Walking Tour 3: From the Land Walls to Balat & Fener

Start: St. Savior in Chora Byzantine Church (Kariye Muzesi)

Finish: Golden Horn Road in Ayakapi, in front of the Aya Nikola Church

Time: Two hours

Best Time: Sunday, market-day mornings, and during the Bayram, when you may actually get a glimpse of sheep being butchered for the Feast of the Sacrifice (or this could fall under "worst time"). Otherwise, any day during daylight.

Worst Time: During the Feast of the Sacrifice

One could describe the combined and contiguous neighborhoods of Ayvansaray, Balat, and Fener as a miniature chronicle of the Byzantine, Ottoman, and modern times. These streets have hosted the most influential of empires along with their monuments; housed a mosaic of communities and their support systems; and sustained earthquakes, fire, and sieges. Until recently, the neighborhoods had been forgotten by all but the most destitute of modern Turkish society. In 1997, UNESCO took notice. Then, in January 2003, a program of restoration and rehabilitation of the adjacent neighborhoods began, underwritten by the European Union under the direction of the Municipality of Fatih. While dozens of restoration projects are underway, the streets on this tour remain, for the most part, a (faded) mirror of what they were a mere hundred, or hundreds of years, ago. In fact, this walking tour is sparse on the "take a break" feature, because as of the time of this writing, there simply was no place to take a break other than what's listed here. I suspect that will have changed by the time you get there.

1. St. Savior in Chora

The heavy brick Byzantine structure that is the monastery of St. Savior "in the Country" was built in the 4th century A.D. on the main "Mese," or avenue, out toward Adrianople, today's Edirne, in Thrace. When Theodosius constructed his famous land walls in the 5th century A.D. to accommodate the growth of the city, the church was brought into the municipal fold, so to speak, and thus protected by the great line of defensive towers, walls, and moats that you will get a taste of just up the hill. But although the church sits inside the walls, the Byzantine bustle that once grew up around it has long since ceded to the surrounding neighborhood of working-class rural transplants and their more traditional brand of conservatism. The church is flanked on one side by an open square now bustling with visitors lingering at the outdoor tea garden, or perusing among the various vendors selling scarves, ceramic tiles, and postcards (all made in China).

Follow Kariye Camii Sok. up away from the museum and then turn right onto Nester Sok., which you will follow up the hill. At the top of the hill you arrive at the land walls.

2. Edirnekapi

Straight ahead you see the monumental Gate of Charisius (today known as Edirnekapi), the great portal into the Eastern Roman (Byzantine) Empire and the entryway by which Mehmet the Conqueror victoriously arrived into a defeated Constantinople. A plaque next to the portal commemorates the sultan's arrival. In the words of Evliya Çelebi, the famous Turkish historian and traveler who was present during the procession:

"The Sultan then having the pontifical turban on his head and sky-blue boots on his feet, mounted on a mule and bearing the sword of Mohammed in his hand, marched in at the head of seventy or eighty thousand Muslim heroes, crying out 'Halt not conquerors! God be praised! Ye are the conquerors of Constantinople!'"

Look to the south along the walls to the Mihrimah Sultan Camii, her minarets rising in the distance.

Walk along the walls, keeping them to your left. You are now walking the cobbled street running adjacent to a section of:

3. The Theodosian Land Walls

This is Ayvansaray, one of the poorest -- and most religiously conservative -- neighborhoods along the Golden Horn. The next nine or so towers complete the original section of the Theodosian walls, while the section completing the defenses down to the waterway were added later by subsequent emperors. Although most of these secondary towers are gated off, one or two still serve as tradesmen workshops, and one contains a public fountain added during Ottoman times. You can still take a peek inside some of these towers to get a glimpse of the lower stories. You will also see a steep stone staircase that leads to the top of the walls for a sweeping view of the Golden Horn and Beyoglu. The resident youth use the top of the walls as a pedestrian highway, and they will be surprised when you pop your head up. On the opposite side of the street are colorfully whitewashed and enchantingly dilapidated houses and shops fronted by the rare octogenarian sitting guard.

Along the road, you may pass a bundled housewife heading purposefully to her destination, but not so distracted that she won't cast a curious eye your way. Otherwise, your primary company will be the sound of your own shoes on the cobblestones.

About 600m (1,970 ft.) farther on from Edirnekapi, the walls open up to a multi-toned red-brick and limestone monolith towering above a small park. This is all that remains of the imperial glory that was:

4. The Palace of Constantine Porphyrogenitus

Known in Turkish as the Tekfur Sarayi, the palace is now under restoration. This palace is, or was, part of the Blachernae Imperial Complex, which began as a royal retreat in the middle of the 6th century A.D. under Emperor Anastasius, to accommodate visits to the nearby sacred ayasma (later in this walk).

The palace was enlarged and enriched over the next few centuries, particularly in the reign of Alexus I Comnenus. Under Manuele I (1143-80), the permanent residence of the imperial court was transferred from the Bucoleon Palace, along the Marmara Sea Walls, to this neighborhood, at that time known as Blachernae. After the fall of the city, the palace at Blachernae was abandoned and then used by the Ottomans as a stable for the elephants, giraffes, and other oversize and exotic animals that they corralled from Africa. Afterward, the building endured a further indignity as a brothel, and then later as a pottery plant, a bottling plant, and a poorhouse.

The perimeter is composed of the inner and outer rings of the defensive walls. In the park at the monolith's base there might be some old men tossing dice on a backgammon board, presumably one of them the patron of the goat chained nearby grazing on some blades of grass. There was also a chicken poking its head around the unkempt underbrush when last I visited.

If restoration work is completed by the time you arrive, climb up to the first story, where you can see the full and complex system that makes up the land walls stretching all the way south to the Sea of Marmara (daily 9am-7pm; admission 3TL).

Leaving the entrance of the Palace, turn left and follow Sishane Sok. Take the 90-degree right at the mosque and then the first left onto:

5. Egrikapi Mumhani Caddesi

The street you are now on is presumed to be the trajectory of the later land walls, although except for some crumbling masses of stones, you're more apt to ogle the mixture of dilapidated houses and '70s-style buildings swathed in funky exterior tiling. The road winds down and around through this quiet section of Ayvansaray, departing from Egrikapi Mumhani Caddesi as it continues straight onto Çedik Papuçlu Sokak. At one of the bends in the road is a dirt lot on your right, from which you can look out over the rooftops through to the Golden Horn. In the late afternoon, the schoolchildren may join you out of curiosity.

Continue down this street, through a zigzag to your left, and turn left at the "T" onto Mahkeme Külhane Sok. At the end of this short section of the street you will arrive at another "T." Directly opposite and slightly to the left is the:

6. Ivas Efendi Mosque

This mosque is set in a small overgrown garden containing a tiny Ottoman graveyard. Inside, apart from the tiled mihrab, representing the height of Iznik ceramic craftsmanship, the most notable characteristic of this mosque is that it sits atop a section of the defensive walls attached to Blachernae Palace.

Walk around to the back of the grounds of the mosque and you will come upon the remains of the:

7. Anemas Dungeon

It was from the Tower of Isaac Angelus that Emperor Alexius I Comnenus greeted the First Crusaders, and where the deposed Emperor Angelus was imprisoned. He was briefly released to share rule with his son Alexius IV, and then a year later, in 1214, both were locked up and then strangled. At least six Byzantine emperors shared similar fates, enduring torture, mutilation, or the more traditional punishment for a deposed ruler, blinding. From the lone park bench you can admire the elevated view over the northern neighborhoods of the Golden Horn (and the highway) and contemplate the fate of emperors. The staircase leading down to the chambers is currently cordoned off. Imagine the neighborhood urchins who get to explore the caverns underneath their homes when nobody is looking. (Did you remember to bring your flashlight?)

Exiting the main gate to the mosque, turn left onto Derviszade Sok. and stop at the next intersection, Ahmet Rufai Sok. On your right (there are some treacherous original marble stairs on the right side of Derviszade Sok., but the easier, ground-level entrance is on Ahmet Rufai Sok.) are the ruins of the:

8. Toklu Dede Tekkesi

Though the site is currently undergoing restoration, if the workers see you hesitate at the entrance, they will most likely invite you in for a look. Sadly, there's not much of anything original here. At first, this was the site of a late Byzantine church of unknown origins. The church was converted to a dervis lodge and named after Toklu Ibrahim Dede, who is said to have been a companion of Mohammad and present in the Arab siege of A.D. 673.

Ahmet Rufai Sok. narrows and ends at a wooden building that is also the Pembe Kösk Nargile Café. Take the meandering flight of stone steps straight down the hill to Albayrak Sok. Go left at the bottom of the steps and take the first right. At the next intersection, where the street meets with Mustafa Pasa Bostani Sok., is a small church, housing the:

9. Ayazma

The Ayazma, or Sacred Spring, is the most celebrated shrine to the Virgin Mary in all of Constantinople. Inside is an altar swathed in marble above the spring and a lovely little garden.

Turning right from the church, continue down the main, albeit quiet, neighborhood street of Mustafa Pasa Bostani Sok. and take the first left onto Çember Sok. The Byzantine-era church before you is now:

10. The Atik Mustafapasa Camii or Cabil Camii

The saint of this church has not been definitively identified; however, it is commonly understood, until proven otherwise, to be the Church of St. Thekla. What's special about the church -- believed to date to the 9th or 10th century A.D. -- is that it is the earliest example in Constantinople of a cross-in-square plan. It is also the first church constructed in the city after the period of Iconoclasm. If scholars hold to the belief that the plan represents a transition in the construction of Byzantine churches (not a done deal, by any means), then Thekla would be the predecessor to the canonical churches that sprouted up all over Russia in the 11th century. If you're a fan of barrel vaults, it's worth a walk-through, while the garden courtyard will inevitably be occupied by a scant handful of neighborhood grandfathers.

Retrace your steps to Mustafa Pasa Bostani Sok. and follow this street as it doglegs around to the right next to a high wall and empties into a triangular intersection. Turn left onto Agaçli Çesme Sok., and then immediately to your left is the continuation of the wall and a solid metal gate.

11. Ayadimitri Kilisesi (St. Demetrios)

A church bearing this name existed on this site as early as 1334, but the current church dates only to the first half of the 18th century. The church of St. Demetrios served as the Patriarchal See from 1597 to 1601; then briefly the Ecumenical Patriarchate operated out of the Virgin Paramythia until it found its final home at St. George, its current site . You can take your chances and hope the caretaker answers the bell, or contact the Ecumenical Patriarchate in advance for an appointment to visit the church. The plain, timber-roofed exterior is adorned by a pretty landscaped garden, the simplicity of which belies the restrained opulence of the interior decor. There are scenes from the life of Christ in the gallery, and the gilded iconostasis is covered in icons.

Continue down Agaçli Çesme Sok., a quiet street that runs parallel to and above the Golden Horn. By now, you've gotten the hang of identifying the Byzantine buildings by their construction of alternating red brick and limestone, often with a marble portal, so you should have no trouble now in locating the:

12. Balino Rum Kilisesi

Just a bit up on your right is the Balino Rum Kilisesi. This is the Church of the Mother of God Valinou. The church is in a terrible state of decay, both inside and out, so just admire the ruddy and ragged exterior and be on your way. Agaçli Çesme Sokak begins to enliven a bit as you continue past where the street name changes to Mahkeme Alti Caddesi.

Take a Break -- Orkide Pastanesi, Mahkeme Alti Cad. 34, with its pink exterior, is an unpretentious local cafe/bakery where you can sit down and get sweet or savory cookies and a cup of tea. (If you're hungering for more than just some pastries, an alternative "take a break" at a local eatery is below.)

Exiting the bakery, you are now in:

13. Balat

This is the point in the walking tour where the street life and people-watching gets more interesting. You are walking in the direction of the Balat Market, a local area of shops (many of which are being restored) formerly owned by local Jewish families. Today, they are a semi-collapsed grouping of stores hidden behind haphazard displays of household plumbing, hardware, and other daily necessities.

At the corner of Ferruh Kahya Sok. you see the portal to the:

14. Ferruh Kethüda Camii

This is a minor work of the architect Sinan. It was once used as a hall for performances of the Whirling Dervises, as well as a lodge for the Sümbüli order of dervises. Some of the interior decoration, namely the marble mihrab and the wooden stalactite ornamentation on the capitals, is noteworthy, but I like this mosque for the intimacy of the courtyard. Park benches line the perimeter of the entry court, where on hot summer days the local men jockey for a spot on one of the benches out of the sun's rays. Have a seat here and soak up the vibe; these guys are not yet used to seeing visitors, so you can still enjoy a curious welcome and at the very least, a warm smile.

There is a narrow garden path that cuts through the mosque grounds to the left of the entrance; follow its diagonal trajectory back out to Mahkeme Alti Cad.

15. Balat Market

At its zenith in the 18th century, the labyrinth of streets that comprise the market was at the center of a flurry of activity, a bustling community revolving around these single-storied shops once owned by the Jewish merchants of the neighborhood. Most of the buildings have long since been scarred by metal shuttered doors or silenced behind layers of crumbling plaster, but if you look up, some of the buildings will reveal their faded glory. Look for the odd arched brick facade atop decorative friezes, hidden behind a thick mesh of ivy. Note the restoration in progress at nos. 1, 8, 12, 14, 16, and 17.

Straight ahead, the street splits in two by a crumbling island of burnished shops, many shaded by gloomy (albeit very photogenic) plastic or corrugated steel awnings. This cozy section of the market bustles with what seems to be mostly passersby, while a few hardware store owners and adolescent workers mill about the outsides of their shops. Take a minute to absorb this pseudo-square then take the left fork into the warren that is Lavanta Sokak.

After a few steps down this narrow stretch of sidewalk, you will arrive at a confusing intersection, with streets seemingly branching off into all directions. Turn left onto Hizir Çavus Köprüsü Sok. Restoration work is scheduled for nos. 41, 49, 49A, 90A, 29, and 7, so I'm sending you down this way to show you a:

16. Typical Balat Street

Here is an example of what a typical Balat street would have looked like in its heyday in the 17th to 19th centuries. Notice the architectural richness of the neighborhood, characterized by three- and four-storied narrow buildings with protruding enclosed balconies. This is a typical feature of the Jewish houses, with some bearing Hebrew inscriptions, displaying the star of David, or including an engraved stone with the recurrent theme of a boat -- the symbol said to represent the lifeline provided to the expelled Jews of Spain in 1492 by the Sultan.

At the end of Hizir Çavus Köprüsü Sok. (before it changes names to Yildirim Cad.), you will see the Golden Horn on your left and the manic Mürselpasa Cad. Carefully, and I mean carefully, cross the street. It's only two lanes, but they're wicked. You are now standing on a long strip of green parallel to the Golden Horn and sandwiched between two major roadways. This strip used to house some of Balat's statelier homes, but a project carried out in the 1980s by the mayor to "reclaim" what had deteriorated into an eyesore saw the demolition of entire paragraphs in Balat's and Istanbul's history. Look back at the crumbling wall of buildings from where you crossed, and you'll get an idea of what this neighborhood had come to. Immediately on your left, hiding in plain sight, is the:

17 Metochion of Mt. Sinai

This building consists of a Feneriote mansion typical of the upper Ottoman Greek society. For now, it's boarded up, but you can walk around to the park side and see the surreal picture of an extended family of squatters spilling out onto the formerly grand marble terrace of the adjoining chapel. The house itself served for a time as a warehouse and factory.

Take a Break -- Because of your proximity to one of the more renowned little meatball houses in the area, this might be a good time to stop for real sustenance. Back on the other side of Mürselpasa Caddesi, at no. 155 (tel. 0212/531-6652), is Köfteçi Arnavut. Here you can order as authentic a working-man's meal as you can get: köfte, as the name implies, piyaz (bean salad), and arnavut çigeri (fried liver the way the Armenians make it). The kitchen runs out of food by 2 or 3pm, and then shuts down for the day.

With the Golden Horn on your left, straight ahead at 12 o'clock is:

18. St. Stephen of the Bulgars

The Gothic exterior gives the impression that this church is an ornament on a wedding cake, and that you can almost eat it. As you approach, you'll notice a little hammock in the corner of the grounds where the caretaker takes refuge from the scorching heat of summer. He or his son will greet you at the gate, leaving you to your own devices in admiring the interior craftsmanship and the verdant and inviting garden. The son will likely follow you around, offering helpful hints in rudimentary English.

Cross back to the inland side of the street and turn right on the tiny street just before the lighted intersection. If you have it in you, continue up the steep cobbled hill, or you can just look up, as you can't actually go in the next building on our itinerary. What appears to be a château is the:

19. Fener Rum Erkek Lisesi (Fener Roman Boys School)

The sounds of childhood emanate from within both the school and its courtyard, but it's the unmistakable red steeple that dominates this corner of Istanbul. This is the crowning jewel of Fener and the principal school for the small Greek population.

Go back down the hill and turn right onto Vodina Cad. (or turn left if you did not go up the hill).

20. Vodina Caddesi

This street extends all the way back to the Ahrida Sinagogue and was once the social stage of Balat, a promenade where families could stroll, socialize, gather, and hold events.

Just a short walk ahead, turn left where Vodina comes to an end, and then right onto Yildirim Caddesi. At the next major "opening" in the road, look to your left; this is where the Fener (or Phanar) Gate, one of the entryways through the defensive walls along the Golden Horn, used to be.

Continue straight on a few steps and you will come to an entryway; past a security check up some marble steps on your right is:

21. The Ecumenical Patriarchate

Today enclosed within a high stone wall, the relocation of the Orthodox Patriarchate in 1601 to this spot gave the neighborhood of Fener a shot in the arm. For the next 2 centuries, the bourgeoisie of Greek Istanbul, wanting to be in proximity to this seat of power, descended on Fener, and built homes, mansions, and villas. You'll be sharing your visit mostly with the new class of wealthy Russian tourists and the odd Serbian couple here on pilgrimage. It's enough to see the wondrous reverence in their eyes to overcome your awe at the opulence of the interior. Admire the graceful mosaics of symmetrical angels over the interior portal of the nave, and try not to be blinded by the halo of lights reflected off of the iconostasis (the gold screen with icons).

Exit to the right and stop in front of the oversize steel gate in the section of the exterior wall of the grounds.

22. The Patriarchal Main Gate

On April 22, 1821, this gate was permanently welded shut as a symbol of the eternal grief caused by the death of Gregory V, then the Patriarch who was hanged at this very spot. Gregory was an unfortunate and innocent victim of the reprisals by the Ottomans after the Greek Revolt in Peloponnesus.

Continue along the cobbled Yildirim Cad., which curves around to the left. Just before it empties out into the chaos of Istanbul, take note of the empty lot to your left. This is the former site of the:

23. Gate of Petrion

It was here that in 1204, Doge Dandalo breached the city's defenses and led the Latin crusaders to victory (and why the bronze horses are at St. Mark's in Venice rather than at the Hippodrome, where they belong). The fateful precedent was set, for in 1453, although the Petrion Gate's defenses managed to withstand the onslaught by the Ottoman invaders, its defenders surrendered upon hearing that the city had fallen. Because of this admission of defeat, Fatih Mehmet spared the neighborhood from the general sacking permitted to his soldiers in the rest of the city. But, like the rest of Istanbul, this neighborhood was not spared the sacking that came in more modern times. The destruction of monuments like this one for municipal progress and development has been a sad, recurring theme throughout Istanbul, one that seems to be heading, thankfully, into decline.

This marks the end of the tour. You can either wander around (you are now in the extremely untouristy neighborhood of Ayakapi), or cross the highway to the banks of the Golden Horn and enjoy some sea breezes and Istanbul vistas. The ferry at the Fener docks can get you back to Haliç, near but not at Eminönü via Kasimpasa, or hop on the no. 55T bus to Taksim or the no. 99A bus to Eminönü.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.