Greek Sites of Istanbul

Part Four: Princes’ Islands


41. Monastery of Saint George of the Bells

Άγιος Γεώργιος του Κουδουνά (Hagios Georgios tou Koudouna)

On top of Yücetepe, Büyükada
1759, 1908

This monastery is situated on top of Yücetepe (Lofty Hill), the southern hill of Prinkipo (Büyükada), offering many fine views. The landscape here is strikingly similar to that of a number of holy sites in Ancient Greece, suggesting that there could have stood a temple here in ancient times. I haven’t been able to confirm the accuracy of this thought, though.

According to the tradition, the monastery was founded in 963. The earliest reference to it comes from the chrysobull of Manuel I Komnenos in 1158. It may have gone in ruins after the Fall of Constantinople. The name can be explained by a story from the 17th or 18th century, according to which a shepherd who was grazing his flock on the hill heard the sound of bells coming from beneath the ground. He started to dig to find out where the sound comes from, and found an icon of Saint George, which he then enshrined on the spot with other locals. Many miracles have been attributed to that icon ever since.

The complex consists of several separate churches or chapels on three levels. The katholikon, built in 1908, stands on the site of a church built in 1751-1752. It hosts the icon of Saint George clad in silver. A flight of steps below is the Chapel of Theotokos Blachernitissa, built in 1759. Beyond this chapel is the Chapel of Saint George. It has iron rings set into the wall, which indicates that mental patients were confined here in the hope of being cured by the icon of the saint. There is also another chapel with a tiny shrine and a hagiasma, possibly the place where the miraculous icon was found. There is one more chapel, dedicated to the Holy Apostles. These latter structures are not so prominent if one does not look for them specifically.


In 1781, the monastery was annexed to the Monastery of Hagia Lavra in Kalavryta. When the Greek War of Independence broke out in 1821, the clergy of the monastery were killed by the Ottomans, because of their relationship with the Lavra Monastery. The monastery later resumed its operation.

On Saint George’s Day every year, many Christians as well as Muslims climb up the monastery, many barefoot, to attend the dawn service, which traditionally marks the beginning of spring. This is just one example of a semi-religious tradition shared by Christians and Muslims – a phenomenon, which is not so uncommon in Turkey.


42. Monastery of the Divine Transfiguration of the Saviour

Θεία Μεταμόρφωση του Σωτήρος (Theia Metamorphosi tou Sotiros)

Kadıyoran Caddesi 90, Büyükada
Vasilis Dimitriou, 1869

The history of this monastery goes back to the Early-Christian period, as the foundations of a church dating from the reign of Theodosius I (379-395) have been found under the later (Byzantine) church. The existence of the monastery is evidenced in the chrysobull of Emperor Manuel I Komnenos from 1158 and in a written text in 1563. The monastery was renovated in 1597 and later again in 1793. The carved wooden iconostasis possibly dates from this period. The monastery must have operated in the 19th century, as it is known that some patriarchs then resided here. In 1869, the new katholikon was built by Patriarch Sophronius III. Today, in addition to the katholikon, a big two-storey structure survives.



43. Prinkipo Palace / Prinkipo Greek Orthodox Orphanage

On top of İsa Tepesi, Büyükada
Alexandre Vallaury, 1898-1899

This building was erected on top of İsa Tepesi (Jesus Hill) by the Compagnie Internationale des Wagons-Lits, the international train company that operated the Orient Express. The architect was the famous Alexandre Vallaury, who had just designed notable buildings such as the Pera Palace Hotel and the headquarters of the Ottoman Bank.

The building was planned as a grand hotel with a casino called the Prinkipo Palace. Sultan Abdul Hamid II, however, refused to give permission to such an establishment, and the hotel never opened. The structure was then purchased by Eleni Zarifi, widow of the banker Leonidas Zarifi, who donated it to the Patriarchate of Constantinople on the condition that it be used as an orphanage. The orphanage opened in 1903.

This building is one of the most interesting sights in Büyükada. It is approximately 20,000 sq.m. big, and it is made entirely of wood. This makes it the second largest wooden building in the world, after the Tōdai-ji Buddhist Temple in Nara, Japan. It contained 206 rooms, a kitchen, a library, and vocational workshops. In the garden was a building that served as an office and was later used as the primary school. Despite the grandiose volume, the complex follows a very simple design.

The orphanage closed in 1964 and has since fallen into ruins. It hosted around 5,800 orphans during its six decades of operation.


44. Monastery of Saint Nicholas

Άγιος Νικόλαος (Hagios Nikolaos)

Karacabey Mevkii Yolu, Büyükada
1860 and later

This complex is located on the eastern part of the island, on or near the site of the Byzantine settlement of Karyes, abandoned in the 17th century after a fire. It was first mentioned in 1680 by an English traveller. It is known that in the 18th and 19th centuries the monastery was temporarily used as a school, and since the 1820s, when the Greek War of Independence started, the Ottoman Army used it to train military musicians. The monastery suffered from fire in 1852 and was rebuilt in 1860. It may have been damaged by the 1894 earthquake as well.

The complex can not be easily recognised as a monastery from the outside, as the road that leads to it ends up at two huge auxiliary buildings made of wood, like so many structures on the Princes’ Islands.


Behind these buildings stands the katholikon of the monastery: a tetrastyle cross-in-square structure typical of the medieval Byzantine architecture. It may have been built from the ruins of the earlier Byzantine church. The church has an attractive narthex or porch with a tiled roof from 1873. Over the entrance is a marble relief of a double-headed eagle – the emblem of the Byzantine Palaiologos dynasty. On the exterior at the northwest corner is an ancient Greek relief depicting a chariot race.


45. Prinkipo Greek Orthodox Cemetery

This beautiful cemetery is located in a quiet part of Büyükada south of the Monastery of Saint Nicholas. I haven’t been able to find any information about its history.



46. Church of Saint Demetrius

Άγιος Δημήτριος (Hagios Demetrios)

Pervane Sokak 12, Büyükada
Fistikos Kalfa (?), 1856-1860

This church is a three-nave basilica, surrounded by an open arcade on three sides. There are some Baroque-Rococo influences in the interior. The icon of Saint Demetrius is from the 17th century. The school house in the garden is from 1910.


In the garden of this church is displayed a Byzantine column capital with the monogram of Emperor Justin II (565-574). It is probably from the Byzantine chapel above which the 19th-century church was built.


In online sources, the architect of this church is said to be Fistikos Kalfa, but it may be that this name is the Turkish bastardization of a similar-sounding Greek name. The Greek Primary School (1849) and the Church of Saint Nicholas (1857) in Heybeliada are also known to have been designed by architects with the surname of Kalfa/Kalfas, but the first names of the three architects are different. Were they three architect brothers, or was it just the same architect, whose name has been mixed up?


47. Church of the Dormition of Saint Mary

Κοίμηση της Θεοτόκου (Koimisi tis Theotokou)

At the corner of Kıvılcım Sokak and Lonca Sokak, Büyükada
1793, 1871

The first Church of the Dormition of the Mother of God was built in 1735 in the Greek cemetery on the southern slope of İsa Tepesi. It was rebuilt in the current location in 1793 and modified in 1871. It has a beautiful iconostasis, and its ambo is considered to be among the finest in the city.



48. Theological School of Halki

On top of Ümit Tepesi, Heybeliada
Church of the Holy Trinity – 17th century; other buildings – Periklis Fotiadis, 1896

The northern hill in Halki (Heybeliada) is known in Turkish as Ümit Tepesi (Hill of Hope). On top of it stood, in the Byzantine era, the Monastery of the Holy Trinity. The earliest reference to that monastery is found in the writings of Theodore the Studite in the early 9th century. He was exiled on the island by Emperor Leo V the Armenian (813-820), because of his criticism of the Emperor’s Iconoclastic policy. The monastery was restored by Patriarch Photios I (858-867). He was exiled here twice, he died here, and he was also buried here.

Photios was the patron saint of the theological school into which the monastery was converted on the initiative of Patriarch Germanus IV in 1844. It came to be the main school of theology of the Patriarchate of Constantinople, serving the clerical needs of the Patriarchate as well as the other Orthodox Churches. It originally had seven grades (four on high-school and three on higher level).

The seminary was famous for its library, established by Patriarch Metrophanes III (1565-1572, 1579-1580). It is one of the most renowned libraries in the Orthodox world. It contains 120,000 books, among which are a number of manuscripts from the period of Theodor the Studite and Photios I.

The original buildings of the school were all made of wood, except for the 17th-century Church of the Holy Trinity (Αγία ΤριάδαHagia Triada), a small three-naved basilica.


The wooden structures were destroyed during the 1894 Istanbul earthquake, and by 1896 they had been replaced by new buildings made of stone. The architect was Periklis Fotiadis, who had designed the building of the Zografeion Lyceum in Galatasaray some years before. These new buildings surround the church on three sides and include offices, the library, a hospice, an infirmary, dormitories, and a sports and recreational institution. Some modifications were carried out on the structure in the 1950s.


The complex also has a big garden, where the graves of patriarchs, bishops and teachers of the school can be found.


The seminary operated until 1971, when the Turkish parliament adopted a law banning private higher education institutions. During the time of its operation, 990 people have graduated from the school. Many have become patriarchs, archbishops, bishops, priests and scholars around the world. There are international campaigns to reopen the school, amid promises by the Turkish government to do it.


49. Greek Primary School of Halki

Heybeli Mektep Sokak & 1. Sokak, Heybeliada
Ioannis Kalfas, 1849

The school was established with the purpose of preparing students for studies at the Theological School of Halki. It had an additional section for girls. In the 1940s, the Jews of Istanbul, who spent their summers on the island, may have used a part of the school for worship, as the Beth Yaakov Synagogue did not exist yet. After 1953 the school operated on the first floor only, while the ground floor was given for use as a cultural centre and a charity institution. The school closed down in 1972. The building now functions as a music research and recording centre. There is a lively market in front of it.



50. Church of Saint Nicholas

Άγιος Νικόλαος (Hagios Nikolaos)

İmralı Sokak & İşgüzar Sokak, Heybeliada
Hacı Stefani Gaytanki Kalfa (?), 1857

This church stands on the ruins of a Byzantine church dedicated to Saint Nicholas. It was built in 1857 by an architect whose identity I have not been able to double-check from other publications (but who, I suspect, is somehow related to Ioannis Kalfas, the architect of the Halki Primary School, built some years before).


The church got damaged in the 1894 Istanbul earthquake, and its appearance has been gradually altered. Notable elements include the hagiasma dedicated to Saint Paraskevi, the tomb of Patriarch Samuel I (1763-1768, 1773-1774), and the clock tower.


51. Monastery of the Transfiguration of Christ

Θεοκορυφώτος (Theokoryphotos)

On top of the Christos Tepesi, Burgazada

This monastery is located on the highest point of the Antigoni (Burgazada) island, offering many fine views. Tradition has it that it was Emperor Basil I (867-886) that built the first monastery here, above the ruins of an ancient Greek temple, possibly dedicated to Zeus. Some column capitals and four vaulted underground cisterns survive of this original monastery, while other elements are sometimes believed to have been incorporated in the other Greek churches on the island. A two-storey building remains from the 18th century, while the church was built in 1869.


Nearby is a Greek cemetery with a little church dedicated to the Prophet Elijah.


52. Monastery of Saint George of Karypis

Άγιος Γεώργιος Καρύπης (Hagios Georgios Karypis)

Gönüllü Caddesi 74, Burgazada

It is not known when this monastery was established. Some have suggested that it was founded in the Byzantine era, while the earliest reference comes from the second half of the 17th century. It is known that after the Russo-Turkish War of 1768-1774 the monastery was used by the refugees from Tenedos. Later it was associated with the Monastery of Mega Spilaio near Kalavryta.

The church has a beautiful carved cathedra and an iconostasis from the 18th century.



53. Church of Saint John the Baptist

Άγιος Ιωάννης ο Πρόδρομος (Hagios Ioannis o Prodromos)

Yenice Sokak, Burgazada
Nikolaos Dimadis, 1899

This church is the most prominent church on the island. Its dome, raised on a high drum, dominates the view as seen from both the ferry and on the way down from the Christ Hill. It is believed to stand on the site of the katholikon of the 11th-century monastery dedicated to Saint John. Parts of that older structure are thought to have been incorporated in the present church, which seems to retain the plan of the earlier structure. Others suggest that parts of the destroyed Byzantine Monastery of the Transfiguration of Christ were used in the construction of this church.



There is a stairway in the narthex leading down to a small crypt dedicated to Saint Methodios I, the Iconodule Patriarch of Constantinople, who is thought to have been imprisoned in a dungeon here by the Iconoclast Emperor Michael II from 821 to 829. Next to the crypt is a cistern.

Nikolaos Dimadis was the son of the architect of the Phanar Greek Orthodox College.


54. Monastery of the Transfiguration of the Saviour

Μεταμόρφωση του Σωτήρος (Metamorfosi tou Sotiros)

Ağ Yasar Sokak & Manastır Caddesi, Kınalıada

The Monastery of the Transfiguration of Jesus is located on a 93-meter peak in Proti (Kınalıada). It is known as a place of exiled Byzantine emperors. The first one of them was, according to some, the Iconoclast Emperor Leo V the Armenian (813-820). More accepted is the theory that the first emperor to be sent here was Romanos IV Diogenes (1068-1071), after his defeat at the Battle of Manzikert. Ten years later, Emperor Nikephoros III Botaneiates (1078-1081) may have also been exiled here, after having been forced to abdicate his throne in favour of Alexios I Komnenos, while others suggest that he died at the Monastery of Saint Mary of Peribleptos in Psamatheia.

The original monastery was probably built in the 1070s and 1080s. A major reconstruction took place in 1722, when a new katholikon was added, together with a side chapel dedicated to Saint Paraskevi. The icons from the old church are now preserved in the Patriarchate in Phanar, while those of the iconostasis in the new church were a gift to Patriarch Jeremias III by Peter the Great.



55. Church of the Nativity of Saint Mary

Γενέθλιο της Θεοτόκου (Genethlio tis Theotokou)

Kınalı Bağı 11, Kınalıada

This church is a typical basilica with three naves and a narthex. It has a spacious garden in the south.