207-year-old Armenian Primary School in Istanbul left into disrepair

The 207-year-old Khorenyan Armenian Primary School in Istanbul has been rotting away for years, every day a little more.

This article was originally published in Turkish by Gazete Sabro on January 3, 2023. The original can be found here.

ISTANBUL – The property and buildings of the cultural and religious heritage of minorities has always suffered an uncertain existence in Turkey. Often, property was confiscated, destroyed or fell into disrepair due to lack of maintenance, despite many of the heritage buildings having the status of monument. One of these heritage buildings, one which is officially registered as a “first-degree historical monument” by the Turkish General Directorate of Foundations, is the Khorenyan Armenian Primary School located in Ayvansaray neighborhood, In Istanbul’s Balat district.

The Khorenyan Armenian Primary School is next to the Ferruh Kethuda Mosque, one of the works of the great Ottoman architect Mimar Sinan (very possibly of Armenian descent), and the Balat Ağa Bath, one of the first baths of Istanbul. The primary school belongs to the Surp Hıreşdagabed Armenian Church Foundation, which is right across the street. Officially, the school building cannot be confiscated. However, it was forced in time to be used in many different ways other than the purpose of its establishment.

The primary school was built in 1816 and started lessons in 1866 with 80 students. The building, in use as a school until 1925, was vacated after it became unusable – after a “suspicious fire”. The school was closed, and education continued in the associated Surp Hıreşdagabed Church. Not only the school was destroyed by the fire, but also the grounds of the nearby Armenian cemetery and seminary.

The school is closed for education, the Armenian cemetery and the seminary were evacuated by the then government. After a while, the school building was rented out by the Armenian Church and used for tobacco storage. After the wealth tax of 1942 and the attacks of September 6-7, 1955, many Armenians in Istanbul felt forced to emigrate and the number of students quickly declined, especially in the Balat district. The school officially closed in 1977, ending an era of Armenian education.

The building of the Khorenyan Armenian Primary School was used as a tobacco warehouse until the 1990s, and then as a soap factory for a short time. The school served as the Mehtap Summer Cinema for a while (it is not known whether permission was obtained from the Surp Hıreşdagabed Armenian Church Foundation). After the closure of the cinema, the garden of the building was used as a parking lot, while the dilapidated building itself was used by homeless people. Following the closure of the parking garage in the mid-2000s, the area around the school building, which was used for a time as a paper warehouse and became a place for both the homeless and drug addicts, was closed in 2018. Buildings arose in the area where the adjacent Armenian cemetery is located, and the area was opened up for residential use.

Left into disrepair!

The restoration application for school, submitted in 2014 to the High Council of Monuments by the Surp Hıreşdagabed Armenian Church, the Khorenyan School, and the Armenian Cemetery Foundation, did not receive a response until 2021. In a statement on the website of Ermeni Haber in 2018, the director of the Armenian foundation, Aram Kuran, said:

“We have rented the building to a private company for 18 years. They are considering making it a hotel. We have waited for the next permit for the building, which has the status of a first-degree historical monument. Our application been unanswered for 4 years,” Kuran said.

Another director of the foundation, Zeki Öcal, announced that the High Council of Monuments had approved the request for restoration in 2021 and that the Fatih Municipality would make use of it as a cultural center. In the same year, the mayor of the Fatih Municipality confirmed the decision. However, despite the approval and confirmation, no restoration work has been carried out so far on the building, which continues to fall further into disrepair.