When I look at this extraordinary photo taken in 1936 at the Shakespeare School (in Nicosia) I am overwhelmed by feelings of nostalgia and wonder. I look at the beautiful young faces of the students and wonder what type of life they had lived and led at the time. I wonder if they walked many miles to attend this school. I wonder if they were happy. I wonder if they were hungry. I wonder why their parent’s decided to send them to this school. I wonder how their lives turned out. I wonder if ANY of them are still alive today.
Perhaps, as you scan the close up photos of the students posted here, you may recognise a familiar face. If so, can you please add your comments and help to identify this class of 1936. In fact, if you know anything about this school, please add your comments below.
I was fortunate to have met one of these students a couple of years ago. Her name was Gülten İrfan Yıldırım and the mother of my good friends Eren and Sermen Erdogan. She was ninety years old when I met her but she was only seven years old when this photo was taken in 1936. That’s her sitting crossed-legged in the front row, third from the right. Gülten attended the Shakespeare School together with her younger sister Ayten (seated front row, second from left). Together with other Turkish Cypriot children at the school the two sisters were exposed to a world of English literature and the classics. Gülten and Ayten were born in the Troodos mountain village of Amiantos but moved to Nicosia to study at the Shakespeare School located near Yeni Cami (New Mosque) opposite Ayios Loukas church.
The Shakespeare School was founded and run by an extraordinary Turkish Cypriot named Necmi Sagip Bodamyalizade. That’s him sitting proudly in the middle of the school photo wearing his trademark suit and bow tie.
Not much is known about the history of this school or about Bodamyalizade himself. According to a book written by Ahmet Ann titled ‘Kıbrısın Yetiştirdiği Değerler’ (roughly translated as The Valued People Cyprus Raised) Bodamyalizade was a quiet man who never married and devoted all of his time and energy to the promotion of learning and education amongst the Turkish Cypriot children of Nicosia and surrounding areas. His real name was Mahmut Necmi Aziz and he was born in Paphos in 1897. His birthplace is unknown. His father was Ahmet Aziz Bodamyalızade and his mother was Lutfiye Hanım. Later on he was given the title Necmi Sagıp (necm-i sağıp, means the highest star in the night sky). I imagine this title is testament to his extraordinary commitment to the arts and education.
In 1911, aged fourteen, the young Bodamyalızade left his hometown in Paphos to attend a high school in Nicosia. It is said that a few years later he fell in love with a girl named Alice who happened to be the daughter of the British Police Commissioner of Cyprus. Nothing else is known about his love for Alice except that for reasons unknown he was sent to England by his father to study English at the prestigious Oxford University. One source I found stated that Bodamyalızade had an affair with the daughter of the British governor (not the police commissioner) and to avoid a public scandal his father promptly sent him to study in England.
It was at Oxford University where Bodamyalızade pursued his interest in English language and English literature. It is said that in his final year he befriended many English coal miners and wrote many poems about their plight at the time. In somewhat bizarre circumstances, Bodamyalızade began sending letters to the British Prime Minister Lloyd George asking if he could marry his daughter Megan. Apparently, this behaviour attracted the attention of the police. The author Mehmet Ertuğ in his book ‘Felezof’ provides a different account of why Bodamyalızade may have pursued the Prime Minister’s daughter in this way. Apparently when Bodamyalızade was studying at Oxford, the Prime Minister Lloyd George had offered the hand of his daughter as a prize to whoever wins a university-based essay writing competition. Bodamyalızade (using a pseudomyn of Mut Podaimlisade) enters and wins the competition. When Lloyd George (who had a dislike of anything Turkish) found out that the winner was Turkish Cypriot, refused to honour his promise. That is when a very insistent Bodamyalızade started writing letters to the Prime Minister stating that he wanted to marry his daughter. The police arrested Bodamyalızade deported him back to Cyprus with the condition he was never allowed to return to England. It’s a pretty amazing (and unbelieveable) story and sadly I can find no document to verify that this writing competition actually took place.
In his book ‘Kıbrısın Yetiştirdiği Değerler’, the author Ahmet Ann provides another possible scenario. He states that Bodamyalızade was arrested in England for openly expressing a sympathetic view towards Communism. Apparently he was tortured and jailed by the British Police and then placed in a Lunatic Asylum for two years before being deported back to Cyprus in 1921. He would have been twenty four years of age. Bodamyalızade would later write about his troubles in England in a book titled “The Grace of Divine Justice” which outlines his experience with the English miners, the police as well as his views on religion and communism. Once again, I am unable to find any documentation that can verify this account.
Bodamyalızade spoke fluent English, so after he was deported back to Cyprus he found employment with the police department in Nicosia where he worked for ten years until 1932. Whilst he was there he began teaching English in the evenings to high school students, teachers and government officers.
In 1933, with the help of the Evkaf Foundation, Bodamyalızade decided to set up his own kindergarten and primary school, which he named the Shakespeare School. The Evkaf Foundation was established in Cyprus in 1571 as an Islamic religious organisation that accumulated properties known as Evkaf. These properties were either appropriated or donated by people with a document called vakıf to be used for charitable purposes or for the good of the Turkish Cypriot society.
Encouraged by a growing interest for his English classes, Bodamyalızade decides to expand the Shakespeare School to include a middle school and high school. The Shakespeare School became so popular in the 1930s, that almost one third of all the boys and girls that were living in and around Nicosia were enrolled there. Because the lessons were taught in English, the students graduating from the Shakespeare School were favoured for employment by both the government and private sectors in Cyprus.
Apparently when Bodamyalızade returned to Cyprus in 1921, he had a very long beard and looked quite eccentric. He was regarded by many who met him as an intelligent, educated man. He soon earned the nickname Felezof (or philosopher) by the local people. In fact, his Shakespeare School was often referred to by the Nicosia community as Felezof Mektebi meaning the ‘Philosopher’s School’.
The Shakespeare School was favoured by the Greek and Armenian population of Cyprus besides the Cypriot Turks due to its success in offering The General Certificate of Education (GCE) Ordinary Level (also known as O-level) and as such, it was the very first school with boys and girls in the same classes. The school closed in 1952 having taught thousands of native Cypriots the English language.
As to the general appearance of Bodamyalızade, a newspaper article written by Hikmet Arif Mapolar in 1945 described him as a man of average height, slightly overweight with a head on his shoulders like a statue with a godly face. His eyes would shine brightly as he spoke and he remained calm even when angered by something or someone. He was often regarded by many as a confident, intelligent as a good-natured person. Mapolar goes on to write about the many successful literary writings of Bodamyalızade. Besides writing his own poems in English, Bodamyalızade also translated the works of famous literary Turkish poets such as Faruk Nafız Çamlıbel and Namık Kemal. He is also credited with writing the first English translation of the Koran as a poem (as Psalms) published in 1934. Many famous people such as Roosevelt, Truman, Eisenhower, Montgomery, George Bernard Shaw and İsmet İnönü personally wrote to Bodamyalızade to thank him for his efforts.
Bodamyalızade was certainly ahead of his time. He wrote frequently about the necessity for all women and girls to have access to education and equal rights. He expressed his views openly in what was a mostly conservative Cypriot society. He was against the suppression or oppression of women by men and had strong views regarding torture or punishment by the police. He was even an outspoken advocate against any bad treatment or cruelty to animals. Mapolar describes Bodamyalızade as “a genius of a man that has given Cypriot Turks pride and protection by highlighting their plight through his writings in the English media.” With regards to the bi-communal relationship between Muslims and Christians, Bodamyalızade is quoted as saying, “Let’s forget any past animosity and put away any poisonous remarks that could only promote hatred against each other. We are all children of this beautiful island and land. Let’s join up and bring back the good old days of Cyprus to become the envy of the world again.”
Bodamyalizade was often seen riding through the narrow streets of Nicosia on his bicycle with a thick school bag full of books and stopping to talk to anyone who would listen to him. He never got married and apparently lived a lonely life. Although he was very successful in setting up the Shakespeare School he was unfortunately not very good at handling money. Towards the end of his life he exhausted all of his assets, sold off all of his inheritance and ended staying in cheap hotels on a small pension. He was somewhat fortunate that the owner of a hotel near Ledra Street (that would become his last place of residence) decided not to charge him any rent. The hotel owner realised that Bodamyalızade was an attraction for the hotel customers due his personality and therefore, felt he should look after him. Perhaps he felt sorry for this once great Oxford scholar and renowned professor.
In April of 1964, Necip Hüseyin Demircioğlu received a message from the Red Cross that his friend Bodamyalızade was found dead in his room. Demircioglu claimed his body and organised his funeral. He was quietly buried without a ceremony or special acknowledgement. Demircioglu even had to pay for a burial shroud as the local morgue did not want to loan any bedsheets to wrap the body.
And so it was that Necmi Sagıp Bodamyalızade, the founder and principal of the Shakespeare School, the professor who taught and educated thousands of Cypriot students, a genius literary writer of many articles and poems and a well-liked and patriotic community leader sadly passed away as a pauper. He was sixty-seven years of age.
Bodamyalızade is yet another unsung hero of Cyprus. He is another son who loved his country and his people and was considered by many to be ahead of his times.
Rest in Peace dear professor.
Special thanks to Sermen Erdogan for his important translation of certain sections of the book ‘Kıbrısın Yetiştirdiği Değerler’, by author Ahmet Ann.
SPECIAL PLEA: If you know anyone who attended this school or if you have information about this school (including information regarding Necmi Sagıp Bodamyalızade), please add your comments here.
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