The slow destruction of a Greek Orphanage in Istanbul shows Turkey’s disregard for heritage

On September 20, Istanbul residents started to report that part of the Greek Orphanage on Büyükada in the Princes’ Islands, Istanbul, had started to collapse. The building is often said to be the one of the biggest wooden buildings in the world, but has been neglected since the 1960s.

The orphanage was designed and built by architect Alexander Vallaury in 1898 as a hotel and casino called Prinkipo Palace. However, in 1903, Sultan Abdulhamit II refused to issue a new permit for the casino and it was sold to Elena Zarifi, the wife of a prominent Greek banker, who donated it to the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople. Between 1903 and 1964 it was used as an orphanage by the Patriarchate.

However, by the mid-1960s, tensions between the Turkish government and remaining Greek citizens in Anatolia had become strained over the Cyprus issue, and in 1964, the government forced many of the remaining Greek citizens of Turkey into exile. The orphanage was seized by the Turkish state, and subsequently left to decay over subsequent decades.

After an appeal by the Orthodox Patriarchate in the Turkish Circuit Courts in 1997 failed, they went to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, which in 2007 recognised the right of the Patriarchate to ownership of the site. The Orthodox Patriarchate successfully managed to retain legal control of the orphanage in 2010, and in 2012, the World Monuments Fund listed the site as one of the most endangered heritage sites in the world.

In 2018, the site was also selected as one of ‘Seven Most Endangered’ heritage sites in Europe by Europa Nostra and the European Investment Bank Institute.

However, due to the neglect of the site, the Orthodox Patriarchate lacked the resources to restore the orphanage, which required extensive restoration work. US-based Anti Defamation League coordinator Tugba Aydemir commented that the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate “has suffered twice”, because of the theft of the site by the state, and then being given the burden of restoring the site.

Turkish author Elif Safak Tweeted that the collapse of the roof of the orphanage was ‘heartbreaking’. 

In February 2020, Tuma Çelik, a representative of the Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP) told Bianet that the orphanage “might not survive winter conditions”. He stated that it was the responsibility of the Ministry of Culture and Tourism to protect the site, 

Çelik noted that while the orphanage had been theoretically returned to the Patriarchate, it remained under the control of the Vakıflar Genel Müdürlüğü (General Directorate of Foundations), who had prevented the Patriarchate from taking full control of the site.

"After legal struggles, they were able to take back the certificate of ownership but the building is about to collapse now. The Patriarchate faces a large bill. Why does the patriarchate have to pay the bill for this 10-year period of neglect?”, Çelik said.

The collapse of the Orphanage’s roof was shared on Turkish Facebook groups where many users expressed frustration that nothing had been done to stop the building from collapsing. 

At an event in Istanbul last November, Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, Bartholomew I, said that “The history of the Prinkipo Greek Orthodox Orphanage illustrates the history of the Diaspora in the turbulent 20th century, its heyday and hard times, its hopes, hardship and its painful shrinking”.

Following news about the partial collapse of the building’s roof, the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate said it would begin reconstruction of the site. Project manager Laki Vingas said “we are responsible as much as the authorities for the postponement of the project”. According to The Independent’s Turkish site, “Vingas said that he has undertaken digital documentation works with BİMTAŞ, a subsidiary of Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality (IMM)”, and that protection and restoration work would now be allowed to commence.

Many sites belonging to the Christian and Jewish communities who left or were forced to leave Anatolia during the 20th century are still the subjects of legal disputes. While some people manage to regain control of land or buildings their families once owned, they are then faced with the issue of how to repair buildings that need significant restoration work.

In August, Turkish-Armenian MP Garo Paylan criticised the government for not taking any steps to protect Armenian cemeteries around Anatolia which are subject to damage by neglect and treasure hunters. “Do you have a plan to protect the numerous Armenian cemeteries in the country?”, Paylan asked.

In 2015, activists attempted to save Gedikpaşa Orphanage, an Armenian orphanage in Istanbul, from destruction. According to Hurriyet, the building “was expropriated by the Turkish state in 1987 on the basis of a 1936 bill preventing minority foundations from acquiring property.”

The building was demolished in 2017, with the government saying it would be rebuilt as a social and cultural centre. Also known as Kamp Armen, the orphanage was culturally significant for being the place where Armenian-Turkish journalist Hrant Dink was brought up. Dink was assassinated in 2007 outside the office of Agos newspaper.

In another similar case, a Greek Orthodox church in Bursa was recently demolished by an Islamic Foundation to whom the land had been transferred, and who subsequently left the building to fall into disrepair.

Tourism is one of Turkey’s biggest industries, and the country is blessed with a rich and diverse cultural heritage which is visible all over the landscape. However, as I wrote in a previous article on the neglect and destruction of cultural heritage, the Turkish government’s nationalist ideology means that non-Turkish cultural heritage is much less likely to be protected by the state.

This disregard for Greek and Armenian heritage sites in particular sours relations between communities within Turkey, but also creates cultural and diplomatic problems for the Turkish state in international politics. 

It seems unlikely that the Turkish state will change its policy of neglect towards non-Turkish heritage sites in Anatolia as long as the governing Justice and Development Party (AKP) relies for its parliamentary majority on the far right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP). Until then, it must be expected that we will see more tragic examples of the destruction of Anatolian cultural heritage.