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Middle East Brian Dispatch

Prince for a Day: Exploring the Beauty of the Princes' Islands
March 22, 2000

The rest of the team embarked on its own journey to the eastern part of Turkey, Kavitha and I stayed here in Istanbul to work on getting visas for Iran. It has been quite an adventure, and both Jasmine and Monica described some of the struggles and frustrations that the team has encountered.

Istanbul is a wonderful city, but after three weeks of being in a city with 12 million people I started to feel the need for a breather. After I heard about Jazzy in Cyprus and Abeja in Cappadocia, I became eager for an adventure of my own. Waaahhhhh-me too, me too! I wanna go somewhere! Adventure, drama, intrigue! I put my ear to the ground and discovered the perfect opportunity just off the coast of the mainland in the Sea of Marmara-the Princes' Islands.

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The idea of being a prince for a day certainly sounded appealing. But I soon discovered that the origin of the islands' name is not as glamorous as you might expect. In Byzantine times these islands were like Alcatraz; a floating prison where escape was considered impossible. Deposed monarchs, unstable princes and others who were a threat to Byzantine power were often sent to these islands to cool their heels and spend the rest of their days in relatively comfortable exile.

Relative comfort indeed! When I arrived, I felt like I had stepped from the ferry onto the tropical island of Bermuda! The royal sensibilities of the islands' early "captives" were not lost on their later inhabitants. Beautiful homes lined the shores and hills, and many palm trees swayed lazily in the breeze. There are four main islands, and they have all become a favorite haven for summer homes of wealthy Turks, primarily those from Istanbul. The two largest islands, Buyukada and Heybeliada, are the most visited, while Burgaz and Kinali enjoy a quieter existence.

The quiet is precisely what struck me as I stepped off the dock in Buyukada. No cars are allowed on the island, and the song of birds and the cadence of trotting horses replaced the din of Istanbul traffic. I made my way through the streets and marveled at this newfound paradise. There were homes of all shapes and colors gleaming in the midday sun, and the contrast with the houses in Istanbul was staggering. Huge Victorian-style homes towered over me alongside ornate Ottoman-style wooden houses.

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As I rounded a corner, I shook my head in disbelief as I found myself staring at a Roman Catholic Church. The door to the sanctuary stood open and invited me inside. Wait a minute, I thought. I am in Turkey, where 99% of the population is Muslim, yet I am standing on the front steps of a Catholic Church. Have I really arrived in Bermuda, or were these islands some sort of Christian refuge? I looked back the way I had come and saw Istanbul's mosques and minarets in the distance. Okay, I'm not in Bermuda, so there must be some other explanation.

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In the 19th century, the Princes' Islands were a popular summer resort for wealthy Greeks, Jews and Armenians who were subjects of the Ottoman Empire but did not share the predominant belief in Islam. Their wealth enabled them to establish residence on these islands, and thereby enjoy greater personal freedom. During their time here they channeled their money into beautiful homes that rival those on the cover of any architecture magazine. The islands remained predominantly non-Muslim until the fall of the Ottomans in the early 1920's, and this legacy can be seen in churches that are found throughout them, including a Greek Orthodox seminary and monastery on Heybeliada that trained Orthodox priests until the 1970's.


cadence - the beat, rate or measure of any rhythmic movement
din - a loud noise
subjects - people who live under the rules and protections of a government
exploits - spirited or heroic acts

The money that built this beautiful community also created an air of elitism and privilege that remains today. With 12 million people just 20 kilometers away, why don't more people live on these islands? After all, they could relax under the palm trees and listen to the birds while watching the horses trot by pulling passenger carriages. If they don't live here, why don't more people at least visit? It seems that the Princes' Islands are a place for the wealthy and not the poor. The few hotels on the islands charge at least twice the normal rates found on the mainland, and there are even fewer public parks or recreation areas to encourage a steady flow of casual visitors. Food is also expensive, ensuring that even a day visit is likely to take a chunk out of the pocketbook.

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Our theme here in Turkey is the examination of wealth and poverty, and at first glance this seems to be a clear example of the exclusion of the poor by a wealthy upper class. But one fact that does help explain this division along class lines is that there is no source of fresh, drinkable water on the Princes' Islands, so it must all be shipped in by barrels from the mainland. Food and building materials must also be imported. So the cost of living is higher to offset these expenses. This does not resolve the issue, but it does shed some light on why the islands have little economic diversity among its inhabitants. But what about the drama and adventure that I came here for? Believe it or not, I did find some time for adventure in the midst of contemplating such important social issues. I climbed to the very top of the hill on Buyukada, and at the top was a beautiful grove of pine trees. The hills broke into rocky cliffs towered over the glassy, glimmering sea, and the trees' branches parted to afford me a better view.

Suddenly, I was awe-struck by this magnificent sight. As I turned to leave, I saw that I had company-a beautiful brown horse was only yards away! It peeked around a tree at me as I stood there and smiled.

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As I approached I saw there was a family of three horses that had come to visit me in the grove. The language barrier prevented us from having any real conversation, but horses don't seem to talk much anyway. We shared some cookies, and they waved their tails in satisfaction as I made my way back down the hill.

Now I am back in Istanbul, and we are still trying to get those visas to Iran. We won't give up if you won't! My thirst for adventure has been temporarily satisfied, so I won't be too jealous when I read about the exploits of all the other team members. But if I get that itch for adventure again, I know there is a family of new friends in Buyukada that is always in the mood for some cookies!


p.s. - Please e-mail me at

Abeja - With a Name like "Glorious Urfa," It's Got to be Good!
Abeja - When Fertile is not Fertile Enough
Andrew - One World, One Love: How a High School Girl from Japan Changed Turkey
Andrew - Tired of School? Here's an Alternative: The Street Children of Ankara
Kavitha - The Russians Are Coming! The Russians Are Coming!
Monica - What to Think about When You're Waiting Around... A Collection of Thoughts from Erzurum, Turkey
Amnesty International fights for Human Rights in the United States

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