Photos by Elİf Savarİ Kızıl
It’s been so long since someone stepped into this classroom that the floorboards creak in protest. The chalkboard, presumed to once have been a forest green, is now almost white with a dry frost of chalk. The desks and chairs have given up waiting for the return of student life, accepting their role as inanimate objects, a curious hand shocking their surface like an intrusion.
The Halki Seminary (Ruhban Okulu in Turkish), once the main school of theology of the Eastern Orthodox Church’s Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople, has been closed since 1971 when the Turkish Parliament banned private higher education institutions.
And so, like a museum, it remains, frozen in a particular section of time and perched above Heybeliada like a brilliant secret among the green rush of trees. Appropriately named the Hill of Hope, the U-shaped monastery also houses a 17th century chapel, Aya Triada (The Chapel of the Holy Trinity) in the middle, which holds a unique icon depicting Christ embracing his mother the Virgin Mary. The icon, more than 150 years old, was discovered to be double sided during restorations and is believed to fulfill the wishes of the devout, who hang rings and small plates of silver around its frame.
The site of Halki Seminary was originally the Monastery of the Holy Trinity, founded by Partriarch Photius I almost a thousand years before the school was established. When the site fell into disrepair in 1844, during Ottoman rule, the monastery was converted into a school of theology by Patriarch Germanos IV with its inauguration taking place on October 1, 1844. After the 1894 earthquake destroyed most of the buildings, architect Periklis Fotiadis took it upon himself to rebuild the structure to be reopened October 6, 1896.
During its heyday, the school exercised a strict program in which students remained at the school, not allowed to even discover the island. There are 990 graduates of the school, with many having become priests, bishops, archbishops, scholars, and patriarchs all over the world. Many of the former students are also buried on the grounds of the school.
The library of Ruhban is also exceptionally notable, with more than 120,000 books that, apart from theological subjects, also include world classics, geography, history, and philosophy in Greek and other languages such as French, German, and Latin. Some of the books date back to the 1700s and the library is truly a gem for researchers who are very much welcome to benefit from the facilities. The library is also open to book donations that will add on to the precious collection.
Once you leave the halls of the school with its high ceilings and pertinent silence, the buzzing life of its garden, complete with an animal shed and a greenhouse, arrive as a mollifying force, reinforcing the ‘hope’ present in its name.
Halki Seminary timeline
- 1844: Monastery converted into a school of theology by Patriarch Germanos IV.
- 1894: Earthquake destroys most of the buildings.
- 1896: School rebuilt through Architect Periklis Fotiadis and reopened.
- 1971: School closes due to Turkish Parliamentary ruling.
How to get there
Ferries to the islands leave from Kabataş (on the European side) and Bostancı (on the Asian side). The ferry ride takes about an hour and twenty minutes.
Once you get to the island, the fastest way to get to the school is to rent a fayton (horse drawn carriage special to the islands) that will take you up the hill. You can also walk to the school, which takes about 30 minutes.