Istanbul's isle of diversity

A vestige of Turkey's multicultural past, Muslims, Jews, and Christians coexist happily on the Princes Islands.

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Burgaz lies less than an hour's ferry ride from the urban sprawl of Muslim-dominated Istanbul, but the unspoiled island teems with ethnic diversity.

Part of an archipelago known as the Princes Islands, Burgaz and its sister islands have for decades been a summer home for Istanbul's minority communities, especially Jews, Greeks, and Armenians. Indeed, the hilly islands are probably one of the world's few places where a church, synagogue, and mosque happily coexist within walking distance of each other.

Despite their dwindling presence in Istanbul, ethnic minorities continue to flock to the islands during the summer, preserving perhaps the last vestige of the cosmopolitan multiculturalism that once typified the city. [Editor's note: The original version misidentified Turkey's capital.]

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In a country that has struggled with minority issues in recent decades, these oases in the Sea of Marmara offer a rare glimpse of a way of life that is slowly disappearing.

"They represent the multicultural aspect of Turkey in one small spot," says Robert Schild, an Istanbul businessman and amateur historian who is working on a documentary about Burgaz.

"The islands are probably the only spot in Istanbul where you can still hear Greek and Ladino [Judeo-Spanish] spoken on the street."

Mr. Schild calls the islands "a living ethnographic museum." On little Burgaz, less than a mile from end to end, Schild says he has so far counted 20 different ethnic groups represented among its 5,000 summer residents, from Jews and Greeks, to Alevi Muslims, Chaldean Christians, and even some Austrian nuns who live in a residence belonging to a Catholic-run Istanbul hospital that dates back to the late 19th century.

It's not hard to grasp why visitors flocked here. The islands dazzle with pristine greenery. Wooden Victorian-style mansions line the islands' streets, while horses pulling colorful fringe-topped carriages compete with pedestrians and cyclists for space. Cars are not permitted.

In a book about Istanbul, historian John Freely relates this florid account by a 19th century European traveler: "....nowhere does the delighted eye repose on coasts more lovely, on a bay more gracious, on mountainous distances more grandiose ... nowhere in short do bluer waters bathe more gently a thousand shady coves, a thousand poetic cliffs."

Many denizens concede, however, that the island's character is changing. As Istanbul's minority communities shrink, the Princes are also losing their diversity. Burgaz has only one Greek fisherman left, and Buyukada - the largest of the islands - just a lone Jewish fishmonger.

Indeed, Greeks wereonce a major part of Istanbul's ethnic fabric; today less than 2,000 remain in the city. Even fewer make it out to these islands where several defunct Orthodox monasteries still stand.

Sotiris Varnalidis, born in Istanbul but living in Greece for more than 30 years, comes back to Heybeli Island every summer to help maintain the buildings of the shuttered seminary where he once studied.

"It's very depressing to see the number of Greek people going down every day," says Varnalidis. "Compared to today, the island used to be much more crowded."

Tiny Kinali, however, remains home to a bustling summertime Armenian community. On the island's main strip, the Sirin Sarkuteri delicatessen does brisk business selling homemade eggplant salad and stuffed peppers.

Behind the counter, Zafer Cukur, a mustachioed man in a short-sleeved white shirt, says the shop moves to the island for the summer, closing down its store in Istanbul's Armenian district.

"The island has more of a feeling of the typical Armenian lifestyle," says Tamar Kac, a young advertising executive who grew up spending summers on Kinali.

"When the afternoon comes, you can smell everyone cooking their stuffed vine leaves and other typical Armenian foods," she adds.

"Parents are choosing Kinali because their kids can make friendships with other Armenians. In terms of community it's a beneficial place."

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