Büyükada is the largest of the nine Princes’ Islands located in the Sea of Marmara, so close to the city of Istanbul that they are considered its neighborhoods.
Its barely 5 square kilometers, where motorized vehicles are prohibited, boast some historical monuments, Byzantine churches and monasteries, along with a mosque, an abandoned amusement park, and the house where Leon Trotsky lived between 1929 and 1933.
They were called the Princes’ Islands precisely because they were the exile grounds for princes and other members of the fallen royalty during the Byzantine era.
Büyükada, with a population of about 7,000 inhabitants mainly concentrated on the north coast, has two mountainous elevations. At the top of the one closest to the port, Isa Tepesi (Mount Jesus), stands a unique building that catches the eye both for its dimensions and its appearance.
It is a former Greek orphanage established by the Orthodox Church in 1903 and was in operation until 1964.
Despite its size, around 20,000 square meters, the Prinkipo Orphanage is entirely made of wood, making it the largest wooden building in all of Europe (and the second-largest in the world).
It was built in 1898 by the architect Alexander Vallaury for the Compagnie Internationale des Wagons-Lits, the same company that operated the famous Orient Express, with the intention of turning it into a luxury hotel and casino named Prinkipo Palace for Western travelers attracted to the nineteenth-century exoticism while visiting Istanbul.
But the sultan’s authorization never arrived, and in 1903, the building was acquired by Eleni Zarifi (wife of a prominent Greek banker), who donated it to the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople to be used as an orphanage.
For 60 years, it served as an orphanage, catering to a total of 5,800 orphans on its six floors with 206 rooms, a kitchen, library, primary school, and workshops.
On April 21, 1964, amid tensions over the Turkish occupation of northern Cyprus, it closed its doors by order of the authorities and was left abandoned.
In 1997, the Turkish state claimed ownership, but a claim by the Orthodox Church of Constantinople before the European Court of Human Rights compelled Turkish authorities to return the building in 2012.
Its serious state of deterioration would require about 65 million euros for restoration, a sum that the Greek community of Istanbul cannot finance. Various organizations, such as Europa Nostra, have shown interest in its preservation, but so far, no concrete action has been taken. The intention of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople is to convert it into a global environmental center
This article was first published on our Spanish Edition on June 15, 2019. Puedes leer la versión en español en La historia del Orfanato Prinkipo, el mayor edificio de madera de Europa
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