Prinkipo Orphanage: A venue for cultural cooperation
A few days ago, I received an urgent telephone call from the editor of a Greek media organization. He was alarmed by a story that had circulated not only among the Greek media but also several Turkish and international media. The story was about the historic Büyükada Rum Orphanage, which claims to be the biggest wooden structure in Europe and the second in the world that somehow still stands on the hilltop of Prinkipo, the biggest island of the Princes’ Islands archipelago in the Marmara Sea.
I checked the story as published in various versions, but the main idea behind was “the Büyükada Rum Orphanage Istanbul is collapsing, the roof has fallen.” Depending on the type of media and the editorial line they followed, some emphasized the 200 years of history of the monument, but most were in a panic, thinking that the orphanage has already been falling apart.
Is it really collapsing? Now?
I tried to find out what was really happening. I had visited the place two years ago in order to do a similar story: “The Büyükada Rum Orphanage Istanbul faces risk of collapse.” I had seen a badly decayed building with a collapsed roof. I asked around, is there any more damage than there was two years ago? No, they told me.
When I was sent to do the story, there was a real reason. Europa Nostra, the leading heritage organization in Europe, had included the monument in the list of the seven most endangered heritage sites in need of urgent care. A subsequent 30-page detailed report that was prepared by Europa Nostra and the European Investment Bank proposed a very costly 36-month action plan, which had to be implemented as soon as possible. Time and weather conditions are the biggest enemies of the Rum Orphanage.
But that was two years ago. When I had visited the site, I was very sad to see this haunted building built originally as a hotel a century ago and eventually serving as a school and home for the orphans of the once thriving community of the Orthodox Greek, suffering from such neglect. The last schoolteacher who saw the closure of the school and the orphanage in 1964 had difficulty in holding his tears while trying to describe to me the joy of teaching in these exquisite surroundings.
Yet, this is not exactly a story of Turkish intentional neglect of a minority property, as it has been presented by several media abroad. It is partly that. After the building was taken up by Turkish authorities, it remained empty and unused until 2010. Decay was inevitable, especially for a wooden structure.
But there is a second phase in the history of this site that is sometimes intentionally put aside. After a long legal battle, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) returned the ownership of the Orphanage to the Greek Patriarchate in Istanbul, asking from the Turkish government to pay six million euros as compensation. So, now the Prinkipo Orphanage is in the responsibility of the Patriarchate and the small Greek Orthodox community who have been landed with a huge task of finding the necessary funds to save the building and to convert it to a center of culture and ecology. There is a keen interest and participation by Turkish experts and the Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality to help in saving the structure.
So, the story about the Prinkipo Orphanage is not just “an example of Turkish neglect, which caused the destruction of a historic site.” Now, Turks have joined the Greeks in their effort to save a rare example of Istanbul heritage. What is missing is funds. And this could be an ideal platform for a cultural diplomacy initiative between Turks and Greeks. After all, both sides are now talking about dialogue.