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21 August 2016 / Travel

About the Princes Islands of Istanbul - Turkey

Princes' Islands, off Istanbul's coast in the Marmara Sea, are perfect get-away destinations for residents of Turkey's busiest city. Just a short ferry ride from both the Asian and European shores of Istanbul, the Princes Islands provide rare insight into a multicultural society in modern and Ottoman day Turkey. The nine islands, four large and five small, are closed to modern-day traffic. The local council banned motorised vehicles for environmental and pollution reasons, giving the Princes Islands more feel for bygone eras.

Transport on larger islands is by horse and cart, which act as taxi services or sightseeing tours. Otherwise, explore these picturesque spots of land by foot or bicycle, offering a popular outdoorsy day trip from Istanbul, filled with culture, history, and incredible views. Before 1950, the Princes Islands were home to many of Turkey's ethnic minority communities. Today, their legacy is of cultural rather than demographic importance as they have long attracted Turkish residents and visitors. Popular with international visitors too, the Princes Islands offer the opportunity to escape historic Istanbul's sightseeing trail.

About the Princes Islands of Istanbul - Turkey

Princes Islands History

These impressive islands took their name during the Byzantine period, when princes, empresses and other royalty were exiled there. Later, the Ottoman sultan's family were exiled there too. Convents, churches, and mansions provide a historical insight into exiled lives and architecture. But the Princes Islands have been home to tragedy, scandal, and contentment among the hundreds of historical stories of exile and differing cultures over the years.

The Princes Islands were popular with Istanbul's wealthy during the nineteenth century. Victorian-era cottages and houses are still preserved on the largest island, Buyukada. From the early 1900s, the islands became home to some 10,250 Greeks and only 670 Turks. Greek Orthodox buildings are all over the collection of islands, including the oldest Greek seminary in Turkey, though many are in disrepair. However, with the healthy influx of wealthy Turkish jet setters in recent decades, the Princes Islands have become increasingly ethnically Turkish in character.

The Larger Princes Islands

1: Buyukada – The Largest Princes Island

With a population of 7000 and an area covering 5.46 km squared, Buyukada, the largest island, is popular with day-trippers from Istanbul. The island's two peaks both offer stunning vista views. A former Greek Orphanage, a huge wooden building now sadly in decay, sits upon Hristos, the hill closest to the ferry landing. The valley between the two peaks contains the Ayios Nikolaos church and monastery and an abandoned fairground, Luna Park. Taking a horse-drawn carriage tour leads to this point where one can climb to Ayia Yorgi, a tiny church with a café serving wine, chips, and sausage sandwiches.

Many tourists visit the island's many historic churches, monasteries, and mansions. For example, a convent built by Byzantine Emperor Justin II was the place of exile for the Byzantine empresses Irene, Euphrosyne, Theophany, Zoe, and Anna Dalassena. Several historical buildings are also prevalent, such as the 6th century Ayia Yorgi Church and Monastery and Ayios Dimitrios Church. The Hamidiye Mosque, built by Abdul Hamid II, is also an interesting contrast to what the island offers.

Large mansions attract visitors' attention. Buyukada even has a designated historic mansion centre. These grand and majestic buildings, mostly built of wood, often tower across the archipelago in all their glory. Popular mansions are Con Pasa, Yelkencizade, Fabiano and Mizzi Mansions. Tourists visit many mansions, and a quick search on Airbnb even suggests that you can stay in one.

Other areas of interest include the stunning and traditional historic pier constructed by Armenian architect Mihran Azaryan. The island of Buyukada is also known for housing the first and only city museum in Istanbul, the Princes Islands'Museum in Aya Nikola. Finally, of course, no visit to Buyukada is complete without looking into the life of Leon Trotsky, a resident in 1929 after he was deported from the Soviet Union. His first residing place in exile was a house in Buyukada. He lived there for four years between 1929 and 1933, and tourists can visit his home today.

2: Heybeliada

Half the size of Buyukada, Heybeliada measures 2.4 km squared and features the famous Naval Cadet School, overlooking the jetty from the ferry exit. The school contains two exciting pieces of architecture. One is Kamariotissa, the only remaining Byzantine church and last built before the conquest of Constantinople. The other piece of notable architecture is Edward Barton's grave, which was the second English Ambassador in Constantinople by Elizabeth I. Edward Barton, as many these days do, lived here to escape Istanbul's hustle and bustle.

The island has a central peak, a mountain that holds up an eleventh-century Greek Orthodox monastery, which houses the Halki Seminary, Turkey's only Greek Orthodox seminary. While the sanctuary attracts tourists from all over Greece and Turkey, it is closed to visitors, so hiking up the mountain to its exterior is the closest you can get to it. However, the Turkish government is now under pressure to allow the seminary to reopen.

Near the jetty lies the town with its bars and cafés, a hotel that stays open all year round, and many lovely wooden houses. In summer, the island hosts small-scale open-air concerts, a seaside swimming and fitness club, and an annual Independence Day march commemorated by a resident naval band. While large Buyukada is historically interesting, Heybeliada offers relaxation, tradition, and a laid-back atmosphere, with plenty to do.

3: Burgazada

A small island, only 1.5 km squared, Turks call Burgazada, Burgaz, which translates as 'fort'. Burgaz is a familiar setting and central theme for famous Turkish writer Sait Faik Abasıyanık. Today his residence is a museum for anybody to visit. At his favourite restaurant in Kalpazankaya, also find his bronze statue with a glass of raki, freshly filled every day by the restaurant owners. One other place of interest is the Burgazada Sanitarium, founded in 1928. An excellent sailing and water sports club among a few rocky beaches can also be found, but the island is just a day trip, with few tourist dwellings.

4: Kinaliada

If you want a summer home to rent, look at Kinaliada. Gorgeous beaches, like Ayazma, and seaside restaurants attract many city dwellers. The island is also closest to Istanbul's European and Asian sides. The least forested island features reddish colour landscapes from mined iron and copper, hence the name Henna. Former emperor Romanos IV Diogenes was exiled here after the 1071 Battle of Manzikert. The historical Transfiguration Monastery, most probably built for an emperor's exile, served the Greek Orthodox community of Constantinople since the Byzantine Empire. In modern times, residents have been primarily Armenian, giving it the highest density of Armenians living anywhere in Istanbul.

5: The Smaller Islands

While the four larger islands are popular with tourists and visitors from Istanbul, the smaller islands also have much to offer, some with a much more interesting history. The smallest, Kaşık Adası (Spoon Island) and Tavşan Adası (Rabbit Island), measure 0.006 km and 0.004km squared, offering very little other than short walks and views. Sedef Adası (Mother of Pearl Island) is owned by Şehsuvar Menemencioğlu, who purchased the island in 1956 and imposed a strict building code to protect the island's natural environment. The building of structures with more than two floors has been forbidden. A pretty beach hamlet section opens to the public.

Democracy and Freedom Island, once known as 'Yassıada' (Flat Island), has a tragic story. After an executive order following the 1960 military coup, the island was home to Turkish prime minister Adnan Menderes and his ministers. However, the Turkish Parliament posthumously pardoned and cleared him of misconduct.

The Byzantines also used the island for political prisoners, and the remains of four underground prison cells from this period are still visible. The British ambassador, Henry Bulwer, built himself a mansion and several other structures to live in and later sold the island to the Ottoman Egypt and Sudan Khedive, Ismail Pasha, who completely neglected the island.

In 1947, the Turkish state became owners, and they based the navy there. The navy built several school buildings, which later became the venue for the trials of Menderes and his ministers. In 1993, the island became the property of Istanbul University's Marine Life and Sea Products department. Today, the island is a favourite location for scuba diving schools and amateur divers. The island was renamed Democracy and Freedom Island in 2013.

Sivriada (Sharp Island) is currently deserted but was once used by Byzantine clerics as a distant place for peaceful worship, then later as a convenient prison to detain prominent people who were deemed troublesome. But the island became famous because of an event called the 1910 'Hayırsızada Dog Massacre' Istanbul's Mayor ordered workers to round up 80,000 stray street dogs and take them to deserted Sivriada. Many died because of hunger and thirst. Consequently, Istanbul residents said the large 1911 fire in Istanbul's Aksaray neighbourhood, and the severe 1912 earthquake were "God's punishment for abandoning the dogs." The practice never happened again.

The Princes' Islands are just a short ferry ride from Istanbul. Ferries depart from Asian Bostanci, Kartal and Maltepe and from European Kabatas. Most ferries call at the larger islands. The Princes Islands are quieter in autumn and winter and sometimes cut off from the outside world when ferry services are cancelled due to storms and high waves.

More About Istanbul

Istanbul Area Guides: The Istanbul area of Turkey is one of the world’s greatest destinations. The combination of its old area with its ancient history is in striking contrast to new vibrant business districts. The wonderful climate has made Istanbul a year-round destination and visitors can enjoy historic sites as well as the vibrant nightlife and designer shopping of Turkey’s largest city. These guides talk about all districts including the famous Princes Islands.

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