What was once seen as the ‘Oxford of the East’ is little more than a shadow of its former self

ISTANBUL – None of the remaining Greek schools left in Istanbul seems to offer such an immediate sense of past glories as the historic «Megali tou Genous Scholi.» The school is one of a fast-disappearing breed. Its corridors and classrooms are empty, its locale in the surrounding district of Phanar slowly decaying into greater poverty and isolation. All the classrooms and teachers’ rooms have portraits of Kemal Ataturk or bear the Turkish flag, care of the Turkish Education Ministry, which also places these bits of Turkish identity in other minority schools in the city. The imposing size and unique architecture of the building creates an eerie contrast between its brilliant past and its uncertain future. Perhaps the main responsibility for the sense of melancholy pervading the school lies with the engineers and workers who on January 30, 1880, began work on the design by architect Constantine Dimadis, with its wide corridors, wooden staircases and 25 classrooms that could hold at last 500 pupils. They ensured that the curved building enabled plenty of light to enter the three classroom levels. It was a huge undertaking for its time, not only due to the size and complexity of the construction, but because the building was to house one of the oldest educational establishments in Europe. Ever since 1453, when it was founded by Patriarch Gennadius as the Patriarchal School, it has seen pass through its doors the Dragomans of the Sublime Porte, the rulers of Moldo-Wallachia, the Phanariots, several patriarchs and nearly all the metropolitans of the Ecumenical Throne. After centuries of continual moves from the Sublime Porte to the shores of the Bosporus, the school finally found a permanent home. The building was described as being in the «Byzantine mode» but officials at its opening in September 1882 were probably more oriented to Western Europe, particularly Oxford or some other cradle of modern European civilization. Its benefactors, including Pavlos Skilitsis Stefanovik, Evgenis Evgenidis and Andreas Syngros, who made donations to the construction of the building, knew they were not building just another school but a monument to the thriving Greek bourgeois class of what was once Constantinople. Today, those Greeks are noticeably absent from the school. Scions of the remaining members of that community attend French and American high schools and colleges. Although they are in favor of maintaining the minority schools, they don’t send their own children to them. No one blames them. The education of Istanbul Greeks appears to be caught up in a vicious circle. Teaching methods do not satisfy parents, who then remove their children from the schools, doing even more damage to the minority education system. It is no accident that as one walks through its doors (just as in most minority schools), one is more likely to hear pupils talking in Arabic or Turkish and very rarely Greek. The presence of Arabic-speaking children is now the greatest problem for educators at minority schools and this school is no exception. A year ago, of the 49 pupils in the six years of junior and senior high school grades, 22 spoke Arabic. The Greek speakers are barely in the majority. Maybe that is why the classes seem more like multilingual seminars. Several children speak Arabic, are taught in Greek and Turkish and are learning English and French as foreign languages. Teachers appointed by the Greek Education Ministry are given only a few teaching hours a week. Even without the Arabic speakers, it is doubtful whether things would be any different. Whatever the case, there are not enough Greeks in Istanbul to fill schools built in previous centuries for what was then a growing community of hundreds of thousands of people. Today, 13 of the 43 classrooms are empty, 11 have just one pupil and six of them just two pupils. However, despite the empty classrooms, the school still recalls better days. There is life here – in the playgrounds and in the dining rooms where the children eat for free, in the sewing rooms where the pupils’ uniforms are made, on the imposing staircase that shakes under thudding feet during break time. Some visitors are taken aback by the children singing the Turkish national anthem on Monday mornings. But Greek culture is still celebrated. In one classroom the school’s Turkish deputy headmaster Emin Kesmer is helping children in their rehearsals for a performance of Greek rebetika music. On June 6, the Orchestra of Colors will be giving a concert at the Athens Concert Hall in aid of the school. ((1) This article first appeared in the May 21 edition of K, Kathimerini’s color supplement.)