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Zeyrek – Hidden Gem of Istanbul’s neighborhoods

The mention of Zeyrek may not immediately conjure up an image in your mind. Have you ever crossed the Atatürk Boulevard from the Golden Horn to Fatih? Or passed under the ancient water aqueduct? Hidden just behind this busy, ancient artery of the city is a piece of history yet to be unearthed—a treasure chest of Istanbul that’s unlike the bustling streets of Balat or Kuzguncuk.

Zeyrek holds the honor of being the first neighborhood established after Istanbul’s conquest. (The tomb of Fatih Sultan Mehmet is also located here.)

The Zeyrek Mosque, lending its name to the neighborhood, can be spotted from afar due to its ostentatious architecture. The original name of the mosque was the Pantokrator Monastery Church. Built between AD 1118-1136, it consists of three distinct churches. In fact, it was once a Christian complex. With Istanbul’s conquest in 1453, it began to be used as a mosque. Currently, it’s undergoing a massive renovation.

By Sharon Nathan – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0

Molla Zeyrek, the saint who lent his name to the neighborhood and the symbolic structure, was a student of Hacı Bayram Veli. The name “Zeyrek” was given by Hacı Bayram himself. Molla Zeyrek once served as a lecturer in Bursa, and it is known that he was among the scholars participating in the conquest of Istanbul.

To gaze upon Istanbul from this hill is a sight to behold. Directly opposite the mosque is the Istanbul Bookstore (Zeyrek Kitabevi). The space is cozy, quiet, with music gently wafting through, reminding of the city’s historic texture. You can enjoy coffee or tea, nibble on light snacks, peruse books, and select gifts for your loved ones. The bookstore garden presents a view that’s nothing short of spectacular.

It’s not just any view; it’s a view you could soak up for hours. To your right, you have Süleymaniye, the fire tower in Istanbul University’s garden, the historic mosques of Vefa, and IMC. In front of you, the Galata Tower, the Galata Bridge, the Golden Horn, and the city’s modern face with its skyscrapers. Istanbul, old and new, lays itself bare before your eyes. Bookmark this place as one of the best views in the city, and make sure you visit at the earliest chance.

Descend down Zeyrek hill and find our way to the tomb of Mehmed Emin Tokadi Hazretleri. You’ll see a historic tombstone in a quiet area under the trees, just above Piri Mehmet Pasha Mosque (1517). Legend has it that this saintly figure once prayed for those who visited his grave not to burn in the fires of hell. His teacher then advised him to wish for his grave to be placed in a secluded, hard-to-find location. As the saying goes, only those destined to find it make their way here… You cannot claim to have seen Zeyrek without visiting this historic cemetery and the Mosque.

Another emblem of the neighborhood is the Zeyrek houses, a significant example of civil architecture and listed as a world cultural heritage. Sadly, many are in a state of disrepair. However, these houses, which are on UNESCO’s World Heritage list, have entered a renovation process thanks to the efforts of the Fatih Municipality.

Zeyrek: The Neighborhood Istanbul Pretends to Protect

The history of this neighborhood is rich. After conquering Istanbul, Fatih Sultan Mehmet offered the first Friday prayer in Hagia Sophia, the second in Zeyrek, and the third in Kariye.

Another notable structure here is Zeyrekhane. This building, built next to the Pantokrator monastery by Emperor Komnenos, was used as a mansion in those times. Unfortunately, it hasn’t survived in its original form. A structure has been built in its place, made to look old, which has operated as a restaurant and a café in various periods.

Zeyrek has many artifacts from the Ottoman and Byzantine periods. The tomb of Zenbilli Ali Efendi, the Grand Mufti of Yavuz Sultan Selim, is also located here. However, the most significant issue is that these historical treasures have not been given their due attention over the years. Despite Zeyrek currently resembling a construction site due to the ongoing works, there’s still plenty to see and explore.

Another long-neglected relic is the Zeyrek Cisterns. This structure, which has survived to the present day, is the only cistern found above ground in Istanbul. It is also currently under renovation.

Continue descent, examining the historic houses along the way, until you reach the market known as the Women’s Bazaar. Also referred to as the Siirt Bazaar, the neighborhood displays a prominent Siirt influence. The At Pazarı Square reportedly gets quite crowded on Sundays with stalls spread out into the side streets. There’s nothing you can’t find in the Women’s Bazaar. Restaurants, nut sellers, spice shops, and live animal sellers. Just be warned, in warmer weather, the smells may not be entirely pleasant.

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