Highway linking the Golden Horn and Fatih

aque1Sliced through the old city during Henri Prost's redesign in the 1940s, Atatürk Bulvarı is a busy traffic thoroughfare that links the Atatürk Bridge across the Golden Horn at Unkapanı with the Fatih district passing right through the Roman-era Aqueduct of Valens.

Although the traffic is offputting this is a part of the city which is home to several interesting historic monuments as well as several under-remarked public artworks. Its most important monument, though, is probably the Zeyrek Cami which began life as the Byzantine Church of the Pantocrator and has just undergone extensive restoration.

From Atatürk Bridge to the Aqueduct of Valens (east side of street)

atlarGünsür's Atlar, 1967Of no great aesthetic interest, the 477-metre-long Atatürk Bridge across the Golden Horn opened in 1940. It was the fourth bridge to provide a crossing from Unkapanı to Azapkapı. The first, the Hayratiye Koprüsü, was commissioned by Sultan Mahmud II in 1836.

If you cross the messy road junction in front of the bridge Atatürk Bulvarı heads straight uphill from it. On the lefthand side a quick detour down into the sunken area beside the main road that leads through to Küçükpazarı will bring you to a mosaic named Atlar (Horses) by Nedim Günsür (1924-94) that rarely merits a mention. 

Walking uphill you will pass a succession of concrete blocks housing commercial premises, many of them dealing with either music or upholstering fabric.

When you reach the Third Block it's worth diverting past the grave of İstanbul's first mayor, Hızır Bey (1453-58), and walking out the other side where you will find, behind a wall, the Church of St Mary, better known to İstanbullus as the Ayın Biri Kilisesi (First of the Month Church) because it's only open to the public on the first day of each month. People flock here to petition the icons for good fortune and in particular for fertility. Rather than just praying to the icons, some of them grouped around an ayazma (sacred spring) in the basement, visitors buy a dilek anahtarı (wishing key) which they rotate in gaps cut in the glass protecting the images. 

Shortly afterwards you will pass the Şebsafa Kadın (Zeyrek) Cami, built in 1787 with a sibyan mektebi (primary school) attached to it. Behind it there's a fine view of the Süleymaniye rising up on the city's Third Hill.

One more vividly colourful mosaic lurks amid the unprepossessing İMC buildings. Designed by the poet-artist Bedri Rahmi Eyuboğlu (1911-73), it defies its lack of a title to evoke the Bosphorus wending its langorous way past the mosques and palaces of the city on a sunny day.

As you near the top of the hill the traffic is funnelled through a remarkable monument. The most conspicuous reminder of İstanbul's complex ancient water-distribution system, the Aqueduct of Valens straddles Atatürk Bulvarı as it nears Fatih.

Dating back to 375, the aqueduct, a double-tier of arches, still runs for almost a kilometre, and would originally have been attached to a network of pipes that conveyed water from the Thracian forests beyond Edirnekapı, along the ridges of the Sixth, Fifth and Fourth Hills, then on to Beyazıt Meydanı. It continued in use right through until the 19th century which accounts for its astonishingly good state of preservation.

If you continue under the aqueduct and turn left you will come to Şehzadebaşi and the great Şehzade Cami. If you turn right you will be able to walk up the Fatih Cami. Continue straight ahead and you will come out near Aksaray tram stop.

gaza1From Aqueduct of Valens to the Atatürk Bridge (west side of street) 

Starting back downhill towards the Golden Horn from the aqueduct you will come immediately to the newly restored and many chimneyed Gazanfer Ağa Medresesi that until recently housed a museum of cartoons and humour. Sadly, since its restoration you can only peer through the gates at the locked medrese commissioned by the last Chief of the White Eunuchs to rule the roost in Topkapı Palace in 1599. 

A side turning beside the medrese leads to a square surrounded by shops and restaurants that specialize in the produce and cuisine of the part of southeast Turkey around Siirt and Bitlis. Perhaps inevitably it is nicknamed Little Siirt (or the Kadınlar Pazarı) although officially it is Fatih Pazarı (Fatih Market).

The odd half-hour or so spent browsing shops that major on different types of cheese and honey from the east as well as on curious doughnut-shaped loaves of bread that must be rehydrated before use will be a winner for anyone with the slightest interest in different foods. 

The square is centred on the Hüsambey Tezgarçilar Cami which is always very busy on Fridays. If you walk in front of this and continue downhill through the market parallel to Atatürk Bulvarı you will come to the Çinili Hamamı (Tiled Hamam, not to be confused with the one of the same name over in Üsküdar) that featured in Ferzan Özpetek's award-winning 1997 movie, Hamam. Slated for renovation, it was designed by Sinan in 1546.

Returning to Atatürk Bulvarı and continuing downhill you will see the curvy brick wall of the Byzantine Zeyrek Sarnıçı (Zeyrek Cistern). Unlike its fellows dotted about the city, this particular cistern was built overground. It has just been restored.

Immediately beyond the cistern are a group of government buildings housing the Sosyal Sigortalar Kurumu (Social Security Dept) that will certainly not appeal to everyone but are an award-winning example of the style of architecture known as Second National that was championed by architect Sedad Hakkı Eldem (1908-88). Look at them more closely and you may be able to recognise the way in which the overhanging roofs and other features reduce Ottoman stylistic traits to their simplest form. zeyrek1

On the hillside above the main road looms the Zeyrek Cami that started life as the Church of the Pantocrator in the early 12th century. It boasts a magnificent location on a bluff overlooking the Golden Horn. However, until recently it stood in a very poor neighborhood and was in an advanced state of dereliction, its magnificent mosaic floor hidden away beneath shabby carpets. All that is about to change, though, as the entire complex of two churches and a chapel is currently undergoing restoration. Once the covers finally come off, the Zeyrek Cami is likely to atttract far more visitors.


Don't miss the chance to sample the food of a remote part of Turkey that receives few visitors in "Little Siirt".

The most unmissable menu items are buryan kebap, a pit-baked lamb kebab usually served on a bed of pide bread, and perde pilav, rice baked inside an inverted fez-shaped pot with shredded chicken, almonds and tiny currants. Great places to try them out include Siirt Şeref (tel: 0212-635 8085) and Sur Ocakbaşı (tel: 0212-533 8088). Avoid Friday lunches when every seat will have been taken by hungry worshippers from the local mosque.

Zeyrekhane. The views from this upscale restaurant immediately in front of the Zeyrek Cami are stunning although signs forbidding non-diners to snap them are hardly welcoming. Tel: 0212-512 2778

Transport info

Many buses from Eminönü pass up and down Atatürk Bulvarı although it's also a pleasant walk through Tahtakale and Küçükpazarı if you get off the tram at Eminönü.

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