The University of Istanbul

Opened and closed many times in its history, the Darülfünun resumed instruction again during the reign of Abdülhamid (on 1 September 1900) as the Darülfünun-u Şahane or Imperial University. Its re-opening as the Istanbul Darülfünun at the time of the Second Constitution laid the foundations for the University of Istanbul.

With its magnificent gate overlooking Beyazıt Square, its walls extending all the way to the Süleymaniye Mosque Complex, and the observation tower in its garden which is visible from near and far, Istanbul University has carved a place in the memory of almost everyone.

Witness to the social and political transformations of the period, it is an institution that was affected by those changes as well as occasionally even causing them. It is Turkey’s first and oldest university, where a large number of well-known and prominent figures, including intellectuals, bureaucrats, artists, writers and poets from the Ottoman Empire to the Republic of Turkey, have been trained. The University looks out on Beyazıt Square, where stately plane trees rise here and there, where pigeons roost and where interesting handicrafts are sold. The square is lined on both sides by libraries housing the oldest books and symbolized by the majestic mosque at its center.

Istanbul University was built following the Conquest at the site where the first Ottoman place stood. Although little remains of that old palace, the university gate and the pavilions on either side of it make a palatial impression. The large building just inside the gate where the Office of the University Rector is located today was erected in the 19th century as the Ministry of War and allocated to the university in the University Reform of 1933.

From Darülfünun to the present
The ancient walled city of Istanbul is said to have been built on seven hills. Among them, the one on which Beyazıt Mosque, Istanbul University and the Süleymaniye Mosque complex stand has been a center of scholarly research for a long time. The history of Istanbul University pre-dates the Ottomans, going back to the Byzantines. According to some researchers, the start of scholarly activity in this area dates back to 1 March 1321. A university in the Byzantine period, comparable to the universities of Rome and made up of colleges of law, medicine, philosophy and letters, behind and around the high walls and imposing gate that overlooks Beyazıt Square today, is regarded as the predecessor of the University of Istanbul. According to another view that links the beginnings of the university with the conquest of Istanbul, a decision is said to have been taken in meetings of scholars held on 30 May 1493, the day after the Conquest, to undertake scholarly studies in this area and to initiate the construction of infrastructure for this purpose. The initial projects undertaken in line with this decision were started inside the newly established Fatih Mosque Complex, and new ones were added to these complexes and madrasas as the empire grew in size and power.

In time the area from the Süleymaniye Complex up to today’s Beyazıt Square began to fill up with buildings constructed for scholarly activity. Meanwhile, in the broad area around these buildings, there were markets large and small where manuscript books were produced, writing materials and tools made, and second-hand booksellers located. The concept of education in the madrasas and mosque complexes where research of a more religious and scholarly nature was undertaken began to change with the Ottoman westernization movement, and it was decided to build a Darülfünun (university) for the purpose of bringing all scholarly and scientific studies under a single roof. Due to an occasional shortage of teachers and students but more often to the vagaries of politics, the Darülfünun was opened and closed a number of times. During the reign of Abdülhamid II it opened again on 1 September 1900 as the Darülfünun-ul Şahane or Imperial University. We might say that the foundations were laid for today’s University of Istanbul when it resumed instruction once again as the Istanbul Darülfünun in the period of the Second Constitution. It began to acquire a reputation through its research institutes, doctoral programs, scientific studies and publications and the appointment of foreign faculty members. It gained partial administrative autonomy through the new regulations issued in 1919. In the period of Republican Turkey following the National Struggle, an academic restructuring gradually got underway in the Darülfünun. The university achieved academic and administrative autonomy in laws passed in 1924-25 when the madrasas were granted the status of colleges. Foreign professors were invited from abroad and researchers were called in to identify areas in need of improvement and the modifications that needed to be made. Radical changes were undertaken following the reports compiled as a result of those studies. In 1933 the Darülfünun would finally become the University of Istanbul and begin instruction as Republican Turkey’s first and only university.

The University of Istanbul has been a focus of change and social ferment since the founding of the Republic. Beyazıt Square is en eye-witness to the history and transformations of young Turkey. A capacity in which it could be said to continue to function today.

The University today
Recently, the palatial halls in the building that houses the office of the rector have been converted into galleries following the establishment of the Istanbul University Center of Art and Science. Following this rearrangement, the building next to the rectorate is also being used as a Painting Gallery, with the painting collections of Feyhaman and Güzin Duran and Selim Turan, a Communications Gallery and an art center hosting temporary exhibitions. The university units and colleges and the Rare Works Library with its invaluable collection of manuscript books are along Besim Ömer Paşa Avenue, which runs from Beyazıt Square to Süleymaniye.

With the opening of new departments and the addition of new colleges over time, Istanbul University has spilled over outside the Beyazıt district. The university, which had a total of 250 professors, instructors and teaching assistants, a staff of more than 350 and close to three thousand students when it opened in 1933, now has over seventy thousand students and close to six thousand faculty members. Originally founded with colleges of medicine, law, literature and science, the university today is among a handful boasting literally dozens of colleges and countless departments. From its inception right up to the present, the University of Istanbul has continued to nurture the dreams of young people who aspire to be its students and men of learning keen to engage in research.