The history of the islands begins in classical Greece when they were known as “Dmónsoi,” also spelled Demonesi or Demonisi.
During the Byzantine Empire, disfavored princes and other members of the royal family were exiled to the islands. After 1453, the family of the Ottoman sultans was also exiled there, giving the islands their present name. The islands were captured by the Ottoman fleet during the siege of Constantinople in 1453. When the wealthy of Istanbul visited the islands in the nineteenth century, you can still see Victorian cottages and homes on the largest of the Princes’ Islands. 7,937 people called the Princes’ Islands (Adalar) Kaza home as of the 1881–1893 Ottoman General Census. In addition to 1,404 non-Ottoman citizens, there were 5,501 Greeks, 533 Armenians, 254 Muslims, 133 Catholics, 65 Jews, 27 Latinos, 7 Protestants, and 533 Armenians. The Theological School of Halki (Greek: and Turkish: Ortodoks Ruhban Okulu) was founded on October 1, 1844, on Halki (Turkish: Heybeliada), the second-largest of the Princes’ Islands in the Sea of Marmara. It served as the primary school of theology for the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople until the Turkish Parliament outlawed private universities in 1971. On the island’s Hill of Hope, the theological institution now stands where the Byzantine Monastery of the Holy Trinity once stood. The former school structure, which is now used for conferences, is still maintained by the monastery. From the coast of Istanbul to the island where it is situated, it takes a boat about an hour. In 1912, it was estimated that there were 670 Turks and 10,250 Greeks residing on the islands. The islands have become more ethnically Turkish as a result of the influx of wealthy Turkish jet setters since the British Yacht Club on Büyükada was converted into Anadolu Kulübü for Turkish parliamentarians to enjoy Istanbul in the summer. During the early years of the Turkish Republic, in the 1920s, this trend first emerged. The islands stand out because they offer a glimpse—albeit a limited one—of a multiethnic community that exists in modern Turkey and may be comparable to the multiethnic communities that grew up in Ottoman cities like Istanbul and Constantinople. Before the 1950s, every inhabited island had sizable populations of Turkic-speaking people, but this is no longer the case. The historical contributions of the minority are now more significant culturally than statistically because Turks make up such a significant portion of the population and the tourist industry.
The nine islands that make up the Princes’ Islands, which are in the Marmara Sea not far from Istanbul, are collectively known as Büyükada (Turkish for “Big Island”; Greek: romanized as Prnkpos). The same as on the other islands, visitors can get around on foot, by bicycle (which can be rented from many businesses by the hour), or in battery-powered electric vehicles that function like taxis and provide “round-the-island” sightseeing tours. Horse-drawn carriages will no longer be used on the island after 2020 because of a serious equine disease. The Byzantine empresses Irene, Euphrosyne, Theophano, Zoe, and Anna Dalassena lived in a convent in Büyükada while they were exiled. On the island of Büyükada, Leon Trotsky lived out his first four years of exile after being kicked out of the Soviet Union in February 1929. Princess Fahrelnissa Zeid is a native of the island. A few of the historical structures in Büyükada include the Hamidiye Mosque, which Abdul Hamid II built, the Ayia Yorgi Church and Monastery, which was built in the sixth century, and the Ayios Dimitrios Church. The Büyükada mountain is made up of two peaks. On top of Hristos hill, the one closest to the iskele, stands the former Greek Orphanage, a massive wooden structure now known as the Prinkipo Environmental Center (ferry landing). In the valley between the two hills are the Ayios Nikolaos church and monastery, as well as the former fairground is known as Luna Park. The “traditional” way to experience Ayia Yorgi (St. George, in Greek) entails taking the island’s “small tour” by buggy up to this point and then ascending the short distance to the tiny church.
Heybeliada, also known as “Saddlebag Island” in Turkish and Halki in Greek, is the second-largest of the Princes’ Islands and is situated in the Sea of Marmara. In the district of Adalar in Istanbul, Look to your left as you exit the ferry to see the enormous Naval Cadet School perched above the jetty. Two distinctive buildings at the school are interesting to explore. One is Kamariotissa, the only Byzantine church still standing on the island and the final one to be built before Constantinople fell. The other is Edward Barton’s grave, who preferred to live on Heybeli due to its relative seclusion. Edward Barton was the second English ambassador Elizabeth I of England sent to Constantinople. To the right of the jetty in the town are several charming wooden homes, bars, cafes, and an all-year-round hotel. The Theological Seminary of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, the only Greek Orthodox seminary in Turkey, was housed in a Greek Orthodox monastery that dates back to the eleventh century but was arbitrarily shut down by the Turkish government in 1971. Despite the Turkish government’s pledge to reopen the seminary, travelers from Turkey and Greece continue to flock to the monastery. To prevent pollution, only service vehicles like ambulances, fire trucks, and police cars are permitted on the island. You can only get around occasionally using a service vehicle, a horse and buggy, or on foot. Due to the lack of an airport, ships are the only viable form of transportation. When the owners of the seasonal homes return, the population of the island, which is only about 3,000 in the winter, jumps to about 10,000. Every year to celebrate Independence Day, a resident naval band performs on the island. There are also a few small-scale open-air performances put on by the community council and a popular swimming and fitness facility by the water in the summer.
Burgazada, also known as “Fortress Island” in Turkish (Greek: Antigone, romanized as Antigone), comes in third place in terms of size. It is made up of a single hill with a diameter of about 2 kilometers. Fort Antigonus I Monophthalmus was built here by Demetrius I of Macedon, one of Alexander the Great’s Diadochi (successors), in memory of his father. Although this is the name given to the island, the majority of Turks simply call it “Burgaz” (Turkish for “fort”) today. In 2003, a forest fire in Burgaz burned down 4 square kilometers of land. Sait Faik Abasyank lived in Burgaz, and many of his works are set there. Today, his house has been preserved and is a museum. At his favorite restaurant in Kalpazankaya (the counterfeiter’s rock), where he frequently unwinds with a glass of raki that the owners will refill every day, you can find a bronze statue in his likeness. Burgazada was mainly a Jewish community until the middle of the 20th century.
The closest island to both the European and Asian sides of Istanbul, Kinaliada (Turkish for “Henna Island,” named for the hue of its soil; Greek: romanized as Art, “First”), is situated just 12 kilometers (7 miles) to the south of Istanbul. This is one of the islands with the fewest trees, and the land is reddish from the iron and copper that have been mined here. This island served as a haven for exiles more frequently than any other during the Byzantine Empire (the most notable exiles were former emperors Romanos I Lekapenos in 944 and Romanos IV Diogenes following the Battle of Manzikert in 1071). On top of this island is an abbey, another historical site. From the late 1800s to the middle of the 20th century, Kinaliada had the highest population of Armenians in Istanbul, even though the majority of them only lived there during the summer. On the island, the majority of the summer residents were Armenian. The island was a summer retreat for the patriarchs of the Armenian community in Istanbul. Passengers can travel to the islands via ferries that depart from Kabataş on the European side. Slower ferries take about 40 minutes, while faster ferries complete the journey in about 25 minutes (Vapur).
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