Istanbul Lycée

One of Turkey’s oldest and established institutions of education, Istanbul Lycée, or Istanbul Boys’ High School as it is better known, is celebrating its 125th anniversary.

The foundations of the Istanbul Lycée, one of the pioneers of western education in the Ottoman Empire, were laid by Mehmet Nadir Bey on 15 January 1884 with the founding of the Numune-i Terakki Mektebi or ‘Model of Progress School’. Distinguishing itself from other schools by its concept of modern education and modern teaching methods, Numune-i Terakki soon became the most sought-after private school of its day. In 1909 it was bought up by the Ministry of Education for 120,000 kurush and nationalized and its name changed first to Istanbul Primary Boarding School and then, in 1910, to Istanbul Lycée. It was the first time the word ‘Lise’ (lycée) was used in Turkish. Istanbul Lycée is at the same time a school of other ‘first’s. The first student magazine in Turkey, Numume-i Terakki, was published here in 1887, the foundations of scouting in Turkey laid here in 1912, the first cinema film to be shown in a school shown here in 1913, and the first student theater group formed here in the same year.

Together with the growing rapprochement between Germany and the Ottoman Empire, the state purposed to train cadres that could work in parallel with the developing cooperation. Teachers were therefore brought from Germany and the school went over to German instruction in 1912. A teacher from Hamburg, Hans Gabel, describes his years at the school, whose name was changed to ‘Istanbul Sultanisi’ (Istanbul Secondary School) in 1913: “The school we are at is one of eleven ‘Sultani’s in the country. A school that offers a 12-year education as we do. With the difference that most of the students are boarders. There are approximately 700 students in this school here in the country’s most populous city. The children’s origins are extremely varied. All the way from the son of a government minister to those from the civil service sector and children of soldiers and shopkeepers... The variety of complexions is striking. Although most are Istanbul Turks, among them there are blond Circassians, brown Arabs, and even, in one of my classes, a dark-skinned Egyptian.”

Istanbul Secondary School students fought in all the wars of the 20th century, the Balkan War, the First World War and Turkey’s War of Liberation in that order. The school colors arose from a tragic incident that occurred during the Battle of the Dardanelles. The school building had been turned into a hospital and its walls painted yellow. While waiting for their comrades to return, news was received at the school that 50 Istanbul Secondary School students who had been sent to the front had fallen in the battle. The window frames and doors were painted black, the black of mourning against the yellow of hope. So did the school acquire the colors yellow and black, which the Istanbulspor soccer team would later adopt as well. The school’s large historic clocks were also set to 3:30 in the morning, the hour when their big brothers had fallen. Students and alumni remember those who fell at Gallipoli’s ‘Red Ridge’ every year on the night of May 18th to 19th, and newly admitted students are required to be present at the ceremony.

The Istanbul Secondary School boy scouts were among the first to congratulate Ataturk after the Battle of Sakarya. “Thank you, Pasha,” they said. “You saved the country.” And Ataturk replied, “You’re welcome, children of Sakarya!”  From that day onward the Istanbul Secondary School boy scouts changed the name of their troop to the Sakarya Boy Scouts, and their march, the Sakarya March, became the school song as well. Founded in 1912, the Sakarya Scout Troop is Turkey’s oldest, and is still active with 125 members. Following school tradition, the troop leaders are graduates of the school studying now in university.

With the founding of the Republic in 1923, the school’s name was changed to Istanbul Boys’ High School and it was imbued with new zeal. In 1926 the students would form Istanbulspor, one of the country’s oldest soccer teams, and in 1932 the team would win the only Turkish championship to grace the walls of the school museum. All the players were either students or graduates of the school.

Istanbul Lycée acquired its present building in 1933. When the Ottoman state became unable to repay its debts, the Public Debt Administration was formed in 1882 and management of the debt turned over to foreigners in what was, in a sense, the bankruptcy of the state. The Debt Administration had a magnificent building in Cağaloğlu with a panoramic view of Istanbul. When the debt was liquidated with the founding of the Repulbic and the building abandoned, several institutions, including Istanbul province, Istanbul municipality and Istanbul university, all sought to acquire this beautiful structure. But the building was allocated to Istanbul Lycée at Ataturk’s behest. For it was Ataturk’s wish that young people grow up with an awareness of the former function of the building where they were taught and take a lesson from it so that the state should never return to those earlier days.

Istanbul Lycée has trained a large number of statesmen, scientists and artists, among them scores of cabinet ministers and two prime ministers. A record number of six ministers from Istanbul Lycée served in the government of 1955. Instruction in German was interrupted in 1918 when Germany lost the war but resumed again in 1958 under an agreement signed between Turkey and Germany. Girls were admitted to the school for the first time in 1964. In 1982 its name reverted to the one of 1910 and it became the Istanbul Lycée once again.

Istanbul Lycée today is one of Turkey’s leading institutions of education with 43 Turkish and 35 German teachers and an experienced staff of administrators as well as modern language and science laboratories. Furthermore, the students not only receive a Turkish high school diploma but also have an opportunity to make their ‘Abitur’, in other words, to receive the highest lycée diploma one can earn in the German system of secondary education.

Because it has not forfeited its own unique culture despite instruction in a foreign language, and with its boarding students who make up one-third of the student body and regard the school as home, its girl students who don’t baulk at calling it the Istanbul Boys’, and the old, some of them octogenarians, who nonetheless stop by once a week, and its teachers who have taught at the school most of their lives and completely identified with it, Istanbul Lycée is an unusual school indeed.