Memories in Balat

By Yelda Baler


On the shore of the Golden Horn I entered the narrow streets of Ayvansaray in the old walled city of Istanbul and found myself walking beneath lines of colourful laundry hung between the upper storeys of old wooden houses. The laundry seemed to be dancing to the tune of centuries old memories. When I came to a high pink wall I followed it to an iron door, and pushing it open found myself at the Blachernae Ayazma or Sacred Spring, a part of the Byzantine Blachernae Palace.

The palace was built as a small pavilion in the 5th century, but from the 11th century became the main imperial residence of the Byzantine emperors. The sacred spring originally stood inside Blachernae Church, which was the most venerated Byzantine church after Haghia Sophia. The church was extensively restored three times after it was built but finally burnt to ashes in 1434 after children trying to catch pigeons started a fire. Inside the building housing the spring, candles were burning and the air was heavy with the fragrance of incense. I drank some of the water infused with memories of the long and eventful past.

Back on the street I walked up the hill and came in sight of ivaz Efendi Mosque, standing on the terrace of Blachernae Palace where banquets were held many centuries ago. The mosque was constructed in the 1580s, and it is thought that the architect trained under the great 16th century Ottoman architect Mimar Sinan. This attractive mosque reflects the innovative style of the time. Next to the mosque is the Anemas Dungeon, and descending the narrow ramp at the entrance I found myself in complete darkness. With a shiver of trepidation I lit one match after another and entered its passageways by their flickering light. Anemas Dungeon is one of the surviving structures of the palace, along with a second tower and the substructures. The upper floors of the towers were used as living quarters. Today the impressive dungeons below ground are a favourite location for historic Turkish films. A little higher up the hill, just inside the city walls I came to Tekfur Palace, the most important of the Byzantine imperial palaces and the only one still standing.

The palace commands a magnificent view over the city, the Golden Horn,and the districts outside the walls. The entrance, with its portico of four arches, opens on to the courtyard. In the 18th century the palace was used as a porcelain manufactory. The facade of this remarkable late Byzantine building is decorated with geometrical designs in brick and white marble. Setting off downhill again through the narrow streets I came to the Greek Hancerli Church, where there is another sacred spring inside a tiny building. Descending its narrow stairs I saw an icon which gave the impression of having barely managed to
squeeze a place for itself on the wall, and candles burning beneath  it. Beyond was the pool where the spring water collects, and in its shadows I sought images from the past. My next stop was Lonca, the most colourful neighbourhood in this part of the city, where the inhabitants are mainly gypsies. I walked through the lively streets, where women chatted at their doors, and as I passed they invited me to a bridal bath ceremony that was about to begin.

In these ancient streets with their bay fronted houses such old Ottoman traditions still continue. The procession of women in lace dresses holding parasols passed, one holding a tray containing bath clogs and soap for the bride. To the sound of drum and flute I followed them to Arabacilar Hamam, built by Sultan Mehmed II's chief gun carriage maker in the 15th century. The procession entered the bath, but I carried on through the side streets, where to the sound of music from inside the houses women cheerfully washed carpets on trestles in front of their houses, their hands covered with frothy soap lather. Leaving the smell of soap behind I came to Ferruh Kethuda Mosque in Balat. Although built by Mimar Sinan, the mosque has been so extensively repaired over the centuries that little trace remains of the original 16th century building. I continued downhill to the Armenian Church of Surp Hre$dagabet, where a service was in progress to commemorate a special day in the Gregorian calendar when it is believed that a miracle always takes place following the service.

Those who are sick recover and those who are paralysed walk. By tradition a scratch is made in the ears of some sheep, and small cuts in the combs of cockerels. The sounds of praying and bells rose on the air, and rays of light through the windows carried hopes and pleas up to heaven. I left the church and wandered on past narrow stone houses with bay windows built by the Jewish inhabitants of this neighbourhood. I put out my hand and touched the stones. The scent of geraniums on the window sills mingled sometimes with the aroma of jam cooking within, and with the smell of soap from recent cleaning. Balat has been destroyed by fire eighteen times, and each time rebuilt, so the stones have little to tell. I walked beneath vines and creepers  linking the houses, and greeted the tradesmen conversing with their neighbours outside their shops.

In this old area of Istanbul the streets are infused with memories of past centuries, and I felt like a time traveller. Dreams of the past wafted on the breeze as I walked away.

* Yelda Baler is a freelance writer

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