Exploring Istanbul's History through its Neighborhoods

“It was in Cihangir that I first learned Istanbul was not an anonymous multitude of walled-in lives - a jungle of apartments where no one knew who was dead or who was celebrating what - but an archipelago of neighborhoods in which everyone knew each other.” - Orhan Pamuk

One of Istanbul’s many qualities is that it doesn’t feel like the megalopolis of 22 million people that it is. From a bird’s eye view, yes, it is a massive, hectic, unending sprawl of chaos. But strolling around its neighborhoods, it certainly doesn’t feel that way. On the ground, it feels like you are walking around a small neighborhood, one of dozens that make up a large city. During my time here, I’ve been able to explore lots of these little neighborhoods, each with its own distinct feel and identity. Some neighborhoods are more conservative and others are very laid back. Other areas were inhabited by mostly Greeks or Jews during the Ottoman Empire; others yet were - and still are - important areas for Muslims. Here is a guide to some of Istanbul’s underrated neighborhoods; an exploration of this fascinating city’s heritage.


Eyüp

One of Istanbul’s most religious areas, Eyüp takes its name from the prophet Muhammad’s close companion and standard-bearer, Abu Ayyub al-Ansari. In 674 AD, he died of dysentery during the First Arab Siege of Constantinople, and was promptly buried outside of the city walls. When the Muslims - this time, the Ottomans - finally succeeded in taking Constantinople in 1453, a tomb and adjacent mosque were built in this area north of the Golden Horn. Eight centuries after the Muslims’ first attempt to conquer Constantinople, the prophet’s companion was reinterred here as his final resting place, and the neighborhood was renamed Eyüp.

Thus considered sacred ground, Eyüp was used as an important ceremonial site during the Ottoman Empire. Sultans would come here two weeks after their ascension to the throne to receive the Sword of Osman, a sword of state passed down from generation to generation. Hosting the enthronement ceremony in Eyüp carried lots of political and religious weight; it meant that newly enthroned sultans had received the implicit blessings of both the first Ottoman sultan and the prophet Muhammad himself. The idea is that the sultan received his legitimacy here: both his political leadership as leader of the Ottoman Empire, and his religious authority as Caliph of all Muslims. Eyüp remains a pilgrimage site for Muslims who come here from all over the world to pay their respects to Muhammad’s close friend. As such, the area is considered holy by many followers of the faith.

Eyüp is also the site of a massive hill that rises dramatically above the site of the tomb and mosque complex. Built into this hill is an old Ottoman cemetery, which is a sought-out burial site for many of Turkey’s pious Muslims due to its proximity to Ayyub’s tomb and the beautiful view that the hill affords. Strolling around this beautiful leafy hilltop graveyard, I noticed many odd-looking dates that didn’t quite seem to make sense. One man, for example, was born in 1261 and buried in 1956. Wondering how someone could be 695 years old, I asked my friend Onur about the dates. As it turns out, these mismatched dates were a result of Atatürk adopting the Gregorian calendar over the Islamic calendar in 1925. The Islamic calendar begins in the Gregorian equivalent of 622 AD - meaning that 1261 in fact corresponds to 1883. The tombstones provide striking evidence to a history of great upheaval: they bear witness to the fact that a man was once born under the Islamic Ottoman Empire and died under a secular nation-state. Today, the hill is almost completely full of tombs, and rumor has it that a plot of land for a tomb now goes for upwards of $50,000.

On the very top of this hill, there are many pleasant cafes that provide beautifully rewarding views of the entire Golden Horn. This area is known as the “Pierre Loti Hill” after the late-19th and early-20th century French author and orientalist Pierre Loti. Tradition has it that Loti would sit here and write his novels as he sipped tea and enjoyed the view. Indeed, he picked a great spot: the tree-shaded cafes that line the hilltop provide a beautiful respite from the city below.


Fener

The Ottoman Empire was a cosmopolitan, tolerant, and multi-religious empire. Under the millet system, non-believers were allowed to practice their faith and have autonomous self-rule as long as they paid a special non-believer tax. For hundreds of years, Greek Orthodox Christians, Armenians, Italians, and Jews lived freely under the Ottoman Empire, and even thrived as wealthy bankers, merchants, and traders. Fener and Balat, two adjacent neighborhoods on the western banks of the Golden Horn, were two of the most important neighborhoods for Greeks and Jews between the 17th and 20th centuries. Fener was known as the “Little Greece” of Istanbul, and Balat was a prominent Jewish neighborhood; however, both neighborhoods were home to other minorities such as Bulgarians and Italians.

Fener, which comes from the word for lighthouse in Greek, is the site of some very significant buildings. The first is the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople. This is the capital of the Greek Orthodox Church; the equivalent of the Vatican for the Eastern Orthodox religion. The leader to approximately 300 million Eastern Orthodox Christians is (technically) based here. His official title is as follows: His All Holiness, Bartholomew I, Archbishop of Constantinople, New Rome, and Ecumenical Patriarch. Reading between the lines, one can begin to understand the direct lineage traced from the Byzantines - Greek-speaking Christians and inheritors of the Roman Empire - all the way to the present day. This building has been the capital of the Greek Orthodox Church since the early 1600s. Despite the 1919-1922 Greco-Turkish War, the exodus of most Greeks since then, and other political turbulences, the building has stubbornly remained here in Constantinople; once the mighty capital of the Byzantine Empire.


Second is the Fener Greek Orthodox College. Established in 1454, this high school is exceptional. A massive red brick building on a hill that you can see from miles away, it is nicknamed “The Red Castle” by locals. The school is still open, and in addition to the regular Turkish curriculum, pupils also receive instruction on Greek language and literature.

Finally, there is the Church of St. Stephen of the Bulgars, an old Bulgarian church that sits right on the water of the Golden Horn. The church was built in Vienna entirely out of cast-iron pieces in 1871. It was then disassembled, shipped to Constantinople, and re-assembled right on the shore. A restoration project just finished in 2018 has given it its new, shiny, golden façade, which now looks a bit out of place among the decaying port and old homes of the surrounding neighborhood.


In addition, neighboring Balat is a great neighborhood to visit. Full of trendy cafes, bars, and restaurants, it is known as an “up-and-coming” area, and the area is visibly experiencing a renewal. The observant visitor will notice occasional Hebrew lettering or a Star of David on some of the older buildings; a testament to the fact that it was once a major neighborhood for Jews during the Ottoman Empire.


Fener and Balat both share streets adjacent to each other, so the areas are often indistinguishable from one another. A stroll around both of these neighborhoods is well worth the time.



Tarlabaşı

Most Istanbullus will tell you simply not to go to Tarlabaşı. “The place is awful - it’s full of drug dealers and prostitutes,” a friend once told me. Walking around, I mostly saw families out for a stroll, old men tending to their wares in little corner stores, and kids running around in the street. It is admittedly true that I was whispered offers for hashish and cocaine while strolling around, yet the neighborhood seems to suffer from a reputation that isn’t completely fair.

The neighborhood’s poor reputation stems from a history that is as tragic as it is fascinating. Once one of Istanbul’s most beautiful neighborhoods, many wealthy Greeks and Armenians lived in Tarlabaşı until the early 20th century. After the fall of the Ottoman Empire after World War I, the new statesmen like Mustafa Kemal Atatürk had work to do. How do you make a unified country out of the ashes of a large, multi-ethnic, multi-religious empire? The process of Turkification had begun.

As history has shown us time and time again, nationalism can be an effective tool in forging nation-states out of a common identity. In the years after the fall of the Ottoman Empire, the new country called Turkey was no stranger to this process. One particularly shameful incident came in the form of the 1955 Istanbul pogrom, in which many Greek businesses and homes were burned and looted due to a false rumor propagated by Turkish press. The increasingly intolerant period during the postwar period led many non-Muslim minorities to flee the country. By some estimates, over 15,000 Greeks left Turkey between 1955 and 1960. Quite literally over night, many of the old Greek, Armenian, and Italian apartment buildings - beautiful turn-of-the-century belle époque homes - were left abandoned. These homes were either left to rot or were occupied by poor families from rural areas, like economic migrants from the Black Sea region, or Kurds fleeing violence from Turkey’s southeast.

Today, this once-beautiful neighborhood is now devastatingly run-down. Buildings are literally crumbling, and many of the living conditions seem either unsanitary or unsafe. For decades, this has been known as one of the “no-go” zones in Istanbul: in the collective conscience of most Istanbullus, it is the refuge of extremists, drug dealers, gypsies, and thugs.


Tarlabaşı is now on the cusp of radical change: recently, I was shocked to hear that buildings in the area are now being sold for upwards of a million dollars. This is because the neighborhood is at the forefront of a project led by the current government - the AK Party and its leader Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Istanbul is a city that is constantly changing and evolving, and Tarlabaşı - whether for good or bad - has found itself the focal point of an ongoing debate about gentrification and urban renewal. The government’s plan is to demolish entire blocks of this neighborhood to make way for luxury apartments, hotels, and condos. Surely, new investments will bring in trendy restaurants, bars, and cafes. What remains to be seen is what will happen to the families that have lived here for decades - and what their choice is in their fate.