Toward the shores of the Golden Horn — a historic estuary dividing Istanbul’s old city and forming a natural harbor — you will find a rare historic neighborhood away from the bustling city life downtown. The neighborhood of Balat derives its name from its former role as a 15th-century palace, of which Tekfur Palace is all that remains.
The neighborhood is traditionally known for its freedom and tolerance and attracted Romans, Armenians, and ethnic minorities alike over the centuries. Balat’s architecture and people have an authentic spirit that has been lost in much of Istanbul. In 1988 this neighborhood, together with Ecumenical Patriarchate, was designated a UNESCO Cultural Heritage Site.
For most of its history, Balat was left to its own devices and its mainly working-class residents enjoyed a high degree of self-direction. Some of this liberty continues today: children play street games and women sit on door steps embroidering.
But in the last few years, Balat has been discovered by photographers and television and film producers. At virtually every photography exhibit focusing on Istanbul, you’re guaranteed to see at least one image from Balat — a street dog basking in the sun, children playing hide and seek, locals puffing a cigar at a coffee shop, an old man counting his prayer beads.
With fame comes change and a local property developer has recently announced his plan to spend $140 million to renovate more than 60 buildings, dating mostly from the early- to mid-19th century. This and other plans to gentrify the area will likely alter Balat’s authentic spirit, and its ability to transport visitors though time.
Part of a NileGuide Special Report: 25 Destinations to See Before They Change Forever.
[All images are courtesy of Photographer Gülgün Özdil]