Inside Istanbul's 'plague islands'

Just 90 minutes from downtown Istanbul, the Princes' Islands have provided refuge to those fleeing plagues, kept watch over exiled royalty and now offer respite from city life.

Posted: May 9, 2020 5:01 PM
Updated: May 9, 2020 5:01 PM

Like many places around the world, Turkey has been hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic.

Over 100,000 cases have been registered in the country, with the vast majority recorded in Istanbul.

But this isn't the first time Turkey's largest city has been devastated by an outbreak of disease.

Around 540 CE, Istanbul, known as Constantinople at the time, fell victim to one of the worst outbreaks of the Black Death, resulting in the deaths of thousands of people each day.

When it was hit by another outbreak in the 16th century, many fled the city, some choosing to take refuge in Princes' Islands, located about a 90-minute boat ride from central Istanbul.

Island escape

It's easy to see why this cluster of nine islands in the Sea of Marmara would've seemed like the promised land while the city was being ravaged by another pandemic.

Not only do the idyllic islands, of which Buyukada and Heybeliada are the best known, offer a respite from Istanbul's frantic energy, time actually seems to move slower here.

In fact, first-time visitors would be forgiven for thinking they'd been transported back a century on the ferry ride over.

While Istanbul's busting streets are teeming with traffic, on the islands cars are banned and the pace is a great deal slower.

Princes' Islands remains a popular haven for those keen on escaping the city today -- albeit for very different reasons.

Those who visit come to take in the islands' beautiful landscapes, marvel at its pretty 19th-century wooden houses, as well as the Ottoman-style architecture of Buyukada and Heybeliada, to ride bicycles and to sample great local food.

Idyllic refuge

The islands were a place of exile for dethroned royalty during the Byzantine era, which is where their name comes from.

They later became a refuge for religious minorities, particularly Christians, and holds a number of historic religious monuments.

In fact, one of Buyukada's most popular sights is the sixth-century Aya Yorgi church and monastery.

Situated on top of the island's highest hill, it offers up fantastic views of Istanbul and beyond.

In Heybeliada, the magnificent Ruhban Okulu, once a theology school run by the Eastern Orthodox Church's Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople, stands surrounded by pine trees.

While the striking structure shut its doors as a school back in 1971, it remains open to visitors.

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