The entrance to the Surp Hreşdagabet Church
İstanbul’s neighborhoods developed in such a way that they grew up around religious cores such as churches, mosques and synagogues, with a good example of this phenomenon found in Balat.
Despite its predominantly Jewish population, people of different religions and ethnicities have lived, and continue to do so in smaller numbers, and worked there side by side, with the urban mix of the area the result of the neighborhood’s diverse ethnic population.
Once you enter Kamış Street in Balat, the garden walls of the Surp Hreşdagabet Armenian church, located near Yanbol Synagogue and Ferruh Kethüda Mosque greet you with a beauty that has resisted the course of time. Historically it is located in the Bulgarian quarter.
One of many examples of a synthesis of different architectural forms, Surp Hreşdagabet (also known as Holy Archangels) was originally a Greek Orthodox church known by the name of Hagios Eustration that was built in the 13th century and was given to the Armenian community as a gesture of good will in 1627. It is also said that the church was then blessed by Stepanos of Bursa.
After being abandoned by its Greek Orthodox congregation, Surp Hreşdagabet was given to the around 20,000-strong Armenian community that had settled in Balat as compensation after an Armenian church in İstanbul’s Fatih district was transformed into Kefeli Mosque in the same period. Surp Hreşdagabet is a church dedicated to the archangels Michael and Gabriel.
The church underwent restoration in 1628, according to the inscription on the wall behind its altar; however, the present building dates from 1835 and was built after the original wooden church was destroyed by fire several times. The side chapel and the ayazma (sacred spring) in the building are original Byzantine features. The ayazma is said to be built upon the bones of St. Antonios, discovered during the latest restoration.
There is an imposing building located to the south of the church that today serves as a warehouse. According to historical sources, it was an Armenian school back then the Armenian community was much larger during the 19th century.
The reliefs depicting St. George killing a dragon and Jesus chasing thieves as well as the cast iron door that has German and Latin inscriptions on each side and opens from the main room to a side gallery are impressive. This door, dating back to 1727, is said to have been discovered in an excavation during the reign of Sultan Mahmut I in Topkapı Palace.
Every Sept. 14, the church holds a unique ritual in which animals such as sheep or roosters are sacrificed and distributed to the poor. People also believe that the water at the church’s ayazma has curative abilities, so people of various religions flock to the church on holy days to find a remedy for their illnesses.
Wandering through the streets of Balat is sufficient to realize how different ethno-religious groups rubbed shoulders in this district. Ferruh Kethüda Mosque is within easy reach of Surp Hreşdagabet. Another church and synagogue also stand near by.
Some facts on İstanbul’s Armenian community:
Armenians were Christian elements brought to İstanbul from the eastern Anatolian and Caucasus regions after the conquest of İstanbul by Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II the Conqueror in 1453.
In addition to large groups of Armenians summoned to the new capital, Mehmed II also brought to İstanbul Bishop Hovakim of Brussa (today’s Bursa), whom he made patrik (patriarch) over all Armenians and non-Orthodox Christians in his territories and gave him all the privileges accorded to the Greek Orthodox patriarch in 1461.
Large numbers of Armenians brought to İstanbul, the capital city then, also helped in the repopulation of the city. Armenians mostly settled along the shores of the Marmara Sea and some in neighborhoods such as Balat, Kumkapı, Hasköy and Samatya as well. The number of Armenians coming to İstanbul kept increasing gradually because other Ottoman sultans who succeeded Mehmed II followed his policies. There were around 200,000 Armenians living in İstanbul in 1895.