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The Untold Stories of Turkey: An Armenian Island on the Bosphorus

 

What makes Istanbul beautiful is the Bosphorus ,dividing the city between Europe and Asia. And what makes the Bosphorus beautiful is a series of architecturally magnificent palaces, mansions, and mosques.

Most of these architectural masterpieces on both sides of the Bosphorus are created by one Armenian family of architects: the Balyans. This article will explain the little-known history of the only island in the Bosphorus and its connection to the Armenians, specifically to the Balyans.

View of Constantinople and the Bosphorus, by Ivan Aivazovsky – Oil on canvas, 1856 (Photo: Sothebys)

Some three generations of Balyans served the Ottoman Sultans in the 18th and 19th centuries, building a multitude of palaces, mosques, barracks, schools, and clock towers for the Ottomans. The Balyans also built churches, schools, and mansions for the Armenian communities all over the Empire, but mostly in Istanbul, and specifically along the Bosphorus.

Among the most notable Bosphorus works by the Balyans are the Palace, Mosque, and Clock Tower of Dolmabahce; Beylerbeyi Palace; Ciragan Palace (now a luxury hotel); Kuleli Military School (used as an orphanage by the British Army after WWI to gather thousands of Armenian orphans rescued from Turkish and Kurdish homes); Ortakoy Mosque; Kucuksu Palace; and several other mansions. The Turkish Tourism Ministry and official guides refrained from identifying the architects of these buildings as the Armenian Balyans until the 2000s and instead mentioned an Italian architect called “Baliani.”

Sarkis Balyan

While the Ottoman Sultans ordered the Balyans to build one palace after another, they started to pile up enormous amounts of debt and had to declare bankruptcy in 1876. The Chief Architect of the Empire, Sarkis Balyan, was owed large sums of money as well, and Sultan Abdulhamid decided to give Balyan the only island in the Bosphorus as compensation against his debt. The island was just a formation of rocks across from the village of Kurucesme, right in the middle of the Bosphorus.

Sarkis Balyan decided to build a summerhouse on these rocks to enjoy with the love of his life, his wife Makruhi Dadyan, the daughter of another famed Armenian family in the service of the Ottoman Empire as suppliers of gunpowder and armaments. Unfortunately, Makruhi died young soon after, because of tuberculosis ,and Sarkis started living in seclusion on the island.

The island became known as Sarkis Bey Island, a meeting point for Sarkis Balyan’s intellectual and artistic friends. One of his guests was famed Armenian-Russian painter Ivan Hovhannes Aivazovski, who always stayed on this island whenever he visited Istanbul. Some of his famous seascape paintings were created there.

Sarkis Balyan passed away in 1889, and, unfortunately, the island was not maintained by his heirs. The government took over the island and started using it as a coal depot for the steamships crossing the Bosphorus. In 1940, the heirs of Balyan were successful in having the island returned to their ownership, but they ended up selling the island in 1957 to Galatasaray Sports Club, one of the most prominent sporting institutions in Turkey. The island was renamed Galatasaray Island and expanded with swimming pools and sports facilities. In 2006, it was leased to a private entity for further expansion with several restaurants, as a high society entertainment center. In 2017, much of the expanded facility was demolished by the pro-Islamic government; at present, there are proposals to build a mosque on the original Sarkis Bey Island.

Dolmabahçe Palace as seen from the Bosphorus (Photo: David Con Fran)

The Bosphorus is connected to Armenians in many other ways. Robert College, the oldest American college outside the United States, was founded in 1863 on the European shores of Bosphorus by Christopher Robert, a wealthy philanthropist, along with missionary Cyrus Hamlin.

Hamlin had learned Armenian to communicate with the first students of the boarding school: Armenian boys. The school expanded rapidly and became a leading educational institution in Istanbul, eventually adding a university with many faculties. Until WWI, most of the students were minorities—Armenians, Greeks, Bulgarians, and Jews. Unfortunately, the Armenian Genocide claimed several Armenian graduates of Robert College, along with the rest of Armenian intellectuals. Prominent Armenian journalist Teotig (Teodoros Lapchinjian), who compiled a list of the Armenian intellectual victims in his 1919 book Memorial to April 24, mentions at least 10 Robert College graduates murdered by execution or massacre.

The Balyan Family Mausoleum (Photo: Daily Sabah)

I will conclude with a personal anecdote. I was also a high school student at Robert College. Our Phys Ed teacher was Abbas Sakarya, the first Turkish wrestling champion who had won international gold medals, the first accredited gymnastics coach, the first founder of a swimming academy, and an all-around sports legend in Turkey. He was a very strict, severe man who never cracked a smile.

Abbas Sakarya

Robert College held annual Bosphorus Crossing swim races from the Asian to the European side. The width of the Bosphorus Strait is about a mile, but with the treacherous currents one has to swim double or triple that distance during the crossing. Along with dozens of other university and high school students, I also participated in the race and ended coming in second among the high school students. Mr. Sakarya congratulated me and, along with a rare smile, whispered into my ear: “Abris,” in Armenian (“bravo”).

At the time, I thought he might have used that word as a complement because he knew I was Armenian. But, years later, near his death at age 97, I found out that this Turkish legendary sportsman and teacher was in fact a hidden Armenian from Bursa—and an orphan of the Genocide.

There are many secret and untold stories about Armenians in Turkey. Turks may not know or may not want to know them, but they must be told.

 

13 Comments (Open | Close)

13 Comments To "The Untold Stories of Turkey: An Armenian Island on the Bosphorus"

#1 Comment By H On October 3, 2017 @ 9:39 pm

So. Armenians have built, have been professionals in all fields in historic Armenia throughout centuries. Armenians have built the most beautiful buildings in Tbilisi, in Addis Ababa, and since the Turkish Genocide of the Armenians continue to build in adopted countries. Time to regroup and build what is left of Armenia and Artsak.

#2 Comment By Norik Baboorian Checkosky On October 10, 2017 @ 9:59 am

You are absolutely right , enough beautifying other cultures of the world where we become a footnote or erased. I’m against building grandiose expensive works altogether, specially new churches , we need to use our money where our mouth is , as the American saying goes, enrich Armenia’s economy to attract and increase the population numbers , support the army , fortify our efforts in protecting our small Armenia , and why not, purchase pieces of our historical lands

#3 Comment By Lily On October 3, 2017 @ 10:26 pm

Extremely fascinating read – one of the many “hidden” Armenian stories very few come across.
Thank you very much.

#4 Comment By Oguz Ozturk On October 3, 2017 @ 11:48 pm

I enjoyed reading this article. I can sincerely say that it was written with no bias in mind. unfortunately though most of the writings in English today about the Turkish president or Turkey in general are biased misleading or slanderous. thank you indeed once again; I believe it is important to understand one another’s culture and emphasize that this country has been established on many cultures and that includes ethnic minorities such as the Armenians Greeks Jews Arabs as well of course people of Turkish descent

#5 Comment By Ararat On October 4, 2017 @ 4:55 pm

The illegally-established genocidal fascist republic of Turkey was established in 1923 on the lands and corpses of millions of indigenous Christian populations your…ancestors murdered in clod blood. The Armenians and the Greeks were NOT minorities but rather they were made into minority groups through planned massacres and depopulation. That’s why you have millions of “Turkic” people with roots from the Northern Caucasus region, e.g. Circassia, who were transplanted in modern Turkey to take the places of the murdered Greeks and the Armenians…. Turks from Central Asia were the only minority group in the region and became majority through process of elimination. [They] eliminated the natives, stole their properties and assets, and confiscated their lands to invent the artificial Turkish republic.

#6 Comment By Herosoohi Vesmadian On October 4, 2017 @ 5:00 am

Very interesting & the more knowledge I acquire the more I am convinced that Armenians owned & built Turkey – and not just Western Armenia so if we were to demand our belongings there will be no Turkey left.

#7 Comment By Nansen G. Saleri On October 4, 2017 @ 11:14 am

Dear Raffie,

I loved the article Raffie. Beautiful description of Istanbul and the Armenian DNA in the city and the empire. I was also a student of Abbas Sakarya.I had great respect for him. I am a graduate of the Class of Robert Academy 1966, Robert College 1970. Nansen Garo Saleri

#8 Comment By ALEN J SALERIAN On October 4, 2017 @ 3:02 pm

Beautiful and touching.

#9 Comment By Vagharshak Sevulyan On October 4, 2017 @ 4:10 pm

Hello,
This or other kind of famous Armenian people in Ottaman Empire not just here we should tell the world, just is not enought Armenians knows this kind of famous people lived , erect buildings, turkish baths , bridges , churches , mosques etc etc. We Armenians knows all this contributions gave to Ottomans, now time entire nations should know.
Sincerely Yours.

#10 Comment By Ared Bulbuljian On October 4, 2017 @ 5:40 pm

Wow! I knew Abbas Bey, but I can’t remember if I was ever in his gym class. I do remember Şamil Bey and possibly an Ahmet Bey as gym teachers. I was very happy that gym was not included in our academic average :=)

As for the island, for the gazillion times I went by the shore road which, of course, ran through Kuruçeşme (church, Gomidas Choir), I was never aware of Galatasaray Island, let alone its Armenian history. I can’t even visualize where it was and what it looked like.

Thanks for the memories.

Ared Bulbuljian RA’65

#11 Comment By Eugenie Havandjian On October 5, 2017 @ 2:51 am

I enjoyed reading the article and wondering how many more similar stories are told but never published. Very curious

#12 Comment By Antranik Chaderjian On October 7, 2017 @ 1:47 pm

Galataseray’s (prior of modernizing),all the features,Sultan’s sword, his clothing etc. was enclosed by iron fixtures, All that was manufatured by an Armenian ironsmith. I met him while visiting Istanbul in 1966. Unfortunately I don’t recall his name.He was my father-in-law’s aunt’s husband.

#13 Comment By Richard Berberian On October 9, 2017 @ 5:35 pm

Thank you Raffi Bedrosyan for writing this article. Sarkis Balian was my Great-Great-Grandfather. His grandson, Hagop was my grandfather, who settled in Milford, MA after coming to the US. The version of the story of the island that I have heard is that Sarkis received permission to build the island from the Sultan at the time, who was indebted to him. He built it using stones and boulders sourced from the family’s other construction projects and it is not a natural island. but man-made by Balian. And yes, it was on this island that Sarkis built his summer home. This information was also reinforced to me by the Patriarch of Istanbul when I last visited there ten or so years ago. It’s all very interesting. I would very much like to speak with you if you happen to read these comments and we can connect.
Richard Bali Berberian