Princes’ Islands: Istanbul’s Long Ago Refuge from Pandemic

The Theological School of Halki in the Monastery of the Holy Trinity. Photo: Wikipedia

Two times in history the Princes’ Islands (Πριγκηπονήσια, Pringiponisia), located off Istanbul, served as a welcome refuge from the plague, something that the current Covid-19 outbreak brings to mind again.

The first time was in the year 540 when the Black Plague devastated Europe, killing thousands of people in the seat of the Byzantine empire, Constantinople, each day.

The second time the city was hit by another outbreak was in the 16th century, when it was called Istanbul and had become the seat of the Ottoman Empire. At that time, many of its people fled to the Princes’ Islands for refuge.

The Princes’ islands are an archipelago consisting of nine islands off the coast of Istanbul in the Sea of Marmara. They took their name from the Byzantines, as princes and other royalty were exiled there. Likewise, during the Ottoman period members of the sultan’s families found themselves exiled there as well.

In the 19th century, the islands became a popular resort for Istanbul’s wealthy class, most of whom were Greek.

The second largest of the islands, Halki, is of great importance for Hellenism, not only because it was inhabited by mostly Greeks. In 1844 the Theological School of Halki was established on the island, located at the top of the island’s Hill of Hope, on the site of the Byzantine-era Monastery of the Holy Trinity.

The school came to serve as the main school of theology for the Eastern Orthodox Church’s Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople.

That was true all the way up until 1971, when Turkey enacted a law banning all private institutions of higher education. However, the premises of the school continue to be maintained by the monastery and are used to host conferences. The Patriarchate of Constantinople and Greek diplomats have continually tried to convince Ankara to reopen the Theological School of Halki since that time.

In 1912, there were 10,250 Greeks and 670 Turks living on the Princes islands. However, after the Asia Minor Disaster in 1922 and the population exchange between Greece and Turkey in 1923, Halki and the rest of the islands became more and more ethnically Turkish in character.

The  persecution of the Greeks of Istanbul in 1955 was the final blow. Today there are only 80 Greeks left living on the Princes’ islands.

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