The Karabaş neighborhood housing the Riva Foundation buildings, which was once called “Balat on sea” and “floating Balat”, used to be one of the poorest quarters of Balat. The most common vocations of the neighborhood included street vending, stevedoring, and boatmanship. Karabaş hosted the docks which provided access to other districts of İstanbul via the Golden Horn.

Many buildings in Balat were destroyed after the 1894 earthquake and repeated fires. Most recently, with the Golden Horn environmental restoration and restructuring projects of 1984-1986, the entire old Balat shoreline has been demolished.

Balat has been included in the Rehabilitation Project together with the Fener district in 1985 within the framework of the UNESCO Convention Concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage. This project aims to improve the quality of life in Balat. The Balat Opal, Balat Ametist and Balat Kuvars buildings which are among the Riva Foundation restoration projects in support of the UNESCO project are envisioned to bring a new perspective to the district. Hopefully, they will carry Balat beyond the conventional art and design map of İstanbul and gradually gentrify the location.

More images;
Balat Opal
Balat Kuvars

Brief History of Balat

The district of Balat, which derives its name from the Greek ‘palation’ meaning palace, is located between Fener and Ayvansaray on the historical peninsula, encompassing the Golden Horn shoreline of the district and the hills towards Eğrikapı behind the historic İstanbul city walls. The initial inhabitants of the district, Byzantine Jews called Romaniyots, were later joined by the Ashkenazi Jews invited to İstanbul from Hungary by Fatih Sultan Mehmet in the 15th century and the Sephardic Jews invited by Bayezit the 2nd from Spain and Portugal in the 16th century. Turks who come to İstanbul once again upon the quest of Fatih (sources indicate Balat and Fener to be the first Turkish neighborhoods in İstanbul) and the Byzantine Greeks also lived in Balat with the Jews. Later on Armenians and other communities from various parts of the country also joined the Jewish community in the district.

Some of the architecture in Balat consists of two-three storey brick or stone houses. Other wooden buildings are usually three floors plus half storey. These buildings, some of which were inhabited by groups of poor Jewish families were called Yahudhane. While Balat is primarily a Jewish district, it is also a neighborhood where most of the main ethnic and religious sites of Ottoman society existed in close proximity. Other monuments in the district include the Yanbol Synagogue, the Ahrida Synagogue (one of the most important synagogues of İstanbul), the Surp Hreşdagabet Gregorian Church and the Or-Ahayim Jewish Hospital. Now known as the Balat Hospital, Or-Ahayim has been operational since 1886. The Ayios Orthodox Church, Tahta Minare Mosque and Hamam, Çarşı Hamam, Kasturya Synagogue, Balat İskele Mosque, Draman Mosque and Ferruh Kethüda Mosque (the most interesting characteristic of this mosque is that it once housed the Balat court in its courtyard) are also among the noteworthy monuments.

The Karabaş neighborhood where the Foundation buildings are located is on the Ayvansaray border of Balat. Ayvansaray is a mixed neighborhood with a predominantly Turkish population. It also becomes a neighborhood of significance for the Muslims as the tombs of the sahaba (companions of Muhammad) that are said to have died in battle before the walls when the Arabs besieged İstanbul, are also located here. The Atik Mustafa Paşa Mosque which used to be a church is also in this neighborhood. The most “monumental” structure on the Golden Horn, İvaz Efendi Mosque has a unique architectural style. Historical accounts indicate that Balat, which had its golden period in the 17th century, had a pier to which any cargo ship could dock, yet still depict the district as worn down, dark and humid. Due to repeated fires, the urban texture has been constantly renewed and new settlements have emerged. The historical maps reveal regular housing areas along the shoreline and the adjacent area within the city walls. On the steep Kasturya area, one finds a more traditional texture and more green fields. The important neighborhoods of Balat are: Outer Balat, Tahta Minare, Karabaş, Dubek, Inner Balat, Kasturya, İstipol and Lonca Neighborhood.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, especially after the decrease of commercial activity in the Golden Horn due to the capitulations and the consecutive fires Kuzguncuk, Galata and Pera emerged as the more popular districts. The establishment of first state factories, then all kinds of workshops and slaughterhouses beginning with the second half of the 19th century changed the character of Balat significantly. The fires have led to the near complete destruction of the urban texture with the burning down of workshops around the docks, the wooden warehouses, log shops, windmills, monuments such as the synagogue, mosque and hamam in the city walls and the small wooden houses. The narrow roads have been broadened and a grid plan was applied to the district. Finally with the Golden Horn clean-up and restructuring projects between 1984-1986 most of the old Balat shoreline has been demolished. The Jews prospering in the 19th century have migrated to mainly Galata, and also to Şişli, Kurtuluş and Pangaltı. The disruption of trade during the First World War, the 1942 wealth tax imposed on non-Muslims and the foundation of Israel in 1948 have also led to the relocation of the Jewish community. The spread of land routes and diminution of sea transportation have deeply transformed the traditional commerce of Balat.

Docks connecting İstanbul’s various districts via the Golden Horn were located on the shoreline called Outer Balat. These were the Yemiş Dock which provided transportation to and from the Eminönü fruit and vegetable wholesale market; the Odun Dock and the passenger boat docks for transport between Eyüp and Galata. The streets on the Golden Horn shoreline were the residential areas for boatmen, street vendors and porters. Therefore it is possible to see the remains of many docks, boathouses, coffee houses and yahudhanes in the district. While most of the shop owners at the market with an entrance from the Balat gate were Jewish, Greeks, Armenians and Turks also worked in various trade and craftsmanship jobs. The most important occupations included the rabbinate, street vending, the fire brigade, pharmacist, medicine, glasswork, money lending, shoemaking, and baking. One of the most significant characteristics of Balata, which has survived to this day, is the numerous coffee houses and traditional Turkish tavern which used to be constantly shut down and reopened with the liquor bans of the Ottoman era. The tavern owners, who patiently awaited the holidays to open their taverns, would make sure to send “forget me not” treats to their regular customers on the holiday eves. Members of all religious congregations visited each other on respective holidays. The Greeks would give Easter eggs to their Jewish and Muslim friends on Easter and the Jews matzo to Muslim and Greek neighbors as holiday gifts.

These texts were compiled from an interview with Semavi Eyice, and the Encyclopedia of İstanbul, Vol.2; İstanbul Gezi Rehberi (İstanbul Tour Guide) by Murat Belge; Fener-Balat-Ayvansaray by Ahmet Faik Özbilge; Balat Faubourg Juif d’İstanbul (İstanbul Jews of the Balat District) by Marie-Christine Varol.

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