Istanbul’s schools under the Ottomans

Istanbul’s schools under the Ottomans

Niki GAMM Hürriyet Daily News
Istanbul’s schools under the Ottomans

Many, if not most schools that still exist today in Istanbul were established in the nineteenth century because of the importance that the sultans of the time gave to the provision of education that would be on a level of that in Europe.

Education in the Ottoman Empire was primarily carried out in mekteps (primary schools) and medreses (higher schools) usually attached to mosques, the palace school and various bureaucratic offices. These institutions basically produced graduates who ran the government and these graduates were counted among the elite in the empire as “highly successful administrators, lawyers, commanders as well as physicians and architects,” according to Prof. Dr. Ekmeleddin İhsanoğlu in his two-volume “History of the Ottoman State, Society & Civilization.” He adds that most of these graduates were frequently connected with one or another of the mystic sects that flourished throughout the Ottoman Empire and this training led them to be liberal and tolerant.

Many, if not most schools that still exist today in Istanbul were established in the nineteenth century because of the importance that the sultans of the time gave to the provision of education that would be on a level of that in Europe. There was at the same time recognition that the system that had stood the empire in good stead since the fourteenth century was no longer providing the quality needed, especially for students to go on to technical studies. Sultan Mahmut II (r. 1808-1839) undertook a number of reforms regarding the law and taxation in addition to abolishing the Janissary troops. He also introduced a second educational system while leaving the mosque-attached system in place.

Mahmut II established a system whereby young men could graduate from primary school and continue with classes that would prepare them to enter technical schools that belonged to the military. Two such schools were opened at Süleymaniye and Sultan Ahmet mosques. Similarly three schools were opened for bureaucrats who wanted to serve in the government or were already doing so and were looking for ways to advance in their departments.

The sultan also reinvigorated the schools that were responsible for higher technical education, such as the Naval and Army Engineering Schools. In addition, he had a number of promising students sent to European schools to study and these were expected to return to Turkey to work as instructors and/or officers in the army. The sultan also urged these students to create words in Ottoman Turkish which would correspond to the terms used in European schools. A medical school was also established that was expected to provide education more along European lines although it lacked textbooks and equipment. There was even a new school for military sciences. While there were still serious shortcomings, at least these changes laid the basis for more important reforms in the ensuing years.

Many of the men who wanted to reform the Ottoman Empire in the nineteenth century had studied abroad, usually in France or Germany. This period in time has been called the Tanzimat (Reorganization of the Ottoman Empire) following a proclamation in 1839 that instituted a whole series of reforms, including a Council of Public Instruction (est. in 1845) and a Ministry of Education (est. in 1847). However, the educational system only developed haphazardly since school systems were run in different ways by the state, the religious minorities various foreign institutions and schools were built with local funds.

Abdulhamid II took education in hand

Sultan Abdulhamid II took the educational system in hand with his reform program of 1879 although results were obtained until tax revenue was directed at education starting from 1883 and an effort was made to spread these funds throughout the entire empire. Nor were there many qualified teachers even for elementary schools so students in these didn’t learn enough to benefit from the higher education offered in technical schools.

By far the largest number of elementary schools in the empire was Greek Orthodox and consisted of 4390 schools out of a total of 5982 non-Muslim schools in 1897. Foreign missionaries ran 246 elementary schools. Over time the system as a whole improved, especially when local educational councils which knew their own situation were given control over their schools rather than having to deal with directives from Istanbul.

“Perhaps the most serious damage came from the fragmented nature of the system. The state schools, the millet (religious minority) schools, and the foreign schools gave their students entirely different ways of thinking, with different methods and objectives, and produced several educated classes, parallel to one another yet hostile, unable to understand or appreciate each other, preventing the kind of national unity and cohesiveness needed to hold the empire together.” [Shaw and Shaw, “History of the Ottoman Empire and the Rise of Modern Turkey”]

Shaw and Shaw also provide interesting statistics for the number of minority students in the second half of the nineteenth century. “The desire for education among the Christian minorities is also evident from their occupying 52 percent of all the student openings available in the city despite their smaller numbers. Forty-one percent of the Greeks and 38.6 percent of the Armenians, while only 36 percent of the Muslims and Jews were occupied in this way.”

Kültür AŞ has recently published an illustrated book entitled “Istanbul’un 100 Okulu (Istanbul’s 100 Schools) by Derya Bas that provides information on the many schools over the years that belonged to minority communities, foreign missionaries and even to tribes. Each entry, in alphabetic order, tells about the founding of the school, their educational system, their history and their architecture. The book serves as a guide to the city’s heritage in the educational field and the various changes that have occurred over time.

Time of Tanzimat

At the time of the Tanzimat, there were the medreses, the Özel Fener Rum Lisesi, Istanbul University and the Davutpaşa Lisesi, which had been established as a privately endowed primary school in 1485.

The Özel Fener Rum Lisesi was originally established in 1454 with the permission of Fatih Sultan Mehmed. It was known as the Patriarchate Academy and continued to serve the Greek Orthodox community until 1861 when it was converted into a classic lycee. The school moved several times until 1883 when it settled in the so-called “Red School” that distinctively commands a view of the Golden Horn - the building is made of red brick.

The Armenian community, on the other hand, only had a primary school in the 1860s when it was decided that there should be a high school during the term of Armenian Patriarch, Nerses Varjabetyan. So the Özel Getronagan Ermeni Lisesi was finally established in 1886.

Boğaziçi University for instance was started by missionaries as a modest college in 1863 and 150 years later is considered among the best universities in the world. Its journey over time is related in the book as are the journeys of 99 other schools.

The author has provided snippets of information for all the entries that are in alphabetic order in easy-to-read Turkish. It readily serves as a guide for those who are curious about the non-Muslim schools of earlier times.