Famous and endangered Greek Heritage Site begins collapsing in Turkey

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Last week, the roof of the legendary Prinkipo Greek Orphanage in Turkey began collapsing and continues to collapse inward, placing the entire structure in grave danger of ruin.

According to Tugba Tanyeri-Erdemir from the Turkish Facade, the building, which is in the Prince Islands (Πριγκηπονήσια)  is one of the largest wooden constructions in Europe and was designated as one of the top 7 most endangered heritage sites by EUROPA NOSTRA in 2018.

The Prinkipo Orphanage sits atop a hill on Prinkipos (Πρίγκηπος, Turkish: Büyükada), one of the nine Princes' Islands in Turkey's Sea of Marmara. The island is approximately a 90-minute ferry ride from Istanbul and the ferry terminal is at the northern end of the island. The Orphanage is roughly a miles' walk to the southern part of the island, and although the orphanage is in Turkey, the land and the building is owned by the Greek Patriarchate.

The structure was home to thousands of Orphans over the years, but it has since stood completely abandoned for more than half a century.

In 1898, the renowned French-Ottoman architect Alexander Vallaury began work on what was then, recognised as the Prinkipo Palace.

The grand building was set to be a luxury hotel and casino for the 'Compagnie Internationale des Wagons-Lits', the train company that operated the legendary Orient Express.

Vallaury built the more than 215,000-square-foot Belle Époque building entirely from timber, and for more than a century, it prevailed as 'the largest wooden construction in Europe'. (Currently, the Metropol Parasol in Spain is currently considered the largest wooden structure in Europe.)

Vallaury was an eclectic architect, utterly unafraid of shifting his unique architectural approach, depending on the project. Maybe inspired by the surrounding pine forests, he proceeded to build the structure completely with wood and so came about the magnificent wooden edifice.

All was well and good, until the 34th Sultan of the Ottoman Empire, Abdul Hamid II, forbade the casino to open, putting the pause button on the entire project. The Sultan was a profoundly religious man, with a certain 'inclination' for massacres and secret police, but blackjack was a firm NO. He made every possible attempt to ban the opening of the casino, so the newly built structure remained there in limbo until 1903.

In the same year, the wife of an affluent Greek banker purchased the building and instantly donated the entire estate to the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople. At that time, the Patriarchate was part of the Eastern Orthodox Church. They then proceeded to convert the whole site into an orphanage.

Before being forced to close in 1964, the orphanage was operating at its peak. It housed as many as 1,000 boys and was home to almost 6,000 Greek children during that short-lived time. It was fittingly titled the 'Prinkipo Greek Orthodox Orphanage' and was also known as the 'Rum Orphanage'.

After more than 50 years as a functioning orphanage, eventually, politics got in the way. This was the period when Turkey and Greece were in a fierce dispute over Cyprus.

After its sudden closure, the building was left abandoned and never maintained. And so, began the long period of structural decline which ultimately lead to last week's roof collapse.

The architectural wonder was badly damaged by fire in 1980, and in 1997 the Turkish state seized the property.

Fast forward to 2010, and the European Court of Human Rights ordered the Turkish authorities to return the Prinkipo Orphanage to the Greek community. The dilapidated site was back under Greek hands, but it was too late.

The small Orthodox Community in Turkey was determined to repair the Prinkipo Orphanage. However, this was never achieved as they could not raise nearly enough funds to undertake such an extensive project.

To give a rough idea of the size of the place, it is a six-story building with about 220 rooms, including a ballroom with boxes, balconies, and elaborate parquet floors.

In 2012 it was included in the World Monuments Watch, in 2018 Europa Nostra (previously mentioned), the leading European heritage organization, placed it among 12 nominations for inclusion on the Seven Most Endangered cultural heritage sites list.

As matters stand currently, with a collapsed roof, there are valid doubts whether the neglected Prinkipo Orphanage will survive another winter.