John Brunton, The Guardian, Saturday
Istanbul is one of those destinations that guarantees a shock to the system, a seething metropolis that is a chaotic meeting place of east and west, ancient and modern. But when it comes to choosing where to stay, there is a surprising return to normality, with most visitors choosing between reliable budget accommodation concentrated around the tourist golden triangle of the Topkapi Palace, Blue Mosque and Sultanahmet, or the funkier neighbourhoods of Beyoglu, Taksim and Ortakoy, where there are a host of famous-name luxury hotels.
On my last trip, though, I booked a brilliant new holiday rental that offers a completely different way to discover this fascinating city, the chance to experience a genuine slice-of-local-life where there isn’t another tourist in sight. Verystanbul is hidden away on the shores of the Golden Horn, in the district of Fener, the historic home of a large Greek and Jewish population, just by the original city walls that date back to Istanbul’s origins as Byzantium and Constantinople. This charming two-room self-catering holiday home – you can rent one room or both – spreads over a three-storey traditional Greek house, newly renovated with a colourful bow-windowed facade and cool designer interiors, where guests have the run of the whole place, including a fully equipped kitchen, comfortable lounge and a sunny terrace on the top floor. The French owners, Pascal and Béatrice, are rarely around, and the place is efficiently overseen by a local Turk, Rahmi, and his friendly wife, Gulumser. But relaxing in this comfortable house is just half the story, as to stay in Fener is to immerse yourself in an Istanbul that bears little resemblance to guidebook descriptions.
The Verystanbul adventure begins just getting there by taxi. Even though I’d meticulously printed off both the map and Turkish instructions from the website, the driver still got utterly lost, and we found ourselves driving up and down a maze of steep, narrow backstreets, asking shopkeepers and stallholders for directions, until we finally pulled up outside. This is now a fiercely conservative Muslim neighbourhood, and first impressions produce a serious dose of culture shock: while several buildings have been carefully renovated – Fener was recently declared a Unesco world heritage site – the rest resemble crumbling ruins. The street is teeming with people, kids playing football, veiled housewives collecting scrapwood for heating, men sitting round a brazier brewing a pot of tea, while one family that owns a TV sets it up on the pavement so neighbours can watch a soccer match. There is a queue of people snaking out of the house next door to Verystanbul, and it turns out to be a medieval-like bakery, producing the traditional simit, sesame-covered Turkish bagels, perfect for breakfast as they come straight out of the oven.
Although initially we get a lot of curious looks, the locals are already used to strangely dressed foreigners trooping in and out of Pascal and Béatrice’s house, and could not be friendlier. So what at first seems intimidating turns out to be welcoming, from the Kurdish lady in the food store, who only frowns when we make the mistake of asking if she sells beer, to the helpful grocer where we stock up for a picnic of pomegranates, fresh goat’s cheese and honey, walnuts and delicious dried apricots. In the streets around Verystanbul, we discover Mekteb-i (Akcin Sok 3/A, Fener), a bohemian cafe where locals sip tiny glasses of boiling cay – Turkish tea – and an Armenian painter sets up his easel outside; Merkez Sekercisi (Leblebiciler Sok 33, Balat, +90 212 523 9334), an irresistible Aladdin’s cave selling homemade ice cream and luscious Turkish delight; and Tarihi Halic (Abdulezel Pasa Caddesi 117, Fener, +90 212 534 9414), a lively restaurant, open 24 hours a day, with a huge rooftop terrace overlooking the waters of the Golden Horn, specialising in traditional dishes like garlic soup, kokorec – tasty grilled lamb’s intestines – and the best kebabs I have ever eaten.
Although all the classic tourist sights of Topkapi and the Grand Bazaar are a quick bus ride away, we decide to continue the Verystanbul experience, escape the crowds and spend the weekend exploring Fener itself, coming across little-known churches like St Mary of the Mongols, the cast-iron Bulgarian church of St Stephen, the towering red-brick Orthodox College and sumptuous Vatican-like residence of the Patriarch of Constantinople, and a hidden jewel, the Kariye Museum (Chora Church). Decorated with delicate frescoes and mosaics, this unique building mirrors Istanbul’s complex history, originally a church, then transformed into a mosque and now a secular museum.
During the XIIth century the emperors of the Comnenus dynasty revived the strength of the Byzantine Empire. After the death of Manuel I in 1180, a series of dynastic quarrels weakened it and led to its temporary end in 1204, when the Crusaders captured Constantinople and established what later on historians called the Latin Empire. This empire was partitioned between the leaders of the crusade and Venice which was rewarded with three eighths of its territory. As a matter of fact some Byzantine families retained control of key towns and provinces such as Trebizond and Nicaea. Venice was not interested in acquiring large land properties and chose to be given islands such as Candia and Negroponte which allowed control of maritime routes; Marco Sanudo, a Venetian adventurer, founded a duchy at Nasso.
Constantinople retains very little evidence of the short-lived Latin Empire (1204-61). We know that a bell tower was built next to Hagia Sophia and a cycle of frescoes portraying the life of St. Francis was painted at Kalenderhane Camii.
The Genoese reacted to the growing influence of Venice over Constantinople, by strengthening their trading post at Galata on the northern shore of the Golden Horn. The only Gothic church of today’s Constantinople can be found here. It was part of a Dominican monastery built in 1323-37 and it was also known as St. Paul’s owing to a chapel dedicated to that saint. A tall belfry stood next to the church and gave the complex a very western appearance.
In 1261 the territory of the Latin Empire was reduced to just Constantinople, a small part of Thrace and a few fiefdoms in Greece. A small army sent by Michael VIII Palaeologos, the Byzantine ruler of Nicaea, profited from a temporary absence of Baldwin II, the Latin Emperor, and easily managed to enter Constantinople with the help of its Greek population.
The enemy of my enemy is my friend this saying was adopted as a key policy by the new rulers of Constantinople: in order to contain the growing pressure of the Ottomans on their eastern border, they sought an alliance with the Mongol Ilkhanate of Persia, which controlled also parts of Syria and Eastern Anatolia.
In 1265 Emperor Michael VIII betrothed Maria, one of his daughters, to Abaqa Khan. She lived at the Mongol court for fifteen years until the death of her husband. Upon her return to Constantinople she was asked by her father to marry yet another Mongol khan; she preferred to become a nun and retired to a monastery which she renovated; its church was not turned into a mosque by the Ottomans, but the current building bears little resemblance to the original Byzantine church. Its interest lies in its historical background.
The Palaeologos dynasty ruled over a much diminished empire, especially after the loss of Bursa (1326) and Nicaea (1331) to the Ottomans.
Without an army and a fleet Palaeologos emperors relied only on the walls of Constantinople to keep at bay Bulgarians and Ottomans, Venetians and Genoese.
The best known monument of this period is St. Saviour in Chora, but probably at that time the complex of Theotokos Pammakaristos was regarded as a greater artistic achievement.
Theotokos Pammakaristos is a reference to the Joyous Mother of God; the church was built before the Latin conquest of Jerusalem, but the Parecclesion, a funerary chapel decorated with mosaics and paintings, was added in 1310; this was dedicated to Christos ho Logos (Christ the Word) and a dedicatory inscription runs along its exterior walls.
The complex remained a Christian building for more than a century after the 1453 Ottoman conquest of Constantinople: it was converted into a mosque only in 1591 by Sultan Murad III who called it Fethiye Camii (Mosque of the Victory) to celebrate his campaigns in the Caucasus. Until then it served as the church of the Greek Orthodox Patriarch.
The subject of the decoration is consistent with the Parecclesion dedication to Christ. We know that there were mosaics depicting episodes of his life in addition to portraits in the dome and in the apse: of these only one survived: the Baptism of Christ which can be seen in the picture below. While the main building is still used as a mosque, the Parecclesion is now a museum (apparently with very few visitors, despite being located only a short distance from St. Saviour in Chora). Fanar, the district of Constantinople which used to be its Greek quarter after the Ottoman conquest, is currently the residence of the most religious Muslims of Istanbul; they came from rural regions of central and eastern Anatolia and settled in Fanar in the 1950s when a substantial number of Greeks left the city. They now pray with fervour in mosques which used to be churches and as in the case of Vefa Kilise Camii retain their origin in the name as kilise means church. It was a church dedicated to St. Theodore and it was built making use of material from an earlier building; the tall fluted minaret recalls that of Antalya.
In some instances churches were largely modified when turned into mosques; changes were made to orient them towards Mecca. This is the case of a church which was known as St. Andrew in Krisei; parts of the original building can be detected in the interior but overall it has now a typical Ottoman design.
Koca Mustafa Pacha was for many years Grand Vizier of Sultan Beyazit II. He lost his position and his life in 1512 during a short, but very cruel fight among Beyazit’s sons, who competed for succession.
Ayasma means holy spring and it is not uncommon to find Greek Orthodox churches or other religious establishments near a spring thought to have healing powers. The imperial palace of Blachernae was plundered and almost entirely destroyed after the conquest of Constantinople, but its famous holy spring continues to attract many people and not just Christians. It is not the only holy spring in the city: in addition to that of St. Karalamboy, there is another holy spring outside Silivri Kapi.
The Palace of the Porphyrogenitus or of Constantine Porphyrogenitus (Turkish: Tekfur Sarayı, which means “Palace of the born in the purple”) refers to the ruins of a 13th century Byzantine palace in the north-western part of the old city of Constantinople (present-day Istanbul, Turkey).
The Palace was constructed during the late 12th or early 13th centuries as part of the palace complex of Blachernae, where the Theodosian Walls join with the later walls of the suburb of Blachernae. Although the palace appears at first glance to be named after the 10th century emperor Constantine VII Porphyrogenitus, it was built long after his time, and is in fact named after Constantine Palaiologos, a son of the Emperor Michael VIII Palaiologos. “Porphyrogenitus”, meaning literally “born to the purple”, indicating a child born to a reigning emperor. The palace served as an imperial residence during the final years of the Byzantine Empire.
The palace suffered extensive damage due to its proximity to the outer walls during the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople in 1453. Afterwards it was used for a wide variety of purposes. During the 16th and 17th century, it housed part of the Sultan’s menagerie. The animals were moved elsewhere by the end of the 17th century, and the building was used as a brothel. From 1719, the Tekfur Sarayı pottery workshop was established, and began to produce ceramic tiles in a style similar to that of İznik tiles, but influenced by European designs and colors. The workshop had five kilns and also produced vessels and dishes. It lasted for around a century before going out of business, and by the first half of the 19th century, the building became a poorhouse for Istanbul Jews. In the early 20th century, it was briefly used as a bottle factory, before being abandoned. As a result, only the elaborate brick and stone outer façade survives today, the only major surviving example of secular Byzantine architecture. As of 2006, the palace was undergoing extensive restoration.
The Palace was a large three-story building located between the inner and outer fortifications of the northern corner of the Theodosian Walls. The ground floor is an arcade with four arches, which opens into a courtyard overlooked by five large windows on the first floor. The top floor of the structure project above the walls, and has windows on all four sides. On the east is the remnant of a balcony. The roof and all of the floors of the structure have disappeared. The remaining walls are elaborately decorated in geometric designs using red brick and white marble typical of the late Byzantine period.