It may be surprising to many people today that the first continually running American college outside the US was founded in Istanbul, way back in 1863. Its birth was linked to major trends of the time, such as Western missionary activity in the Ottoman Empire. But there was also an element of coincidence: if philanthropist Christopher Robert had not travelled to Istanbul and seen a boat in the Bosphorus, this school might never have appeared, and perhaps the intellectual face of Istanbul and Turkey would have turned out differently.
The History of Robert College
The boat had come from the bakery of Cyrus Hamlin, an American missionary based at the Bebek Seminary. One aim of this bakery, as well as feeding the poor, was to raise money for the establishment of churches. Christopher Robert asked about the boat and decided to visit Hamlin. Together they formed the idea of creating an American Christian college in Istanbul. Despite this religious emphasis, the college was open to all. In his memoir “Among the Turks,” Hamlin calls the college “a great success in gathering students from eighteen nationalities, from twelve languages, and from all the religions of the East.”
In its original form, Robert College was an all-boys’ school close to the seminary in Bebek. Meanwhile the American College for Girls was founded in Fatih in 1871, and by 1914 it had moved to Arnavutköy, close to Robert College. Following the spirit of the times, the two schools merged into a co-ed in 1971 on the Arnavutköy campus, keeping the name Robert College. The college’s first building in Bebek became the campus of today’s Boğaziçi University.
One of the reasons for these mergers and migrations was the school’s popularity, which forced it to find larger premises in the city. The refined families of the Ottoman Empire were eager to give their children a Western education with an emphasis on English-language tuition. And Robert College opened many doors in Turkey, creating the country’s first medical school for women and the first student council.
A glance at the list of Robert College alumni is enough to understand parents’ enthusiasm: along with two Turkish prime ministers, two Bulgarian prime ministers, and one Nobel Prize winner, the college has fostered countless businesspeople, academics, writers, and scientists.
The most famous of these internationally is Nobel Prize winner Orhan Pamuk, whose memoir “Istanbul: Memories and the City” devotes a chapter to his time at the college. Although he paints himself as an outsider, as is the experience of many writers, Pamuk also admits, “I loved getting lost in the low-ceilinged labyrinths of the library built by the American secular Protestants who had founded the college, breathing in the pungency of old paper”.
But Pamuk was not the first Robert College alumnus to dazzle the nation with his literary talent. To take an early example, female student Halide Edib earned the Order of Charity from Sultan Abdülhamit II when she was only 15 years old, graduating from the American College for Girls in 1901. When Edib’s husband decided to take a second wife, she divorced him and wrote a novel about a woman who abandons her husband to live with the man she loves. Her pioneering of feminism among Ottoman woman coexisted with her support for Turkish nationalism. During the Allied occupation of Istanbul after World War I, Edib left to join the nationalist movement in Anatolia. Along the way she reached the rank of sergeant in the nationalist army and cofounded Anadolu Ajansı, which is still the state-owned press agency today. From 1950 to 1954, by which time she was in her 60s, she served as a member of parliament for İzmir, finally passing away in 1964. This remarkable figure left behind her a wealth of novels, stories, journalism, and memoirs, as well as a life story fit for a Hollywood film.
Celebrating the 150th year
The college marked its 150th year in 2013, celebrating this milestone with an exhibition at the Istanbul Research Institute. Writer, translator, and Robert College alumnus Cem Akaş was the exhibition’s curator, and his book “Tepedeki Okul” (The School on the Hill) is set to be the first on the subject in Turkish. “I was a boarding student at Robert College from 1979 to 1986, and I can confidently say that it was more of a defining experience for me than university,” Akaş told The Guide Istanbul. “The facilities offered by the school were more modest in our day – though they were far above the average in Turkey – but the campus and library still occupy an unforgettable place in my mind. The physics, chemistry and biology labs were also very good, and I can say that I learned about scientific thought thanks to them.”
Akaş also sees a definite link between his school years and his current success in the literary world. “As for the English program, the literature curriculum went beyond language learning, which was satisfying for me. Robert College has been very helpful to me as a publisher, writer, and translator. I learned to be curious about disciplines there, and this made it easier for me to make different conceptual connections. Having such intimate contact with English also made many things easier in life.”
Another Robert College alumnus who made waves in the cultural arena is theater actor and director Haldun Dormen. Being part of an active theater group at Robert College was a source of support in his early ambitions. “I have a very nice memory of the play ‘Campus Follies’ from that time. We had a very harsh disciplinarian, Professor Allen. His discipline was superb, because he scared everyone stiff and when he got angry he would say, ‘You go home.’” But as Dormen explains, the strict professor was not without a sense of humor when on stage. “He was a fantastic hit. The boys were dressed in women’s clothes and singing the famous Andrew Sisters’ song, ‘I’ll Be With You in Apple Blossom Time’. He came on stage and said ‘You go home,’ and of course there was wild applause. For a moment everyone thought it was real. That’s one of my favorite memories.”
Well-known for her cooking column in the Hürriyet newspaper, her television program “Mucize Lezzetler” (Miraculous Tastes), and the book “Refika’nın Mutfağı – Cooking New Istanbul Style”, Robert College alumnus Refika Birgül has made a successful career out of her passion for Turkish cuisine. For her, the college was a place of unparalleled learning both inside and outside the classroom. “When I think about Robert College, the first thing I see on closing my eyes is the wisteria on the main bridge at the entrance,” she told The Guide Istanbul. Birgül has also written about wisteria sherbet in her Hürriyet column. “It’s a drink whose smell captures those days, those feelings of first love, and has preserved them through my whole life.”
A common sentiment among Akaş, Dormen, and Birgül is the freedom and encouragement present in the college’s arts education. “Another memory is the theater. I prepared a 30-minute dance that actually shaped a lot in my life. I convinced 20 other students, and we practiced the whole winter, finally presenting a dance that showed an alternative theory of the earth’s creation,” she says. “The third thing I won’t forget is the art activities. Before I went to a state primary school and the teacher didn’t like anything I made. Then at Robert College I won the prize for development in art, which was given to one student each year. While students from other schools were playing cards or having fun at leaving time, we went to the art studio and made paintings or sculptures and spent hours in the darkroom, forgetting the time and missing the bus home.”
Although she notes that Robert College’s spirit of innovation sometimes runs counter to the mainstream in Turkey, Birgül has no doubts about its positive effects. “If I had another thousand lives in this country, I’d choose to study at Robert College every time. When I have children one day, God willing, I’ll do whatever I can to have them study there,” she says.