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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  and Ioakeimeion Girls’ High School which are located directly opposite to each in 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 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 , 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