On the other side of the Golden Horn, Karaköy is a small quarter within the larger district of Beyoğlu. The neighborhood started life under the name Galata, a colony for Genoese merchants doing business with Constantinople, as the neighborhood is placed across the historic peninsula. In fact, that's what the nickname "Pera" means – "the other side"!
After the Ottoman takeover, the neighborhood grew more and more multicultural. The many different Christian ethnic groups of Pera joined with the incoming flux of Muslims. Then came the Sephardic Jews, who fled from Spain to the Ottoman Empire. That's why this neighborhood is like no other. Catholic churches were built next to Orthodox churches, mosques were built next to synagogues... And everyone came out of them to go to work in the same businesses and little factory workshops.
Today, all those little workshops in Karaköy have turned mainly into restaurants and cafes. The first time I took a foreign friend of mine to Karaköy, she asked me, "Do you really need this many cafes?" Turks can never have too many cafes.
It’s easy to get to Karaköy. You can get off at the Karaköy tram stop of the Kabataş-Bağcılar tram line, take a ferry from the Asian side, or simply take a taxi to get to your location. The main avenue leading to this area can be a nightmare to navigate during the day, so we’re getting ahead of the curve and meeting up in the morning, where you'll have the neighborhood to yourself.
Before breakfast, let’s work up an appetite, and head to our first historical location. I'm starting my trip by getting off at the Tophane tram stop, within the historic district of Tophane located just north of Karaköy, which is a great starting point for venturing into the area.
Nusretiye Mosque is a gorgeous ornate mosque that melds Baroque style with Islamic elements. Compared to the rest of the historical spots in the city, it’s rather modern – it was built in the 1820s by Sultan Mahmud II. Some details to note are the calligraphy that circles half the inside facade, and the tombs sitting next to the mosque.
When you enter, you might be mistaken in thinking that this used to be a church. That feeling might come from the fact that it was built by a Christian and employs many elements more commonly used in churches. Krikor Amira Balyan was a member of the famous Balyan family, a family of Armenian architects that throughout the 18th and 19th century built many of the western-styled mosques, palaces and mansions dotted around the city. You might know them from one of their most famous works, the Dolmabahçe Palace. The fact that a sultan had an imperial mosque built by an Armenian architect, and then loved it enough to employ his extended family for the next four generations, really tells you all you need to know about the multicultural fabric of the capital of the Ottoman Empire.
As you head to Karaköy, take note of some of the sights on your left that are easily observable from the outside. The first building you will pass is the bright green Tophane Palace, built for the sultan for his trips to the factory close by. On your right, you can see Tophane-i Amire, which was the Ottoman empire's major factory for making gunpowder and cannonballs. Now it’s part of Mimar Sinan Fine Arts University (MSGSÜ) and is filled with galleries and exhibitions.
On your left, you will next see a stunning, huge water fountain dedicated to Sultan Mahmud I. Right after that is the Kaptan-ı Derya Kılıç Ali (one of the greatest admirals in Ottoman history) Mosque, and feel free to take a peek inside if you’re not too hungry yet. Next to the mosque is a single-domed hammam which, like most hammams in Istanbul, looks gorgeous but is touristic and overpriced.
After that, turn left and head into the depths of the Karaköy neighborhood, and slowly make your way past the countless quaint little eateries and shops.
You can’t get more authentically Turkish than soup for breakfast. Anatolian villagers traditionally would wake up at the break of dawn and drink soup before heading to the fields. The practice has fallen out of popularity in the last decade, but I still think it’s a great start to the day. It’s very cheap yet very filling and healthy, easy to get ready in the morning (just put the pot on the fire and wait), and will quickly warm you up from the cold of sleep. Top your soup off with Turkish tea, and you’re ready for an active day!
Karaköy Soup House is practically a local institution, open from 7 a.m. to 2 a.m. every day, and open 24 hours on Saturdays. Somehow, despite its crazy hours, it also manages to host around 15 different types of soup at any given hour. The shop also has a generous amount of vegetarian and vegan options.
For breakfast, I recommend lighter soups such as yuvalama, yayla or ezogelin. That said, feel free to go with whatever you want; everything is delicious. Many villagers would eat very heavy, oily soups before heading out for work, such as kelle paça çorbası (trotter soup).
Karaköy has historically always been a non-Muslim settlement. Among the dozens of different sects, it’s hard to pick just one religious site. So let’s follow the history of just one group who came to the city and settled here.
A Russian Orthodox Church on the sixth floor of an apartment building? This lovely little church and community is part of what makes Istanbul great. The church was built in the 1870s as a guesthouse for Russian Orthodox pilgrims on their way to Jerusalem. After Russia’s October Revolution of 1917, aristocrats and citizens close to the deposed Czar Nicholas II fled the country, and many arrived in Istanbul. Many of the older generations still remember the White Russian immigrants who used to live in their neighborhoods, opening businesses and educating apprentices. After the 1930s, White Russians slowly left the country. Nowadays, the church is hustling and bustling with members who have come to Istanbul from the ex-Soviet states for work, such as Russia, Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova. In this way, this small church embodies this city – migrants have always congregated at the rich trade route of Istanbul, left their priceless mark and moved over for the next demographic of migrants looking for a better life.
The church has service every day from 8:30 a.m. to 10 a.m. If you want to attend service, the church welcomes anyone to attend, no matter their creed or religion. Just don’t arrive late! If you can’t make it, the church is open to visitors from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. You can also drop off some money to light some candles. If there’s anyone free who knows your language, you might even be able to ask for a guided tour.
When entering, the church asks respectfully for men not to wear shorts, and women to wear something with a skirt (that’s below the knee) and a headscarf. For women, there are some spare skirts and headscarves at the door, if you couldn’t bring one along with you.
At the exact area where the Bosporus strait ends and the Golden Horn estuary begins is the Yeraltı Cami (Underground Mosque), better known in the past as the Fort of Galata. This was a major strategic site for the Byzantine Empire as it was from this point that they closed off the Golden Horn estuary and halted naval invaders from anchoring just outside the city walls. How did they do this, do you ask? The Byzantines went out of their way to forge an iron chain spanning hundreds of meters and drew it from one point of the Golden Horn to the other. The Fort of Galata was the point where the legendary chain was secured into the ground and protected from attackers.
After the Ottoman takeover of the city, the building was a depot for gunpowder produced in the factory we passed earlier, the Tophane-i Amire. But due to a legend among the people of the city, the building was turned into a mosque in the 18th century. That legend was that during the First Arab Siege of Constantinople, three companions of the Prophet Muhammad died at the fort and their graves still lay there today.
As you enter the Underground Mosque today, you'll notice it's like a dark vault. It's almost empty and quiet, with no windows. I always make a stop at the tombs of the companions to say a prayer, and I always find it hauntingly beautiful how they're lit in green.
The neighborhood surrounding the mosque is gorgeous. Feel free to wander around here a bit and get lost. Just make sure to look up and see the worn-out but ornate facades of all of these old commercial buildings.
If you need a coffee break around now, I really recommend you climb up the stairs of the Karaköy Ferry Terminal to enjoy the gorgeous view of a little hidden bookstore-cafe, "Istanbul Bookstore," owned by the Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality. From this perfect vantage point, you can see both the Bosporus and the Golden Horn at the same time. However, I personally like to sip my cappuccino and people-watch those boarding the ferry, which is so close to the cafe you can almost reach out and touch it.
The first thing you’ll notice about the Arab Mosque is that the minaret looks nothing like a minaret. That’s because it was originally built as a belfry, from which a bell would ring to call parishioners. The building that survives today is a restored and edited version of the original church built in the 14th century by Dominican monks. Shortly after the 1453 siege, it was turned into a mosque by Sultan Mehmed the Conqueror himself.
While the old church building and surviving frescoes are beautiful, today I'm more interested in the history of the location, rather than the architecture. The name "Arab Mosque" refers to the people who moved into the neighborhood just some 20 years later, the Morisco Spaniards who were simply called "Arab" by the general populace.
When the last Muslim dynasty that ruled Spain (then known as Al-Andalus) fell to the hands of the new Catholic rulers, its remaining Muslim populace was named "Moriscos" or "Moors" and forcefully converted to Christianity. Many Moriscos were known to be Christian in public, but practice Islam in private. Thousands of people caught in the act were killed by the Inquisition. The people who survived were put through what we would call today "cultural genocide," in which Moriscos were banned from speaking their language, force-fed pork, and children younger than six were taken from their parents to be taught in monasteries.
From the 15th century onward, the Ottoman navy had an increasingly strong presence in the Mediterranean. The empire assisted the citizens of Al-Andalus throughout the centuries, making diplomatic moves to protect these people and even sending weaponry. Ottoman navy admirals throughout the 15th to 17th centuries made trips to the subcontinent to transport shiploads of refugees to North Africa, then part of the Ottoman Empire. This aid was also given to Sephardic Jews, the Jewish populace of Al-Andalus who went through similar expulsion and torture, and a huge amount of Jewish refugees were invited and moved to the Ottoman Empire.
For the Moriscos, the majority of refugees went to North Africa, but a not-insignificant number moved to various cities around the Ottoman Empire. Those who arrived in Istanbul were placed in the area around the Arab Mosque, and a small Morisco neighborhood was born.
As I walk around the courtyard and look at the mosque's brick facade, I think about how this courtyard would be filled with refugees-turned-merchants speaking Andalusi Arabic, able to live, speak and practice their religion in freedom. There were Catholic churches in the neighborhood, but unlike in Spain, here they could live in harmony. A few streets back, their old Jewish neighbors could be their neighbors once more, speaking in familiar but foreign Judeo-Spanish.
Before you head to the Haliç metro station to continue your plans for the rest of the day, stop by this small spot just beside the metro bridge. This ornate kiosk is one of the most elaborately decorated of its kind. Built in 1732, its architecture is a bridge between the style of the Tulip Era, which typically coupled Baroque style with Islamic elements, and the later period influenced by the Rococo style. I adore architecture influenced by the Rococo style, as the manner in which it covers every surface with decoration is a feast for the eyes.
A “sebil” is a type of kiosk in which an attendant would stand behind a grilled window and hand out water. The word literally means “road” in Arabic. This refers to the phrase “Sebilü’l Allah” or “Road to God.” In a period in which there was no water infrastructure, it was seen as a great method of charity to provide water to passersby. Those who patronized such structures were “on the road to Allah.”
Who was this person who was on the road to God? The mother of Sultan Mahmud I, Saliha Sultan. This fountain now stands strikingly alone, but when this powerful woman first built the complex it was connected to a large primary school for the general public. Legend says that Saliha Sultan, before she became a concubine to the sultan, was born in this neighborhood to a non-Muslim family. Grateful to a local fountain for providing her water during her childhood, she vowed to return to build another in her hometown. Eventually, Saliha Sultan gave birth and rose to the position of Valide Sultan, literally "Mother of the Sultan." In light of this legend, this elaborate fountain reads as the triumph of this Valide Sultan, as if declaring "Look where I was, and look where I am now! Before I was in need, now I can provide for those in need!" We will probably never know if this legend is true or not, but stories like this serve to illustrate and emboss the impact women had on Ottoman history, and the power they could have from behind closed doors.
Sources: The TDV Islam Encyclopedia and "Osmanlı Mimarisi" by Doğan Kuban.