The Princes’ Islands



The Princes’ Islands consist of nine small islands that lie on the blue waters of the eastern Marmara Sea, just off the shores of Istanbul. Most are covered with red pine woods and Mediterranean shrubs, although the two westernmost islands are quite bare. In order of increasing size, the four main islands, each extensively settled, are: Kinali, Burgaz, Heybeliada (Greek, Halki), and Büyükada (Greek, Prinkipos). Declared a “natural, urban, archeological, and historical preservation site” in 1984, the Princes’ Islands host 899 registered monuments, most of them on the largest island, Prinkipos (“Prince”), from which the entire island constellation also derives its name.

Holy Trinity Monastery on Halki

The monastery on Halki (Heybeliada)—the second largest of the nine Princes’ Islands—has been variously named through the years: Halki Monastery, Monastery of the Bishops, New Sion, Mirror, or even Window. St. Theodore the Studite may have lived at the monastery for a period of two years (809-11). Empress Theodosia, widow of Leo V (r. 813-20), also resided here with her son during the ninth century at the directive of Emperor Michael II (r. 820-9). In 1063, Empress Catherine Comnena lived here under the monastic name Xeni, dedicating a gospel manuscript to the monastery, which she called Holy Trinity of Halki.

While the date of the monastery’s foundation is unclear, it was probably established in the ninth century, when Patriarch Photius (858-67 and 877-86) is cited as its founder, at least according to historical and hymnographical sources, but even in the records of the subsequent, adjoining theological school, which also recognize St. Photius as the monastery’s patron and protector. During the Byzantine era, the island was transformed into a place of seclusion and solitude but also a literary hub, with the establishment of several monasteries and churches, as well as schools and an orphanage later.

By the sixteenth century, the stavropegic character of the monastery is clearly underlined, when Patriarch Metrophanes III (1565-72 and 1579-80), as its first abbot during this new phase, reconstructed the abandoned building, restored the monastic community and endowed the library. In the eighteenth century, Abbot Samuel (known as “the deaf”) built the walls surrounding the monastery and improved the church’s interior and grounds. Another significant benefactor was Patriarch Germanos IV, who restored the monastery—including its main church dedicated to the Holy Trinity and its three chapels dedicated to the Theotokos, Prophet Elijah, and St. Germanos—after a destructive fire resulting from an earthquake. From that time, successive directors of the theological school (also founded in this period) would also serve as abbots of the monastic community, which included monks, faculty, and students. During the nineteenth century, with the introduction of regular ferry service, the Princes’ Islands were transformed into a cosmopolitan destination for Constantinopolitan bourgeois vacationers.


The Theological School

Known variously through the years as the theological school of the Great Church of Christ or the theological school of Halki—and in Turkish as either Rum Ruhban Mektebi or, later, Rum Rahipler Okulu—the historical and holy theological school of Halki is located at the top of Ümit Tepesi (“the hill of hope”), also known as Papaz Dağı, or “the mount of priests,” which offers an exceptional view of the Marmara, Thrace, Istanbul, Kadiköy (Chalcedon), and the rest of the Princes’ Islands. On the grounds of the school lies the monastery of the Holy Trinity, founded in the time of Patriarch Photius the Great, during the Byzantine period. The restoration of the present monastery and establishment of the seminary is associated with Ecumenical Patriarch Germanos IV, who first visited the monastery in 1842 and succeeded in having the school formally opened and approved by the Turkish authorities on October 1, 1844. While the school was an aspiration and vision for many years, the idea only matured and materialized under Patriarch Germanos, who provided the necessary administrative and organizational skills. In his words, the school is the “golden crown” of the Ecumenical Patriarchate. The school was consecrated on September 13, 1844, and classes commenced on October 8, 1844. Only a few years later, in 1856, the French historian and journalist, Abdolonyme Ubicini (1818-84) described it as “the only establishment of its kind in the whole empire, furnishing annually to the church about fifty leaders.”

The original monastery building comprised a wooden structure, later restored to include rooms for professors, lecture halls, an infirmary, administrative offices, and patriarchal quarters. The school library was housed in a nearby stone building. Unfortunately, on June 28, 1894, an earthquake completely destroyed all the facilities (except the church), and the school’s operation was interrupted. The present structure of the sacred monastery and the theological school is the result of generous donations by the great benefactor and banker Pavlos Skylitsis Stefanovik, a native of Chios, who charged the young architect Periklis Fotiadis with a design of the new facilities (comprising a basement, ground floor, and two stories). The building has a neo-classical style, with frugal monastic lines in the form of the Greek letter Π, the first letter of Skylitsis’ baptismal name. The inauguration took place on October 6, 1896. In the mid-twentieth century, the bathrooms, central heating, and kitchen were updated, and the entire roof was repaired, while the infirmary and the administrative offices were reorganized.

The school’s buildings are surrounded by gardens originally created and cared for by Metropolitan Dorotheos (1891-1974) of the Princes’ Islands. Beyond the garden and behind the altar of the monastery church lie the graves of Ecumenical Patriarchs, bishops, as well as clergy and lay faculty of the school. Current facilities include the chapel of the Holy Trinity, sports and recreational rooms, dormitories, an infirmary, a hospital, offices, and the school’s library with its historic collection of books, journals, and rare manuscripts—most of which are now preserved at the Ecumenical Patriarchate. The monastery grounds also include burial sites of patriarchs, metropolitan bishops, clergy and faculty. Some twenty Ecumenical Patriarchs are buried on the island of Halki, with the graves of two patriarchs behind the altar of the Holy Trinity Monastery (Kyrillos VII, 1855-60, and Constantine V) and another just outside the monastery grounds (Neophytos VIII, 1891-4).

Regulations and Faculty

The theological school of Halki was originally established for educational needs of the Church of Constantinople and Orthodoxy in general. According to its rules and regulations, the reasons for its founding included:

  1. The wider renaissance of letters
  2. The need for theological and spiritual formation of clergy
  3. The pursuit and study of theology
  4. The promotion of inter-Christian and inter-religious relations
  5. The response to challenges arising from contemporary society

The history of the school may be divided into five distinct periods: (1) from 1844 to 1899, when the school had seven grades: four high school and three undergraduate theological grades; (2) from 1899 to 1923, when the high-school division was dissolved and the theological school functioned as an academy with five grades; (3) from 1923 to 1951, when the old seven-grade system was restored; (4) the final period of formal education, from 1951 to the school’s closure by Turkish authorities in 1971, when it had seven classes: three at the high-school level and four theological grades; (5) and since 1971, during which time the school has hosted numerous international conferences and seminars.

The theological school of Halki has operated under various educational laws promulgated in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The law of 1903 provided the legal framework under which the present school operated. This law was modified in 1923 and ratified in 1951, determining the internal administration of the school according to its own special rules.

As an institution of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, the Ecumenical Patriarch and the ruling Holy Synod of the Ecumenical Throne serve as its immediate sponsoring patron, ecclesiastical supervisor, and spiritual guide. The trustees of the theological school manage daily affairs (including policy, budget, appointments, admissions, and general supervision) and report directly to the synod.

Internal regulations are the responsibility of the dean (scholarches), appointed by the Ecumenical Patriarch and the Holy Synod. The dean directs faculty and staff, assisted by the registrar, secretariat, superintendent, librarian, and manager. In the nineteenth century, long-serving deans included the renowned Metropolitan Constantinos (Typaldos) of Stavroupolis (1844-64) and Archimandrite Germanos Grigoras (1868-9, 1877-97). During the twentieth century, deans included Metropolitan Germanos (Strinopoulos) of Seleukia (1907-22), Metropolitan Ioakim (Pelekanos) (1924-31), Metropolitan Aimilianos of Philadelphia (1932-42), Metropolitan Chrysostomos (Koronaios) of Neocasarea (1942-50), Metropolitan Iakovos (Stephanides) of Ikonion (1951-5), and Metropolitan Maximos (Repanellis) of Stavroupolis (1955-91).

Esteemed professors of theology also served as members of various synodal committees and participated in numerous international, inter-Orthodox and inter-religious conferences. Some examples include Professors Filaretos Vafeidis, Vasileios Antoniadis, Christos Androutsos, Vasileios Stefanidis, Metropolitan Chrysostomos (Konstantinidis) of Ephesus (d. 2006), Georgios Anastasiadis, Emmanuel Fotiadis, Vasileios Anagnostopoulos, Konstantinos Kallinikos, Vasileios Stavridis, Aristeidis Passadaios, as well as the metropolitans Constantine of Derkoi (currently metropolitan of Nicaea) and Athanasios of Ilioupolis and Theira (currently metropolitan of Chalcedon).

Graduates were awarded their degrees in a special ceremony, which took place annually on the first Sunday of July in the school’s church, in the presence of the Ecumenical Patriarch. Numerous Orthodox scholars, theologians, priests, bishops, and patriarchs have graduated from Halki, including the present Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew. Past students have included not only a large number of native-born Greeks but also numerous Orthodox Christians from around the world—from Arabic- and Slavic-speaking regions—thereby establishing and ensuring the school’s international character.

Overall, the school dominated the more recent history of the island. It remains a place of international pilgrimage and scholarship, also serving as the personal retreat of the patriarchs. During its 127 years of operation (from 1844-1971), 950 students graduated from the school, of which 330 became bishops; twelve rose to the Ecumenical Patriarchal throne; two were elected patriarchs of Alexandria; three became patriarchs of Antioch; one became exarch of the Bulgarians; four were ordained archbishops of Athens; one became archbishop of Albania; and 318 were ordained priests. Even lay graduates acquired quasi-clerical status when they received the degree of “teacher of Orthodox theology.”

The Library

The school’s library, considered to be one of the richest in the world in old and rare works, was established in the Byzantine period dating from the foundation of the monastery itself. Many manuscripts date from the period of Theodore the Studite, Photius the Great, and Catherine Comnena. The founder of the library was Ecumenical Patriarch Metrophanes III whose contribution predated the establishment of the school. He donated three hundred rare manuscripts, many of which are preserved in the manuscript wing of the patriarchal library, as well as in the patriarchal museum at the Phanar. Over the years, donations and contributions enriched the library’s initial holdings. Prior to the school’s foundation, the library was probably located in a special wing within the patriarchate at the Phanar. After the school was established, in 1852-3, Patriarch Germanos IV personally provided for the construction of a two-story stone building for the library. This building was in service until the earthquake of 1894. From 1896 to 1927, the books were placed in the large hall at the southwestern wing of the building’s upper floor. After 1927, the library was relocated to its present location, in the school’s basement, in the northern part of the building.

Recently, a contribution from Kyriakos Pamoukoglou was used to add a new section, which includes a periodical room, adjoining reading room, and administrative office. Aside from the aforementioned donors, most of the library’s benefactors were graduates of the school, patriarchs, philanthropists, sister churches, other Christian churches, ecclesiastical institutions, and individuals. The library operates under the supervision of the Synodal Library Committee, as well as three teachers from the school’s staff and a librarian. In addition to the main library, there is another library for students, established and maintained since 1923 by the students of the school, under the supervision of the dean. In its current state, the library belongs to the Ecumenical Patriarchate and serves the needs of the school. It contains over 50,000 books and around 1,000 journals.

Anniversary Celebrations

Over the years, major festive celebrations have been held to mark important occasions related to the school’s foundation and evolution. These have included festivities for its establishment (1844), restoration of the new facilities (1896), inauguration of the school’s third period (1923), centennial (1944), 1500th anniversary since the Fourth Ecumenical Council of Chalcedon (1951), centennial of the repose of its founder Patriarch Germanos IV (1953), thirtieth anniversary of the professorship of Ioannis Panagiotidou (1955); the 1000th anniversary since the establishment of Mount Athos (1963), and the 150th since the founding of the school (1994).

Following a patriarchal and synodal decision, the last festive celebration took place between August 28 and 31, 1994. Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, many bishops of the Ecumenical Throne, numerous representatives, and noted clerics of the Orthodox Church abroad, as well as graduates of the school, serving the Church abroad, were in attendance. Likewise, a cardinal representative of the Roman Catholic Church, the general secretary of the World Council of Churches, the general secretary of the Conference of European Churches, and numerous university professors of the theological schools in Athens, Thessaloniki, and St. Serge in Paris participated in the ceremonies.

International Attention

In 1971, in accordance with a new law of the Turkish ministry of education, private higher education was abolished and required direct supervision by the state or affiliation with a state-operated university. Consequently, the theological school was obliged to suspend operation, maintaining only its secondary school until 1984. Today, the institution functions only as a monastic center. Its current Abbot is Metropolitan Elpidophoros (Lambriniadis) of Bursa, who was elected bishop in March 2011 and appointed head of the monastery in August of the same year.

The Theological School of Halki has received international attention in recent years. U.S. President William J. Clinton visited Halki on his visit to Turkey in 1999, urging Turkish President Süleyman Demirel to allow the reopening of the school. In October of 1998, both houses of the United States Congress passed resolutions that supported the reopening of Halki. The European Union has also raised the issue as part of its negotiations over Turkish accession to the European Union. Most recently, in a speech before the Turkish parliament on April 6, 2009, U.S. President Barack Obama reaffirmed the importance of re-opening the school:

Freedom of religion and expression lead to a strong and vibrant civil society that only strengthens the state, which is why steps like reopening the Halki Seminary will send such an important signal inside Turkey and beyond. An enduring commitment to the rule of law is the only way to achieve the security that comes from justice for all.

The Island of Prinkipos (Büyükada)

Prinkipos is the largest of the Turkish Princes’ Islands archipelago, with a surface area of 5.6 square kilometers. In the past, the Princes’ Islands were mostly populated by Byzantine royals in exile, and more recently by Greek priests and fishermen until the commencement of regular scheduled ferry lines from Istanbul in the nineteenth century. Subsequently, along with the rest of the islands, Prinkipos became a summer tourist destination, with local Greek, Armenian, Syriac, and Jewish communities frequenting the small islands. Since Prinkipos remains a seasonal destination, annual population figures fluctuate. A census in 2000 recorded 17,738 permanent residents, with population reaching 65,000 in July and August, excluding the large daily visitor flow.

Remarkably, Prinkipos remains free of motor vehicles, with car traffic superseded by traditional modes of transportation, such as horse carriages and donkeys. Access to the island consists of ferries and sea buses, with motorboats operating during peak season to accommodate demand. Prinkipos’ proximity to Istanbul mainland ranges from 2.3 to 25 kilometers.

The Monastery of St. George Koudouna

Early History

Situated high on the southern end of Prinkipos, the holy monastery of St. George Koudouna (Kodona) sits atop the highest peak of the Princes’ Islands, in an enchanting environment overlooking the Bosphorus and the Sea of Marmara. The derivation of its name is unknown, but its origins date to the late tenth century, during the reign of Emperor Nicephoros II Phocas (r. 963-9), who greatly contributed to the revival of the Byzantine Empire. Through the centuries, the monastery served as a place of pilgrimage and refuge, as well as a hospital for the mentally ill, particularly prior to the establishment of treatment centers for psychological disorders.

A fourteenth-century icon of St. George historically associated with the site was long thought to be miraculous, and through the centuries the monastery has attracted numerous faithful visitors, Christian and Muslim alike, throughout the year and especially on St. George’s feast day (April 23). According to a legend disputed by recent scholarship, the monastery was originally a convent for nuns, which also served as a place of exile for princes and members of the Byzantine court falling into imperial disfavor. In 1453 (when the monastery was reportedly destroyed), the monks, who feared looting, buried the icon and other precious relics or items on the craggy mountainside, where they remained for centuries untouched by inclement weather and assailants. In fact, the early monastery of St. George was probably destroyed either by crusaders in 1204 or by pirates in 1302. 

Reconstruction of the Monastery

The fourteenth-century icon of St. George was rediscovered and unearthed in 1751-2, possibly by an elderly shepherd, whereupon a monk named Isaiah rebuilt the monastery in its current location, traditionally known as St. George Koudouna. The same monk was responsible for restoring the chapel and cells of Panaghia Vlachernai. As its founding abbot, Isaiah secured formal patriarchal recognition of the monastery as stavropegic in 1760. Originally, the monastery was financially supported by the Great Lavra Monastery (built on Mount Athos in 963); subsequently, it was formally affiliated to the Holy Lavra Monastery in the Greek Peloponnese (established in 961), as one of its dependencies. With the gradual decrease of the community and decline of the monastery toward the end of the eighteenth century, it was reduced to a parish monastery under the jurisdiction of the metropolis of Chalcedon. However, in 1807, the monks of Great Lavra (Peloponnese) requested that it revert to its patriarchal and stavropegic status, which occurred in the same year, during the tenure of Patriarch Gregory V.

The Monastery Today

The church constructed by Isaiah is hewn of stone and characterized by a simple beauty. The main door to the church has been closed for years, while the side door serves as the entrance, actually leading into a smaller chapel dedicated to St. Haralambos and decorated with an eighteenth-century fresco of an archangel. Another image of St. George (with an epigram dating its creation to 1754) was also located inside the central church for over two hundred years. The altar has an inscription dated 1838, while the two marble candle stands date to 1790.

A small internal marble staircase leads to a spring of holy water. A sculpted marble image of St. George marks the spot where the original icon of the saint was unearthed.

The new monastery church was built by Abbot Dionysios (Paikopoulos) in 1905 and consecrated on September 10, 1908. Its architect was Christos Kotzas, while the internal design belongs to Ioannis Papadopoulos (who also designed the interior of the Patriarchal Church of St. George at the Phanar), and the icons were painted by the monastic brotherhood of Joasaphites on Mount Athos. 

Apart from the two churches, there are also two chapels—one dedicated to Panaghia Vlachernai and the other, beside the sacred spring, to the Holy Apostles. Among the precious treasures of the monastery are the relics of St. Panteleimon and Damian the unmercenary healers, St. Eugenia and St. Paraskevi, St. Haralambos and St. Tryphon, and many others.

While over twenty patriarchs are buried on the Princes’ Islands, including patriarchs of Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem, only two Ecumenical Patriarchs are buried on Prinkipos, but none at the monastery of St. George.

An Encounter of Cultures and Faiths

Perhaps one of the most intriguing aspects of the monastery today is the fact that Muslims—mostly from Istanbul, but also from other parts of Turkey and other parts of the world—frequent the sacred site of pilgrimage as much as, and even more than, Greek or other Orthodox visitors. 

Each year, on April 23, the feast day of St. George, the path to the monastery is literally filled with ambulant pilgrims unspooling cotton and hanging votive ribbons along the way. Outside the monastery, they receive a blessing from one of the monks. The pilgrimage is another example of how cultures can fuse and meld, as well as of how religions can adopt and adapt. Muslims have long had a special fondness and attachment to the popular St. George, whom they regard as a miracle worker and honor throughout the world on May 6 (the saint’s feast day on the Julian calendar). It may also be that his authority and strength as a soldier-saint have garnered the respect of Muslim faithful because he stood up to Roman soldiers, who were intolerant of religious differences. Islam is one of the three Abrahamic faiths (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam), and Muslims acknowledge a number of revered Jewish and Christian leaders, some of whom are even mentioned in the Quran. In modern times, it seems that the warrior St. George attracts people of different faiths in a pilgrimage of peace and prayer.

The Prinkipos Island Greek Orphanage


The Prinkipos Island Greek Orphanage is located on the second highest point of Büyükada. Built in 1898 on the premises of a building destroyed by an earthquake in 1894, the present structure is once again in a damaged state, weathered by time and the elements. It is reputed to be Europe’s largest wooden structure and the second largest in the world.

The orphanage is a unique part of Turkey’s rich history of building with wood. Most of the country’s other historical wooden structures are modest houses, which offer a glimpse into life during the Ottoman Empire, and great efforts are being made to preserve them. All of these buildings, including the remains of the orphanage, embody a wealth of construction knowledge, including details about seismic design, which has allowed them to survive so long despite neglect. One of the best areas to see this traditional architecture is the isle of Prinkipos, which has many large ornate wooden houses, in addition to the orphanage.

The orphanage’s design is attributed to Alexandre Vallury, the architect of the Istanbul Archeological Museum, as well as one of Istanbul’s oldest and most famous hotels, the Pera Palas (built in 1892 to house passengers from the Orient Express). The dimensions are 102 meters by 25-35 meters and 21 meters high. It was originally designed as a hotel and casino, “the Prinkipos Palas,” which never opened since gambling was forbidden by Sultan Abdülhamid II (r. 1876-1909). The empty building was then purchased by Eleni Zafiropoulou-Zarifi (wife of Georgios Zarifis (d. 1884), banker to the sultan, who permitted its sale for use as an orphanage at 3,700 gold liras. Mrs. Zarifi, who died in 1910, donated it to the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate on the condition that it would be used for this purpose. Records of the period refer to the building as the Rum (Greek) Orphanage, and it was opened by Patriarch Joachim III in 1903. The orphanage included a theatre, dining hall, large library, chapel, games room, museum, sick bay, and a fire tower with marble steps. It was administered under the auspices of the patriarchate, but as the Greek population of Istanbul diminished, it fell out of use and was closed in 1964.

The entire area of the property on which the orphanage is located is about 6.4 acres, while two adjacent wooden constructions and porticos, also in poor condition, cover about 15,000 square meters. Both the orphanage and the neighboring structures are architecturally unique. However, the harsh climate has severely damaged their wooden elements, as well as the few parts made of stone, such as fireplaces and chimneys.

The Prinkipos World Environment Center

The Ecumenical Patriarchate has recently proposed to rebuild the former orphanage to house a new institution, the Prinkipos World Environment Center. This center aims to develop and catalyze the implementation of values-based, interfaith, and multidisciplinary solutions to the most pressing environmental issues, initially focusing on ones that affect multiple nations, ethnicities, and religious faiths in the eastern Mediterranean and Black Sea regions.

In order to achieve its mission, the center will work on a specific set of priority topics and convene prominent constituents to develop solutions and drive action for each topic. The center will focus on three areas: (a) protection of natural resources and ecological systems, (b) fair access to shared resources, and (c) sustainable urban communities. Moreover, the center will address its priority topics within each area by developing and facilitating the implementation of practical solutions.

As a result, the center will also support the Ecumenical Patriarchate’s aim to promote interfaith dialogue, bringing together leaders and communities of different religious and national backgrounds to collaborate on common goals, especially environmental awareness.