today was built in 1881 with bricks brought from France, yet the institution was founded in 1556 as one of the Ottoman capital’s most important Greek educational institutions. One of my favorite Istanbul views isfrom the bottom of Sancaktar [email protected], with rows of washing strung across the street leading tothe school – an obvious photo opportunity. When you climb the steep hill, turn the corner, keeping the school on your right to reach6. @10 min. Sancaktar Yokuşu.
6- Panaghia ton Mongolon (St Mary of the Mongols).
An unassuming, squat church tucked behind high walls, this is famously the only Byzantine church that remained in Greek hands and, thanks to a decree by Mehmet II, never converted to a mosque. Maria, a Christian, married the Mogul Khan (leader) in the late 13th century, undoubtedly to broker better relations between the two nations. Widowed after 15 years, she returned to Constantinople and founded a monastery where she spent her remaining years. Ring the bell for the caretaker, who can show you around its small modest interior (tips appreciated), with tiny icons and shrines. He may also show you the underground passageway that led all the way to the Haghia Sophia (see p 7). @15 min. Tevkii Cafer Mektebi Sok. Open daily 9am–5pm.
7- Greek Orthodox Patriarchate.
Enter through the high-security gate (a reminder of numerous fire and bomb attacks) and through
the high-walled courtyard to St George’s Church’sneo-classical marble entrance. This has been head
of the Patriarchate since moving from Church of the Pammakaristos (see bullet 1) in 1586. Two mosaic
fragments were saved from there; look out for the Virgin Mary and John and Baptist, and also for the Column of Flagellation to which Christ was bound and flogged. Many of the treasures—like the lecterns inlaid with mother-of-pearl—were brought from other regions. Like most Greek churches, I find this a strange combiation of ostentation and serenity; its wall of gold icons gleaming in shafts of sunlight, contrasting with ts dark wooden pews and aroma of incense. @30 min. 35 Sadrazam Ali Paşa Cad. www.ec-patr.org. Open daily 9am–4.30pm.
8- St Stephan of the Bulgars (Sveti Stefan).
Hard to believe that this gleaming white church was all made from cast-iron (from a flatpack!), one of the world’s few surviving iron buildings. Constructed by Hovsep Aznavour in 1898, 500 tonnes of metal plaques were shipped from Vienna via the Black Sea, then assembled far quicker than it takes most of us to build a flat-pack desk. Touch the cold pillars inside to realize that even the interior is from iron, also housing icons and six majestic bells, all made in Russia. Built when 30,000 Bulgarians lived in
Constantinople, this was significant during the Bulgarians’ struggle for independence. @20 min. Mürsel Paşa Cad. Open daily 8am–5pm.
9- Tarihi Haliç Işkembecisi.
Famous for its işkember (spit-roast beef intestines), and kokorec(intestine soup, a great hangover cure) this 24-hour restaurant has two floors of Atatürk photographs and memorabilia, topped by a fabulous terrace: a perfect allday breakfast spot. 315 Abdulezelpasa Cad. 0212 534 9414. $.
10- Kadin Eserleri Kütüphanesi (Women’s Library and Information Center).
Founded in 1990 by women academics and journalists, Turkey’s only women’s library is located in a
once-derelict stone building, renovated by architect and poet Cengiz Bektas with tiny amphitheatre in
its garden. Publishing important papers annually in English and Turkish, its shelves groan with books
and periodicals on myriad topics relating to women dating back to 1867. The foundation directors ask
all visitors to donate visual, audio or written documents about women from their family, or relevant
research. @20 min. Fener Vapur Iskelesi Karsisi. 0212 534 9550. www.kadineserleri.org. Open Mon–Fri 10am–6pm.