In the early 20th Century, the war displaced many people in the Balkans and many Bulgarian Christians chose Istanbul as their new home. We meet this small community as they prepare for Christmas.
In the past, Bulgarians used to call Istanbul Tsarigrad, the “city of the Tsar (Emperor)”. Today, the metropolis of 15 million is home to various cultures, religions, communities as well as Tsarigrad Bulgarians. This community of 450 Orthodox Bulgarians chose to live in Istanbul, just like their parents, grandparents and great-great-grandparents did in the past.
“Bulgarians built this church,” Alexander Masev, a guide at the Sveti Stephen Church in Istanbul, explains to visitors. Surprised they ask: “There are Bulgarians?” He responds: “Yes, I’m Bulgarian.”
The sizeable Bulgarian migration started during the 18th Century. By the end of the 19th Century, 40,000-50,000 Bulgarians lived in Istanbul. Sometimes, historians joked that Istanbul had the largest Bulgarian population.
Their primary professions were gardening, husbandry, agriculture, and dairying. In the 19th Century, they had their own little trade centre in the historical Eminonu; Balkapan Han was an important site for newcomer Bulgarians seeking a job.
With the establishment of the Third Bulgarian State in 1876, some left the city. However, during the turbulent Balkans’ war at the beginning of the 20th Century, many people migrated overseas, and many Bulgarians chose Istanbul. During the Communist regime, their relations with Bulgaria were almost non-existent. However, they strived to preserve their culture and religion. Today, the Tsarigrad Bulgarians live in several neighbourhoods, such as Kadikoy, Levent, Sisli, Etiler, and Maslak.
The Bulgarian Orthodox Istanbulites
Masev is a Bulgarian Orthodox Istanbulite whose paternal grandfather came to the metropolis in the 1920s, while his mother’s ancestors came to the city two centuries ago. Alexander was raised in the city, studied history in Turkiye, resides here, and loves the city. Like a typical Istanbulite, he explains: “That city is bewildering, bewitched. You hate it and love it at the same time.” The endless hours of traffic drive you crazy, but at the same time, you are in love with the spirit of the city.
Despite being a small community, Alexander does not define them as closed to the world. He boldly says that they are the most open among the minorities in the city. “Look at the Church’s gates. They are always open to everyone,” he points out.
Alexander remembers how once an imam entered the Church and said: “I want to learn more about Christianity.” Later on, they sat in the Church’s Garden talking about theology. They conversed for hours.
The only Orthodox Iron church in the world
Sveti Stephen, also known as the Iron Church, was built in 1898 by Stefan Bogoridi, a high-ranking Ottoman statesman of Bulgarian origin and Prince of Samos. Bogoridi’s move came in response to the Bulgarians’ plea to leave the Greek Patriarchate and have their own institution. Built on the shore of the Golden Horn it is made entirely of iron. Five hundred tons of iron were shipped from Austria through the Danube River to this end.
The beautiful building experienced the cruelty of time but never lost its splendour. The Church was closed for restoration purposes. It was then reopened in 2018 after an official ceremony. Leaders of Bulgaria, the then-Prime Minister Boyko Borissov, and Turkiye's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, attended the ceremony.
Today, Orthodox Bulgarians gather on these premises to celebrate important holidays, such as Christmas, Easter, St Stephen’s Day, Trifon’s Day, weddings, and baptisms. Almost all the community members had their wedding ceremony here.
Nowadays, they are preparing for Christmas. Despite being Orthodox Christians, unlike other Eastern Orthodox countries, who celebrate on January 7, Bulgarians celebrate Christmas according to the Gregorian calendar. On Christmas Eve, December 24, a dinner gathering takes place. The meals are all vegan. There is also a traditional Christmas bread with a silver coin tucked inside; the lucky one who finds it is expected to have a very successful year. Alexander says he is the one who mainly gets the coin but humorously notes that it is better not to have overwhelming expectations for its miracles.
Small in number, strong in spirit
Tsarigrad Bulgarians’ most important identity symbols are their buildings. Places where the sense of belonging is kept alive and protected. Together, they keep their culture alive. Alongside the Iron Church, several Bulgarian cultural buildings exist in Istanbul, such as the Bulgarian Exarchate and St Ivan Rilski Church, the Bulgarian Cemetery in Ferikoy and its St Dimitar Church, and the school St Kiril and Metodiy.
Nevertheless, they face some serious problems. Rising cases of mixed marriages and the emigration of young people have reduced the community numbers. At the same time, the only Bulgarian school in the city was closed in 1972 due to a lack of students. Today, their main struggle is to preserve their language. However, since 2014 there has been a new school, St Kiril and Metodiy. During weekends, children of all ages can learn and improve their mother tongue and have school subjects in Bulgarian.
In the past, bilateral crises have affected the community. However, when asked about their life here, Alexander says: “We lived free, and I can say I feel comfortable and safe here.”
Asked to relate a memorable story, Alexander recalled a fascinating one. A man hurriedly came to Iron Church’s garden. He asked Alexander where he could take Islamic ablution (a ceremonial act of washing parts of the body before praying). A bit bemused, the guide showed him a place he could use and bit later explained to the confused visitor that probably in a rush, he had mistaken the church for a mosque. But to help pray before he missed the worship, they gave him a rug and a free place in the building so that he could finish his Islamic religious duty on time.
Over time, the Tsarigrad Bulgarians seem to fade into the background of the metropolis. However, they are a vital part of its fabric. The Golden Horn line in the city illustrates this importance. The boat starts from the European side and ends in Asian Istanbul. On the way, one sees the Iron Church, The Church of St George, the old Jewish quarter in Balat, the Phanar Greek Orthodox College, and the Yavuz Sultan Selim Mosque. Such a diverse panorama reminds us once again how important it is to embrace tolerance and respect for other religions. By constituting a bridge between East and West, Istanbul builds a model of understanding among civilisations, cultures, and religions.