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Hidden in Plain Sight: the historic Greek Schools in Fener (Phanar), Istanbul

Here we see important sites of memory for the Greek [Rum] Communities of Istanbul: the historic Rum schools of Phanar Greek Orthodox High School and Ioakeimeion Girls’ High School which are located directly opposite to each in Fener neighbourhood of Istanbul (‘Phanar’ in Greek). These are prominent institutions and buildings, and the former is still active, albeit with vastly reduced student numbers because of the dwindling population. The schools are a core childhood memory for older diaspora community members who were displaced in the expulsions of 1964 and had to leave Istanbul due to other political suppressions. Alumni groups are highly active in Istanbul, Athens and as far away as Melbourne.

Phanar School is a hub of transnational community cultural events. It is nicknamed the ‘Red Castle’. It is a prominent landmark on the skyline of Istanbul, visible from many points in the Historic Areas of Istanbul World Heritage Site. The statement of Outstanding Universal Value, which is a key component of World Heritage listing, stresses the city’s ‘incomparable skyline formed by the creative genius of Byzantine and Ottoman architects’ but the post-Byzantine history and the culture of the Rum are not recognised in the WHS or in other official heritage narratives, which celebrate instead the 1453 Ottoman conquest of, and dominion over, the city. 

Fener, a road to the Schools

Ioakeimeion Girls’ High School
The school was established in 1870s. The land was donated by Joachim II (1802-1878) the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople and the school was built by his successor Joachim III (1834-1912). Aspasia, who is in her 80s, a retired teacher from Istanbul now living in Athens, explained that the School was established for girls of the Fener and Balat area, because the school in Pera [Zapyon] was both too expensive and remote. She worked at the Ioakeimeion for twelve years from 1957. In her years, the school in Pera still was bigger and richer. Despite its more modest state, Aspasia said that the Ioakeimeion was well run and in good order in her time.  Aspasia lived on the other side of the city at the time. She would take the ferry to Fener, where she would climb the steps up the hill to get to the school. Although it was hard to get to work on time, when she could, she would often go to the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate in Fener, to light a candle on her way to school. 

Aspasia remembers the school fondly, but it was not without tension. There were some Turkish teachers at the school and although often their relationship was good, it was often related to the political situation between Greece and Turkey: when the tension was high between the two countries, this made itself felt at the school.

At the beginning of the 20th century, the Ioakeimeion had nearly six hundred students. In the 1980s, depopulation of the Rum community meant that the school had to close because of low student numbers; the pupils joined the Phanar Greek Orthodox High School, which became co-educational. Aspasia, on the other hand, was transferred to Zapyon Girls’s School in Pera. 

The Ioakeimeion is still closed to this day. It is not possible to visit and the building is unsafe to go inside. For now, community memories of the school are still vivid, but as generations pass these will be lost.

Ioakeimeion Girls’ High School from the street 

Phanar Greek Orthodox High School
The School dates from 1454, one year after the Conquest of Constantinople, when it was opened by the Patriarch to educate the children of the Orthodox community. Today’s building, sometimes known as the ‘Red Castle’, dates from 1883. Today, there are only about 40-50 students attending the School, after a dramatic decline in the community’ s numbers following the expulsions of 1964. Many of the Rum who left Istanbul for Athens attended this School and are members of graduate associations. 

 I visited the school with Thanassis, who is in his 80s and is the only remaining graduate in Istanbul from his year and class. The rest had to leave for Athens. He said that the graduates of the school were very attached to their school: it not only “educated” them, but also “taught them about life”. His fellow graduates meet in the same place and at the same time every week in Athens. “They don’t need a phonecall. Whoever is available shows up”. 

Although student numbers are very low and the future of the School is a question, staff, students and alumni – going back decades, like Thanassis – all try to keep their School alive. The School is an important venue for events and intergenerational sharing of the Rum culture of Istanbul. Below, you will see some sound recordings of an event that I attended with Thanasis. 

Top: the dome of the School
Bottom: the School is on the left

Students at the School 

A photo of Thanasis, who is 82, sitting where he used to sit. 

Thanasis shows me the chairs that he remembers from his childhood. He and his fellow students would play with these chairs, stacking them up like dominoes  before making them fall

In the natural history classroom there is a photo of Greta Thunberg. The School is a living site of education but also a place of memory: many of the interiors are unchanged, with old teaching collections remaining in place alongside new stuff

The view from the School

This is the sound of Thanassis and me walking up the stairs and into the classrooms of the High School. You can hear him unlocking the doors too. Many graduates talk about this sound, which seems to be etched into their memory!

These are recordings of a concert performed by the schoolchildren in November 2019 in collaboration with schoolchildren from Greece.

This is a piece of ‘classical’ music that dates back to the Byzantine period. The origin of the piece is contested, reflecting cultural tensions: some call it ‘Byzantine’ music, connecting it to Greek culture; others call it ‘Ottoman’, linking it to a Turkish national identity based on the Ottoman past.  

This is a song by Mikis Theodorakis, Της δικαιοσύνης ήλιε νοητέ, performed by the students. I was sitting next to Thanasis, who was also singing. When they started this song, he got excited as he loved Theodorakis’ music. With a big smile on his face, he whispered, “this is Theodorakis!” 

This is the poster in Greek for the event

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‘We come from the City’ (Από την Πόλη έρχομαι): Café Aman Istanbul

Stelyos is from Istanbul. After many years as a member of the Ecumenical Patriarchate choir, he moved to the island of Gökçeada (Imroz) in 2020. He teaches music in a Greek high School and trains the Greek children of the island to sing traditional Orthodox church music. 

Together with his wife Pelin Suer, Stelyos established the Café Aman Istanbul music band in 2009. Café Aman sings the music of Istanbul in Greek and Turkish. The band is reviving the Rebetiko repertoires from Anatolia and Greece and the tradition of the café-aman taverns, where traditional songs were performed from 19th-century Century Ottoman times. He explains the concept of ‘Istanbul Music’: 

Istanbul music is not just Rebetiko. We have no such obsession. There are ladino songs in it, there are also songs in Armenian. There are also Kurdish songs, although few. In other words, after melting all this wealth in a shared pot, something called ‘Istanbul music’ emerged.

The group is popular in Greece and Turkey. Stelyos talked about a very successful concert that they did in a large concert hall in the centre of Athens, the Megaron, in November 2019. Café Aman istanbul was invited to the Megaron and had to perform two nights in a row at the Hall because of the level of interest. Tickets sold out quickly. Stelyos said that at the time they were working on ‘Istanbul city music and heritage’ and decided to take this to Athens: We come from the City [Istanbul] (Από την Πόλη έρχομαι).

The Café Aman Istanbul knew that some Greeks from Turkey in Athens were fans them, but the huge interest in Athens was a surprise for them.  He explained why that was:

I felt this there [in Athens]; I tell you this because I also lived there: inside every Greek,  there is love for and a sense of belonging to Anatolia, to Istanbul. This is a feeling that comes from history. This doesn’t mean that the Greeks will cross the borders and will seize these lands, I don’t mean this [laughs].  But this is an indication of their spiritual bond with Turkey, even if they have never been. Music is already the most important bridge that unites these communities. Maybe it is a tool that makes us forget everything but makes us equal in the moment. No doubt that this is a great power. That night we all became İstanbullu [from Istanbul].

Café Aman Istanbul concert in Megaron, Athens, 2019. 

Apart from traditional songs, they also perform traditional dance. 

Café Aman Istanbul also recreated the traditional carnival of Tatavla in which the Greeks of Istanbul wore comic masks and costumes to celebrate their neighbours, as you see in the photograph. The carnival would take place three weeks before the Great Lent and was also called Baklahorani (literally, ‘eating beans’) because according to the Orthodox tradition, they would not consume meat until Easter. Baklahorani would begin with a parade from Pera to the Saint Demetrius Church in Tatavla. It would end with festivity in the street there. The festival was stopped in 1941. For one year, in 2010, the carnival was revived by a group of Greeks and Turks.  

A picture of Baklahorani from 1930’s 

Here you can listen to a song by Café Aman Istanbul: Gülbahar

I thank Stelyos for his time and for giving me permission to use these photographs and songs. 

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Istos (Ιστός): ‘it is the story of the City that is told!’

The independent initiative Istos is a Greek ‘Rum’ organization in Istanbul established in 2011. One of the first activities of Istos was to revive the historic publishing tradition of the Greeks of Istanbul that was discontinued over half a century previously due to political pressure. They aim to contribute to knowledge about the history, culture and life of the Rums and to general historical understanding of Istanbul. Since part of the Rum community has remained in Istanbul, Istos seeks to counter a romantic and nostalgic perspective on Rum culture in the city that is based on a sense of loss.

Istos is not just a publishing house. It makes films and has a choir that sings in Greek (the choir also includes Turkish people). It organises language courses, and workshops and events on the Greeks of Istanbul. Lastly, there is Istos Café. So, Istos is a cultural focus for the Greek communites in Istanbul. Indeed, Istos (Ιστός), means ‘network’.

Apart from being a place to sell coffee, we thought it was essentially a place where people meet and socialize. We thought of it as an initiative, a process in which various activities are knitted around our publishing activity, and that’s where the Greek lessons, music lessons dance lessons started to be born and shaped around it [i.e. publishing activity]

Undoubtedly, it’s very important for the Rums [i.e. the Greek of Istanbul] to have more space; it is very important for the Rum youth: to be able to speak your language, read in your language and make music in your environment, in your space. However, this offers more potentials in a more general sense in terms of Turkish society. 

Foti Benlisoy, one of the founders of Istos. 

Here is the link to Istos (in Greek and Turkish):

Screenshot of Istos web page

Phases of Matter (Maddenin Halleri) won several 
awards at national and international levels in prestigious festivals. 

Here you can listen to a song by Istos that was recorded during quarantine

I thank Istos for their time in talking to me and giving me permission to use their material, in particular to Yorgo and Foti Benlisoy.  

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Ecumenical Federation of Constantinopolitans in Athens

The Ecumenical Federation of Constantinopolitans in Athens is a key site for many of the Greeks who left Istanbul in the second half of the twentieth century. Some of the members called it their ‘home’. It is a federation because there are smaller groups dedicated to individual neighborhoods of Istanbul. Part-way between a museum, a community centre, an archive and an NGO, it hosts events, talks, concerts and meetings relating to the Greek presence and experience of Istanbul.