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How Istanbul’s Kuleli Military High School Became an Armenian Orphanage

The consequences of the July 15, 2016, coup attempt have been top news items in the Turkish media for months. And one of the topics widely discussed is what will become of the Kuleli Military High School in Istanbul, which was closed down by decree of the Turkish government on July 31.

Armenian orphans at Kuleli

The Kuleli Military High School building, originally the Kuleli Cavalry Barracks, was designed by the prominent Armenian architect Garabed Amira Balyan (1800- 1866), who built several palaces, factories, barracks, churches, hospitals, and schools in the Ottoman Empire.

The construction of the Kuleli building was completed in 1843. It took its present name in 1925 and trained Turkish military officers until last year, when it was closed alongside other military high schools.

The building also has historical importance for the survivors of the Armenian Genocide: it hosted Armenian refugees and orphans, whose parents were murdered or forcibly deported in 1915.

After WWI, the building was evacuated and allocated to Armenian orphans due to the British request in the Armistice of Mudros.

According to journalist Hrant Kasparyan the Kuleli Military High School became a way station for many Armenians who survived the genocide and became “refugees” in their own native lands. Many Armenians who had to leave Turkey as the only way to stay alive, spent their last days in the country in the rooms and corridors of the school until their applications for immigration and refugee status were completed by foreign consulates.

At least 1,500 Armenian orphans were housed at the school, which is referred to as the “Kuleli Central Orphanage” in the source materials of that period. Hayk Demoyan, the director of the Armenian Genocide Museum-Institute in Yerevan, in his 2009 book Armenian Sports and Physical Gymnastics in the Ottoman Empire, described the process of transforming the school into an orphanage.

“After the Medz Yeghern (Armenian Genocide), more than a hundred orphanages were opened within the borders of the Ottoman Empire with the efforts of Armenian non-governmental organizations and of foreign governments. Armenian orphans, who were able to escape the genocide, thus found a safe roof to shelter and struggled hard for survival in these institutions where their skills were shaped and developed,” Demoyan outlines in his book.

The building of the Kuleli Military High School (Photo: Luiz Bernardes Ribeiro)

During World War I, the Kuleli Military School had temporarily moved to the Prinkipo Greek Orthodox Orphanage on Buyukada Island near Istanbul. Ironically, the Greek orphanage was also forcefully closed by Turkey’s General Directorate of Foundations in 1964. However, in 2010, the European Court of Human Rights ordered the restitution of that building to the Greek Ecumenical Patriarchate, thus making the orphanage the first property title to be returned to a religious minority. The legal title is currently in the hands of the Ecumenical Patriarchate but the building is still not used.

And what exactly will become of Kuleli is still not clear. Some claim it will be turned into a hotel, others say it could become a commercial property.

In Nov. 2016, Fikri Isik, the Turkish Minister of National Defense, announced that the Kuleli Military High School was given to the National Defense University to be used as the office of the rector.

In January, the pro-government newspaper Haberturk reported that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan wanted the Kuleli Military High School to be converted into a “museum.” No other details have yet been provided.

Sadly but expectedly, whatever does end up happening, the Armenian architect of the building and its use as an Armenian orphanage following the genocide will not be mentioned.

“If you go to provinces where Armenians, Greeks and Assyrians used to live in Turkey, you would learn that all of the old and magnificent buildings you see used to belong to Armenians, Greeks or Assyrians,” Sabri Atman, the founder and the president of the Assyrian Genocide (Seyfo) and Research Center says. “Some of the wealthy elite ruling Turkey became wealthy from property they forcibly took from the Christians. So one of the reasons they deny what happened in 1915 is that they are afraid one day they might lose the wealth they took cost-free.”

Who knows what the future holds for Kuleli…

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