Currently, there are two active churches belonging to the Bulgarian Orthodox Church in Edirne. In addition to the better-known church of Saints Constantine and Helena, there is a smaller church of Saint George (bg. Свети Георги - Sveti Georgi, tr. Ayayorgi Kilisesi) in the city, built in the second half of the 19th century. It was formally consecrated on the 9th of May, 1880. The construction of the church was realised with the permission of Sultan Abdul Hamid II by the governor of Edirne, Rauf Pasha.
The church was first closed after the Balkan wars. It reopened in the 1940s but fell into disrepair over the years. Interestingly, the members of the same family have served as custodians and priests of this church for generations. Its current priest is Aleksandır Çıkırık, the son of Filip, the former administrator and priest of the same church. After many years of neglect, the church was thoroughly renovated by the General Directorate of Foundations, with the financial support of the Bulgarian state, at the cost of 4 million Turkish liras. It reopened to the faithful in 2004. The ceremony was attended by the patriarch of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church - Maxim, and the Prime Minister of Bulgaria - Simeon von Sachsen-Coburg und Gotha.
There is an architectural complex, composed of the church and annex buildings. The church was erected on the basilica plan, unique to the late period of Bulgarian Renaissance. It consists of three parts: a semi-open narthex, the main aisle, and an apse. Moreover, there are two galleries over the narthex. The interior of the temple is richly decorated by an iconostasis - a wall of icons and religious paintings, separating the nave from the sanctuary. There is also the bishop's throne and a pulpit. The ornaments are also placed on the top of pillars supporting the building.
The church is not only a place of religious worship but also serves as a museum. There is an exhibition on its upper floor, displaying various items of jewellery and clothing, to introduce the Bulgarian culture. Additionally, there is a library of Bulgarian books.
The Bulgarians lived under the rule of the Ottoman sultans for half a millennium, from the conquest by the Ottoman Empire of the smaller kingdoms that had emerged from the disintegrating Second Bulgarian Empire in the late 14th century. They were not obliged to become Muslims and did not serve in the Sultan's army. Nevertheless, during and immediately after the Ottoman conquest, many Bulgarian churches and monasteries were razed to the ground, and some of the preserved ones were converted into mosques.
Before the Ottoman conquest, the Bulgarian Christians had been organised as the Bulgarian Orthodox Church, recognised as an independent Church by the Patriarchate of Constantinople from 927 CE. However, in the Ottoman Empire, the Bulgarian Orthodox Church was entirely subordinated to the Patriarch of Constantinople. The reason for this change was that the Ottomans identified nationality and ethnicity with a confession. As the majority of ethnic Bulgarians were Orthodox Christians, they were automatically included in the Rum millet - a community ruled by the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople dominated by the Greeks.
For the Bulgarians, this situation meant the double oppression as they were politically controlled by the Turks, and religiously dominated by the Greeks. As the Greek nationalistic movement developed in the 18th century, the Patriarchate of Constantinople became the tool to assimilate the Bulgarians, imposing Greek language and Greek liturgy on them. The Bulgarian elites realised that their culture and national identity were seriously threatened. Therefore, they started the fight to form an autonomous ecclesiastical organisation. Finally, in 1870, Sultan Abdülaziz granted them the right to establish an autonomous Bulgarian Exarchate but left it under the supreme authority of the Patriarchate of Constantinople.
The decision of the sultan did not prevent the Bulgarian struggle for the independence of their country. To the contrary, it strengthened the Bulgarian nationalistic movement and resulted in the April Uprising that lasted from April to May 1876. It was brutally suppressed by the Ottoman army but led to the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-1878. This conflict ended in the Turkish defeat and the signing of the Treaty of San Stefano and the Treaty of Berlin. The latter treaty recognised the autonomy of Bulgaria which de facto started functioning as an independent state. The Bulgarian territories were divided into three parts: the Principality of Bulgaria, the autonomous province of Eastern Rumelia, and Macedonia, which was given back to the Ottomans. However, many Bulgarians remained in the areas that belonged to the Ottoman Empire, including the Adrianople Vilayet. The Exarchate's borders extended over present-day northern Bulgaria, Thrace without the Vilayet of Adrianople, and north-eastern Macedonia. In Edirne, it was represented by vicars. Just before the Balkan Wars, in the area of Macedonia and the Adrianople Vilayet, the Bulgarian Exarchate had fifteen dioceses, more than 1200 parishes, 64 monasteries, and 202 chapels. In the same area, there were almost 1400 schools with 80 thousand pupils.
The Eparchies, i.e. territorial dioceses, of the Bulgarian Exarchate in Macedonia and Thrace were subsidised by the state, initially symbolically, and from 1882 - to a large extent. These funds were spent on church activities as well as the organization of Bulgarian schools and printing of literature. In this way, the local Slavs were to gain Bulgarian national consciousness. These energetic actions meant that in the 1880s, most of the parishes and church cultural institutions that had been suspended after the Russo-Turkish War resumed their activities. New Bulgarian libraries, bookstores, scientific societies, and pensions were opened. Among the newly erected buildings was Saint George's Church in Edirne.
The demographics of the Vilayet of Adrianople at the beginning of the 20th century might be surprising, especially in comparison to the current state of affairs. Around 1 million people were living in the vilayet. The Vilayet of Adrianople was divided into eight smaller administrative units, called sanjaks. The main city of the vilayet, Edirne, had around 80 thousand inhabitants, with approximately 300 thousand people living in the Sanjak of Edirne. The problematic part of establishing the numbers of various nationalities living in the Sanjak of Edirne results from the above-mentioned fact that the Ottoman government counted the people according to the Millet System, based on the confession and not ethnicity or language. Therefore, the official census, conducted in 1906/7, counted most of the Orthodox Bulgarians as the Greeks, and the Muslim Bulgarians, known as Pomaks, were included in 'Muslim' category, together with the Turks. The results of this census demonstrated that the largest group of people living in the Sanjak of Edirne were the Muslims (154 thousand), followed by the Greeks (103 thousand), with only 37 thousands of Bulgarians, and 16 thousand Jews. Moreover, there were only 120 thousand Bulgarians counted in the whole Vilayet of Adrianople. Obviously, these numbers are in contradiction to the number of Bulgarian schools, parishes, and churches in the same area, given above.
The alternative estimates of the Bulgarian population the Vilayet of Adrianople were provided by the Belgian magazine Ons Volk Ontwaakt, printed in December 1912. According to this publication, there were 370 thousand Orthodox Bulgarians and 115 thousand Muslim Bulgarians living in the vilayet. As the population of the area was given as around one million, the Bulgarians were the most numerous ethnic group (485 thousand), with Muslim Turks as the second-largest category (250 thousand), and the Greeks on the third position only (220 thousand). These proportions were soon to be drastically changed as the result of the Balkan Wars, the First World War, and the Greco-Turkish War of 1919-1922.
Unfortunately, the church is often closed to tourists, so you have to be prepared to find the closed gate. Some visitors claim that the church is closed on Mondays and Tuesdays. If you are lucky, a caretaker will open the church and show you around. Remember to ask to see the museum upstairs, and ask for the possibility of climbing up the bell tower. The view of the Selimiye Mosque is awe-inspiring from this vantage point.
St. George's Church is located in Kıyık, on Tavukçu Sokak Street, east of the historic centre of Edirne. The most famous mosque in the city - Selimiye - is located at a distance of 800 meters.