Fatih, I realized this weekend, is the most underappreciated part of the city.
Meaning “conqueror” after Fatih Mehmet who conquered Constantinople in 1453, Fatih is the part of Turkey that coincides with the historic peninsula, from the Golden Horn waterfront to the Sea of Marmara. It subsumes Sultanahmet and Eminönü, two of the most touristic portions of the city. Yet these districts are just tiny slivers of the vast culturally, spiritually, and historically fertile space encompassed within Fatih’s borders. As you can see below, a visitor can easily spend the better part of a day just visiting old sites of Christian worship, not to mention the striking Fener Lise, Valens Aqueduct, the Theodosian Wall, the Palace of the Porphyrogenitus, the neighborhoods full of centuries-old wooden Ottoman houses, and of course many mosques, tombs, and markets.
Unfortunately, Fatih, for whatever mysterious reasons, was never integrated into the usual tourist circuits; it lacks touristic amenities like hotels, ATMs, and maps, so sightseers tend not to plunge into its admittedly labyrinthine depths. Also working against Fatih among the local is its distinct reputation as one of the most religious-conservative parts of European Istanbul. Most foreign residents and even some native Istanbullites tend to avoid or deride it and its inhabitants, who are often associated with beards and baggy shalvar pants for men, face- and body-obscuring black gowns for the women, and poor-villager lifestyles.
This reputation and the associated assumptions are a shame for many reasons, not least of which is the great cultural wealth and history in Fatih. During Byzantine times this area was one of the centers of life and commerce. After the conquest of 1453 it was one of the first areas developed by the city’s new Turkish rulers. These later Ottoman developments, such as the Fatih and Selim mosque complexes, are well known. Less renowned are the older churches and other architectural artifacts of Christian power and influence. In fact, the Ecumenical Patriarchate–the seat of the Eastern Orthodox church and the residence of the Patriarch of the Orthodox Christian faith–is in Fener, a waterfront neighborhood of Fatih. But that is just the tip of the iceberg.
So in honor of Easter, try this Christian-themed Istanbul day trip and reach your own conclusions. Maybe you’ll even find the defunct dilapidated churchyard (not listed here) now being used as a goat pen. In the list below, the historical Byzantine/Christian name of the site is given first, with the later Ottoman/Turkish appellation in parentheses. For those who attempt this scavenger hunt, my recommendation would be to start at the north end of the district, in Fatih Square next to the aqueduct, and zigzag your way down toward the Golden Horn–this way you avoid climbing uphill and at the end can relax on the grassy, sunny waterfront at the end of your walking tour.
Chora Church (Kariye Camii)
Chora takes precedence on this list as the most famous and beautiful of the churches in Fatih. Its insides are replete with stunning frescoes and mosaics which rival that on Aya Sofya’s walls. Like the Aya Sofya, it was a church, then a converted mosque, and now the whole site stands as a museum. If you don’t see any of the other sites in this list, be sure to take time to visit Chora and its wonderful frescoes.
Christ Pantokrater (Molla Zeyrek Camii)
After the Aya Sofya, Zeyrek Mosque is the largest remaining Byzantine edifice in the city. It used to be two churches and a chapel, but the Ottomans later combined them into one mosque. As with many Byzantine structures, it features graceful, organically flowing lines of its recessed brickwork, a rhythmic pattern of delicately windows, and a cascade of leaden domes overhead. It also sits on a hillside wth a stunning view of the Golden Horn and Galata Tower.
Christ Pantepoptes (Eski İmaret Cami)
Not far from Zeyrek is this former church and convent. It’s the oldest known church, dating from the 11th century. Unlike the other examples in this list, the roof of Eski İmaret is covered in brick tiles rather than lead and is architecturally distinctive in other ways. Unfortunately, it’s hard to get an adequate look in the crowded street, and the structure seems in need of further restorations since it was last restored in 1970 (Photo by Caner Cangul).
Pammakaristos Church (Fethiye Cami)
Fethiye Mosque dates from the 11th century and until 1587 was the seat of the Orthodox Patriarchate. Fethiye takes third place, after Aya Sofya and Chora, as the most famous and well-decorated Byzantine church in the city today. It contains several beautiful, radiant Byzantine mosaics impressively restored and in great condition. The image of Christ Pantokrator in the main apse is masterpiece of subtle color gradation and soft flowing folds and pleats; another visage of Christ surrounded by apostles stares down from the golden dome (pictured above).
The main part of the structure is a functioning mosque while the side chapel has been dedicated as a museum. (Fodor’s adds the trivia that in this chapel, Mehmet the Conqueror would talk religion and politics with his hand-picked patriarch, Gennadius.) Fethiye has an advantage over the other church-museums in that it is off the beaten path and rarely visited, unlike Chora which is always overrun with visitors (justifiably so, but still). Alone in the chapel, you get the opportunity to really appreciate the shape of the space and commune with the sacred art.
Saint Theodosia Church? (Gül Cami)
Historians still are not agreed about the age, original name, or purpose of the church now known as Gül Mosque–perhaps it was associated with the worship and convent of Saint Theodosia. It is located on a quiet, green corner of Fatih across from some under-renovation Turkish baths. Elevated above ground level and unmitigated by the succession of cascading arches of the other churches in this list, the exterior of Gül is steep and imposing. The building is hemmed in on all sides by neighboring structures, but from Ataturk Bridge its silver domes can be seen peeking out over the sea of roofs, as in this photo.
When I arrived, the mosque was locked but a kind custodian let me in, and I found it to be an intimate and moving space on the inside. The passage of time is not usually kind to these churches–Christian iconoclasts are often the first dramatically alter the look and feel of a church, and conversion into a mosque brings further changes. In addition to the installation of a minaret, mihrab, minbar, carpeting, etc., many converted churches in Istanbul have their interior walls knocked down, obliterating the original floor plan and changing the entire feel of the space, such that the inside of many co-opted mosques is often no different than being in a non-converted mosque. However, I didn’t find this to be the case here–despite the usual cosmetic installation, the interior architecture of Gül Mosque still somehow looked and felt like a church–probably because it is such a petite, compact building that there wasn’t much to remove. If you can get inside this church, it’s worth seeing.
St. Stephen Bulgarian Church
St. Stephen is, unlike any of the preceding churches, still an active Christian place of worship. It’s also the only church in this list that is not Eastern Orthodox–it is affiliated with the Bulgarian Exarchate Church–and not Byzantine constructed. It is much newer, the current cast-iron structure having been completed in the early 20th century. Intriguingly, the entire structure was prefabricated in Austria, shipped through the Black Sea, and reconstructed in Istanbul in the same wave of cast-iron architecture that spawned the Eiffel Tower. With its gleaming white exterior, sparkling golden detailing, and prime real estate on the waterfront facing the Golden Horn, St. Stephen is hard to miss and, to be honest, a visual relief after the succession of squat red brick churches on narrow streets.
Most Venerable Patriarchate of St. George
St. George is where the Patriarch of the Eastern Orthodox church, the current Archbishop Patriarch Bartholemew, resides and presides. Given the Patriarchate’s status and jurisdiction over generations of worshipers for over one and a half centuries, the scale of its principal church and grounds are surprisingly modest (but an understandable disparity considering the frequent tension and often outright aggression the Orthodox Church has faced from the rulers of Istanbul since the conquest.) Successive Patriarchal churches have been damaged or destroyed by fires over the centuries. The current shape of the church largely is based on reconstructions in 1797, and its Neo-Classical appearance comes from a revamping of the facade in the mid-19th century.
However humble the outside may be, the inside is classic lavish Orthodox style, as I noted this past Easter Sunday. I attended the morning vespers conducted by Patriarch Bartholemew and his synod. It was a beautiful service filled with candlelight, incense, and–yes–Russian pilgrims taking selfies. All around us, the interior of the church was extravagantly adorned with golden moldings and filigrees, gilded icons, towering candles, and many other objects and sights of reverence. Certainly an uplifting way to end to a walking tour.
Read more about visiting Fatih in this overview at Scoprire Istanbul.