Istanbul University

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The roots of Istanbul University go back to Mehmet the Conqueror (Sultan Mehmed 2) who captured Constantinople on 29 May 1453, turned the city into the capital of the Ottoman empire and established a theological school referred to as a medrese. On 20 April 1912 this medrese was converted into the Istanbul Dar-ül Fünun (House of Knowledge) to become the first institution of higher learning in the Ottoman Empire offering education in modern science.

The same day, when Turkey became a secular state with all its ramifications by the abolition of the caliphate on 3 March 1924, another revolutionary law aiming at unification, and standardization, and secularization of the educational institutions (Tevhid-i Tedrisat kanunu) was passed. This law closed the religious schools and attached all educational institutions to the Ministry of National Education. Several other reforms in education followed with speed and enthusiasm. Turkey’s system of higher education including medical education was thoroughly revised when the University Reform Law No. 2252, was passed on 31 May 1933. It abolished the İstanbul Dar-ül Fünun and founded the İstanbul University. On 31 July 1933, the Dar-ül Fünun was officially closed by government decree as a means of cancelling all existing faculty contracts. The very next day Istanbul University was opened using Dar-ül Fünun’s physical plant with a small fraction of its original faculty and over 30 world renowned émigré German professors who were invited by the government. In 1933, Distinguished American Richard Courant and Nobel laureate James Franck were asked by the Rockefeller Foundation to assess the status of Istanbul University. On 25 October 1933 Courant filed their joint report. It says in part: “Among the Turkish officials and circles interested in the cultural progress of the country we encountered a decided wish to create a promising scientific center in Istanbul, which should contribute to the development of higher education in Turkey.” An internal Rockefeller Foundation Memorandum observed: “The new developments in Turkey should be followed closely and sympathetically. The transplantation of so many eminent German scholars in Istanbul cannot but have far-reaching repercussions. The present transformation of Turkey offers so many problems of economic, social and political significance as to provide a fruitful field of research.” A year later, the Associate Director of Rockefeller Foundation’s European Office, R. A. Lambert, was sent to Istanbul to assess the situation on the ground. In his Diary, an entry dated Friday, 16 February 1934, recognizes that “there is no doubt that Mustapha Kemal [Ataturk] and his Ministers of Hygiene and Education are determined to have in Istanbul, in the shortest possible time, a first class University . . . that will command the respect of the West.” According to a contemporary Turkish parliamentarian, the “Turkish government signed contracts with a number of professors and accepted to pay them a salary well exceeding that of professors of Turkish origin. The purpose of the Turkish government was to upgrade the academic level of Istanbul University to that of Western European universities.”


The university is located five campuses, the main campus being on Beyazıt Square in Istanbul, which was known as the Forum Tauri in the Roman period.

Current status

The university has seventeen Faculties or Schools and a teaching staff of over 2,000 full and associate professors as well as 4,000 junior staff. Its student body exceeds 60,000 undergraduate and 8,000 postgraduate students.

Over the decades its graduates have served the main source of academic staff for the Turkish university system, which now numbers no fewer than 72 public and private universities. Many of its graduates reached high levels and esteem as Turkish bureaucrats, professionals, business people and many are currently on the faculties of universities worldwide. Graduates of its medical school are currently senior staff at America’s premiere teaching hospitals including the world renowned Cleveland Clinic.

See Yasemin Karakaşoğlu. “Turkey.” The Education Systems of Europe. Ed: Wolfgang Hörner, Hans Döbert, Botho von Kopp, and Wolfgang Mitter. Amsterdam: Springer, 2007. pp.783-807.

Considering the university reform, it can be said that the young Turkish Republic built on the Ottoman reforms, but apparently by radically revising them. The first Darülfünün was founded on 23 July 1846. It was closed and reopened on 20 February 1870 as Darülfünun-i Osmani, in 1874 as Darülfünun-u Sultani, and in 1900 as Darülfünun-u Şahane. Bernard Lewis refers to the Darülfünun-u Şahane as “the first modern university in the Islamic world”. See Bernard Lewis. The Emergence of Modern Turkey. (Oxford: 1968). p.182. On 20 April 1912, İstanbul Darülfünun was established. Between 1915-1918, foreign scientists lectured at the İstanbul Darülfünun. See Mustafa Gencer. Jöntürk Modernizmi ve “Alman Ruhu”: 1908-1918 Dönemi Türk-Alman İlişkileri ve Eğitim. [Jeunne Turc Modernism and “German Spirit”: Turkish-German Relations and Education between 1908-1918] İstanbul: İletişim Yayınları, 2003. For a list of those scientists, See Horst Widmann. Atatürk ve Üniversite Reformu. [Atatürk and the University Reform]. İstanbul: Kabalcı Yayınları, 2000. pp.62-63. See Reisman, A. Turkey's Modernization: Refugees from Nazism and Atatürk's Vision (Washington, DC: New Academia Publishers 2006).

Richard Courant and James Franck “Joint Report to the Rockefeller Foundation on the Status of Istanbul University, (25 October 1933). Courtesy of Rockefeller [Foundation] Archives Center.

Tracy B. Kittrege writing to someone with the initials “EED” on 13 October 1933, Re: “New Turkish University in Stambul” Courtesy Rockefeller [Foundation] Archive Center. Collection RF.

Courtesy of Rockefeller [Foundation] Archive Center. Collection RF.

Extracted from “Statement of Mr. Onur Öymen, Member of Turkish Parliament, at the Seminar on ‘Culture as a Weapon, Academicians in Exile’” in Berlin on 19 July 2003. Moreover, the Bosporus and the Dardanelles held strategic importance to the Reich, as did an uninterrupted supply of chromium and other scarce materials needed by Germany’s munitions factories. This strategic importance was sufficient for the Nazis to release Dentistry Professor Alfred Kantorowicz from nine months of incarceration in concentration camps because Turkey needed his expertise. Arnold Reisman, “Public Health Dentistry Pioneer: Alfred Kantorowicz in Exile

For additional reading on Ataturk’s societal reforms and Turkey’s modernization see Reisman, A. (2007) “Jewish Refugees from Nazism, Albert Einstein, and the Modernization of Higher Education in Turkey (1933-1945).” Aleph: Historical Studies in Science & Judaism, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and University of Indiana Press, No. 7, Pages 253-281. pgs 253-281 Reisman, A. (2007) “German Jewish Intellectuals’ Diaspora in Turkey: (1933-1955).” The Historian. Published on behalf of Phi Alpha Theta History Honor Society, Volume 69 issue 3 Page 450-478, Fall 2007 and Arnold Reisman TURKEY'S MODERNIZATION: Refugees from Nazism and Ataturk's Vision