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A Place For Us. A secluded Turkish island where Armenian identity rules. Photo Credit / Liz Coughlan/Alamy
A Place For Us. A secluded Turkish island where Armenian identity rules. Photo Credit / Liz Coughlan/Alamy

A Place For Us

A secluded Turkish island where Armenian identity rules


The 2007 assassination of Armenian journalist Hrant Dink outside the Agos office in Istanbul shocked the nation, bringing Turkey’s oppressive freedom of expres-sion and lingering discrimination of Armenians to light. Over 100,000 mourners marched at his funeral in Istanbul’s Sişli district to protest his wrongful death, holding signs that read “We are all Armenian.” This moment of solidarity—and alarm—made Armenians around the world wonder whether it was safe for Armenians to live in Turkey, as ultranationalism and anti-Armenian sentiment seemed to be on the rise.

There is, indeed, a safe haven for Armenians living in Turkey—an isle close to Istanbul known as “Kinali Island.” Here,  Dink himself enjoyed many summers just off the Marmara Sea. In 2010, the Municipality of the Princes’ Islands even named a children’s park on the island in honor of Dink’s legacy. The Hrant Dink Foundation published a collection of anonymous interviews as a tribute to its namesake titled “The Sound of Silence: Kinali Island’s Armenians Speak.”

One anonymous interviewee from the publication described Kinali as “the freedom village.” Most on this island would wholeheartedly agree with this sentiment. Its population of only 2,500 permanent residents is made up of mostly Armenians from Istanbul or the larger Diaspora, who hop on the ferry to come to their Armenian oasis, where they can speak in their native tongue freely and, in a figure of speech, “let down their hair.”

Something for Everyone

“Kinali is the center of the world,” exclaims Very Reverend Vartabed Harutyun Damadian over a Zoom call from his apartment in Kinali, the fourth largest of the Princes’ Islands, only twelve kilometers south of Istanbul. From his vantage point, the city’s architectural history is sprawled out across the coast of the island within the skyline of minarets, mosques, historic palaces, and as of late, construction and skyscrapers. Island-dwellers complain; only a couple of decades ago, this view was free of all this pollution. Nevertheless, peaceful Kinali remains far removed from contaminated city life.

Vartabed Damadian, the 35-year-old sprightly priest, is not only the pastor of St. Krikor Lusavorich—the centuries-old Armenian Orthodox Church at the center of Kinali Island’s thriving Armenian community life—he’s also the freshly-ordained Dean of all the Princes’ Islands. He’s one of the youngest clergy members in the Patriarchate, having been ordained at just 27 years old, proud to carry on the torch of his father Krikor Damadian, the Vicar general of the Istanbul Patriarchate. During the off season, he is the pastor of Pera’s Holy Trinity Church, a district that is home to the Essayan High School, Sișli cemetery, sports club, and headquarters of Armenian language newspaper Marmara. However, in his view, this job extends far beyond Sunday service.

Its population of only 2,500 permanent residents is made up of mostly Armenians from Istanbul or the larger Diaspora, who hop on the ferry to come to their Armenian oasis, where they can speak in their native tongue freely.

“I should be an event planner, not Hayr Soorp,” he says, chuckling. “In the summertime, the church is active twenty-four hours a day. The activities we have in just four months could equal those of a year…there’s no time to rest.” Indeed, the four months when “Bolsahays” (or Armenians from Istanbul, “Bolis”) flock to this island become exceedingly busy for St. Krikor Lusavorich Church.

In addition to hitting the beach, Armenian vacationers have a variety of activities waiting for them, from Armenian camp, choir practice, and dance lessons to soccer tournaments, concerts, and “tavloo” (backgammon) matches. The children of Armenian parents can attend an Armenian summer camp, one that was founded in 1952. They can learn traditional hymns with the Shorhian Children’s Choir and island regulars can even enjoy lavish authentic Armenian dinners at the local Armenian restaurant “Jash” or sip a coffee at the Armenian-owned café “Henna.”

The church’s bustling Vardavar festival, however, brings in the largest crowd of Armenian families. Vartabed Damadian diligently posts all events to his Facebook page available in English, Armenian, and Turkish for his large international following. His Vardavar pictures, a fan favorite, depict a thriving Armenian community across generations.

“An estimated 200 Armenian families visit in the summer, even from different islands,” says Fr. Damadian. Armenians from the mainland can find refuge from the repressive atmosphere they may encounter in Istanbul. In Kinali Island, they can freely converse in their native Armenian tongue, dine on Armenian cuisine, and practice Armenian traditions.

 

The Island Today

To Vartabed Damadian, the Armenian community is as strong as ever. “We have a big community, of all ages, from ‘bjigner’ (little ones) and teenagers to the older ones who come to play in tavloo tournaments and table tennis.”

His statement rings true and the proof is in the local press. The Navasartian Armenian Sports Games, organized under the auspices of the Armenian Patriarch of Istanbul, with financial backing from the Youth & Sports Ministry, is just one example of this thriving Armenian community—a staple part of Armenian summer life for ambitious Armenian athletes, who compete in soccer, volleyball, basketball, backgammon, and chess tournaments on the island’s Hrant Barsamian Stadium, cheered on by the Maral Folk Dance with a crowd of Esayan alumni eagerly following the match. In the latest competition in the summer of 2023, thousands were in attendance at the spectacle. The church also holds music nights, where gifted church-goers of all ages perform Armenian folk songs with traditional instruments. In addition, there are highly-attended book signings, concerts, grape-blessing ceremonies, folk-dancing performances, and even Armenian scrabble game tournaments.

Vartabed Damadian describes the Armenian Church as central to this bustling community. “I call the Church an enjoyment center because we don’t just celebrate spiritual life. Our motto is to make people feel like more than a community.” His trending Facebook posts bear it out—photo after photo gives a glimpse into carefree island life as “Bolsahays” around the globe comment on his posts.

One female interviewee in the Dink Foundation publication had this to say: “Kinali Island is one of the few places in Istanbul and Turkey where Armenian culture is intense and lived freely.” Her entire family has been summering on the island since the early seventies. She added: “Non-Armenian people speak Armenian too…Because they grew up here, they constantly dealt with Armenians and thus learned our language. People you’ve never heard speaking Armenian suddenly seem to be opening up and trying to teach Armenian culture to their children,” she added.

Vartabed Damadian agrees: “You will always find your friends and family here.”

 

A Jewel in the Crown

This serene, flower-clad island is humble in comparison to the rest of the Princes’ Islands, the fifth smallest district in Istanbul—there’s Büyükada (“Big Island”), where the Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky was famously exiled to, Heybaliada (“Saddlebag Island”), home to Istanbul’s Imperial School of Naval Engineering, and Kasik Adasi (“Spoon Island”), known to the Greek community as “Pita Island.” All are reachable only by boat, or “vapur” in Turkish—and thanks to technological advancements, sea buses, or “deniz otobusu.” For long-time vapur loyalists willing to spend a bit extra, they can rent individual water taxis for friends and family.

Each island has its own identity and unique community, but all are known for their charming wooden mansions, natural beauty, car-free lifestyle, exquisite seafood, and unmatched views of the Marmara. The colorful, still nature of Kinali island is hard to find anywhere else in the world, and some even compare many of the island’s endearing qualities to be reminiscent of old country villages. Despite the commonalities, Kinali is known to be reserved for Armenians, just as neighboring Büyükada is known for its Jewish population.

A Rich History

Kinali (or Kinaliada in Turkish) is the fourth largest island that makes up the Prince Islands archipelago. It was once a place of exile under the Byzantine Empire—specifically under the Roman Emperor Constantine the Great, who first exiled Bishop Nerses I to Büyükada over religious differences.

During the Byzantine era, according to Thrillophilia, these islands were even once called “Demonnesoi,” or the Demon’s Island, where princes of royal families were exiled. One such prince, Justin II, used these islands as his personal prison, and thanks to the harsh climate in the winter and lack of transportation, the islands made for a perfect hell and thus received their name.

In fact, according to the Hrant Dink Foundation, the Byzantine Emperor Nikephoros I exiled a member of the legendary Mamigonian family to Kinali after a failed revolt, where Mamigonian built the Vardanios Monastery. Also dubbed “Henna Island” for the red-tinted soil, this island was also once home to a thriving Greek Orthodox community, which called the island “Proti”—or first, in Greek. Until this day, Kinali has one Greek Orthodox Church and monastery, credited to the Greeks that once dwelled on this island.

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Opened in 1857, the Nersesyan Armenian School had students come from across the Princes’ Islands.

Opened in 1857, the Nersesyan Armenian School had students come from across the Princes’ Islands.
Caption
Opened in 1857, the Nersesyan Armenian School had students come from across the Princes’ Islands.

The Armenian population settled on the island in the late 1800s and continued to grow as places of worship and Armenian institutions—like schools and centers—blossomed. The mass settlement of Armenians officially began in 1833 and accelerated with the introduction of ferry services. Around this time, the Orthodox Panayia Church and Greek School opened on Kinali allowing Greeks to cement their identity on the island harmoniously alongside the Armenians.

Simultaneously, the Armenians of the island requested their own church from the government. Thus, Surp Krikor Lusavorich Armenian Church began construction in 1855 and was opened by the Patriarch Hagop III in 1857. That same year, the Nersesyan Armenian School opened its doors on Cinaralti Kösk Street for the first time—and students from other islands even came to attend the school. Vartabed Damadian clarifies: “St. Nerses Medz, the Great, was exiled on this island…this is why everything is named after him—like the Nersesian Tbrotz and choir.” It was even recorded that Turkish citizens were also taught at the Nersesyan School, learning Armenian reading and writing. Even the great Armenian composer Gomidas had a summer home on the island from 1909 to 1913, around the time he started a four-part choir of Armenians called “Gusan” which toured around Constantinople.

Even the great Armenian composer Gomidas had a summer home on the island from 1909 to 1913, around the time he started a four-part choir of Armenians called “Gusan” which toured around Constantinople.

A wave of anti-Greek violence in the 1950s and 60s, however, forced the Greek population to decline—most notably, the government’s 1964 violent expulsion of around 45,000 Istanbul Greeks from Turkey, a permanent wound for Greeks who could never return. Ironically, at this time, Armenian life was burgeoning—the islands were transformed into a popular summer destination for the Armenian masses from Istanbul.

Today, one can find remnants of this era throughout the island. Victorian-style mansions and cottages are still standing, adorned in the island’s iconic Persian silk trees and blooming mimosa flowers—today, inhabited by Armenians. In 1952, Patriarch Karekin Khatchadurian even opened the first Armenian summer camp for the children of less fortunate families—which was running up until Covid-19 shut it down. 

Originally published in the June 2024 ​issue of AGBU Magazine. end character

About the AGBU Magazine

AGBU Magazine is one of the most widely circulated English language Armenian magazines in the world, available in print and digital format. Each issue delivers insights and perspective on subjects and themes relating to the Armenian world, accompanied by original photography, exclusive high-profile interviews, fun facts and more.