Istanbul is a city of neighborhoods and with 5000 years of history, many of those neighborhoods have developed as enclaves representing the cultures of the places the inhabitants originally came from. One such neighborhood is Samatya.
If you look on most maps, you won’t find Samatya. That’s because the modern name is Mustafapasa, but even today, just about everyone in Istanbul refers to it by the Byzantine name of Samatya, meaning sandy place. Along with Sisli and Kutulus, Samatya is one of the largest Armenian communities in Istanbul and an afternoon exploring will reveal Armenian churches, ancient monastaries, and great places to eat traditional meals and fresh seafood.
To get to Samatya, the easiest way is to take the commuter train and get off at Mustafapasa. Coming out of the tunnel which takes you under the tracks you will enter the friendly neighborhood which sits along the Marmara Sea. Samatya is ancient and the oldest church in Istanbul is here. Islam is represented too with the beautiful Ramazan Efindi Camii designed by the great Ottoman architect Sinan. In about 383 AD the Sulu Monastery was founded. The monastery was sacked during the 4th crusade, but the remains can still be seen. The Ayios Ionannes (church of John the Baptist) built in 454 is also a monument which should be seen in Samatya. It is said that the mummified head of John the Baptist was brought here in the 10th century. In addition the Greek Orthodox churches of Hristos Analipsis and Haghios Menas are here.
As you walk through the neighborhood keep your eyes open for a restaurant called Ikinci Bahar which means ‘Second Spring’ in Turkish. The name refers to a widow or widower finding new love and the restaurant was the setting of a show by the same name. The neighborhood was also the setting for the Turkish film ‘Three Monkeys.’
It’s not the t.v. or film that make this neighborhood interesting though. It’s the fact that historically this is a place where Turks, Greeks, Armenians, and Jews coexisted peacefully for nearly 3000 years! Samatya is like a beautiful Turkish carpet with multicultural motifs. Each year the Istanbul Fish Festival celebrates that history.
No matter when you go to Samatya you can find great food and friendly service. the tiny fish restaurant of Kucuk Ev always has fresh hamsi and cold beer or Develi offers traditional Turkish kebabs. For a delicious meal of Turkish mezas, fish, and raki head upstairs to Antiq.
One thing not to miss while you are in Samatya is a stroll through the neighborhood up the hills. In addition to the old places of worship you can find traditional wooden Armenian houses, kids playing in the streets, and if the signs all look a little different – that’s because they are in Armenian here.
And …on a purely juvenile note – you can visit the Semen Market… (see photo below)