In search of lost time

Two churches keep the memory of the rich Bulgarian past in Edirne

Photo: Adelina Lozanova Sts. Constantine and Helen church is a typical example of the National Revival period Orthodox architecture.

In the middle of the 19th century Edirne stood out, among other Balkan urban settlements, as one of the towns with the largest Bulgarian population. Located in the heart of East Thrace, it was an important centre inhabited by Turks, Greeks, Bulgarians, Jews and many other ethnic groups. According to unofficial data, by 1860 the Bulgarian population amounted to more than 2,500 people, while over 40,000 others lived in the nearby villages which had churches, schools and nice houses. Today, almost nothing is left of this heritage.

After the liberation of Bulgaria from the Ottoman rule in 1878, Edirne remained within the boundaries of the Ottoman Empire. During the Balkan wars of 1912-1913 the Bulgarian troops seized the town in a military campaign that amazed the Western world. However, after the wars ended unfavourably for Bulgaria, Edirne and its entire vicinity returned under Ottoman rule and the local Bulgarians were forced to flee in order to survive.

During the following decades, the traces of the town's rich Bulgarian past have been gradually erased, and today it is hard to even assume that only a century ago most of its citizens were not Muslims. Still, thanks to the efforts of the Bulgarian state within the last two decades a small part of the Bulgarian heritage has been restored in Edirne, namely, two Bulgarian churches - those of St. George and Sts. Constantine and Helen.

The St. George church is located in the north-eastern part of the town within the boundaries of the former Bulgarian quarter. Its foundation was laid on 23 April 1880 on the remnants of a more ancient church, and the new one was built within that same year. It was erected with the help of the then vali (head of the local administration) of Edirne, Rauf Pasha, and with the permission of Sultan Abdul Hamid II.

The church is a spacious three-nave basilica with a high, wood-panelled ceiling and walls which are richly decorated with icons. Rauf Pasha, who was a good friend of the head of the Edirne diocese, Bishop Synesius of Stobi, gave the disputed St. Trinity church to the Greek community but at the same time allotted 400 liras for the construction of a Bulgarian church. Today, on the second floor of the completely restored church there is a small ethnographic museum.

The Sts. Constantine and Helen church is located in the south-eastern part of Edirne in the immediate vicinity of the confluence of the Tundzha and the Maritsa rivers. Built in 1869, within less than seven months, it is a vivid example of the Orthodox architecture of that period. The church is a three-nave pseudo-basilica, a mixture of stone and brick masonry. It has two rows of columns, wooden ceilings and some interior elements of wooden indoor sculptures. Seventy icons constitute the iconostasis.

The church was fully restored in 2008 with the money provided by the Bulgarian state, municipalities and foundations, as well as with numerous donations from common Bulgarians. In 2010, a monument to Exarch Antim I was unveiled in the yard of the church.

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