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  • Writer's pictureShershada Rauf

Sveti Stefan - A piece of Bulgaria in Istanbul

Updated: Sep 18, 2020


 

Little does one look beyond the monumental structures at the Sultanahmet Square on their breather trip to Istanbul. Balat was a pleasant surprise, and my visit to St Stefan Bulgarian Church was undeniably one of the best memories of Istanbul.

 

Allow me to paint you a picture. You are walking in a narrow-laned cobble stone street, each side lined with bright-walled townhouses. It has just rained, and there are kids running from home to home, screaming in excitement. You are not the only stranger they have seen today- you noticed the other groups of travellers too, sitting outside cafes with ostentatious furniture screaming for your attention- each cafe more beautiful than the last. The air smells of coffee, freshly baked bread and the soil caressed by splitter-splatter rain. Shortly, you learn that Balat is a sensory experience.


Along the coast of this beautiful town, adorning the Golden Horn sits the Sveti Stefan Bulgarian Orthodox Church- a sight that needs to be experienced to be appreciated.

The Sveti Stefan Orthodox Church as seen from the main entrance

Designed to be a seamless amalgamation of Neo-Gothic and Neo-Baroque styles, the church features large stained glass windows, elaborate tracery, decorative columns and extravagant gilding. The use of baroque technique of chiaroscuro in the interior creates a strategic dramatic effect allowing one to perceive the play of light and darkness within the structure.


The church is entirely built with prefabricated cast iron panels except for the heavily gilded wooden iconostasis. Designed by Hovsep Aznavur, the prefabricated panels were made in Vienna and 300 tons of it were shipped in 100 barges through the Danube and Black sea.

The stunning wooden iconostasis is the most attractive element of the church. Pictured as seen from the gallery above

The visual experience begins at the narthex, on either side of which are staircases leading to the U-shaped gallery above. Adorned by massive, operable stained glass rose windows giving a teasing glimpse of the exterior garden, the gallery has a dark, groin vault ceiling that teams with the rose windows to allow the morning and evening light to take stage. The belfry above the narthex houses the six bells in different dimensions, each engraved with statements that they were moulded in Yarosalvl, Russia.


On the ground floor, the barrel-vaulted nave has majestic coffered, gilded ceiling, shining in exuberance as it leads one to the iconostasis. It's grandeur is outer-worldly and almost unimaginable even as you stare at it.


As a tourist who once fell in love with Bulgaria and it's people, I was rather interested to learn that in 1849, the church had replaced the wooden house on the site gifted by Ottoman statesman Stefan Bogoridi, after a Bulgarian nationalist movement allowed them to build a church governed by the Bulgarian Exarchate. The toil, the pride and the sense of assertion continue to live through this majestic structure. On the occasion of its 120th anniversary, the church was refurbished and inaugurated in 2018.


Sveti Stefan builds within it a world of its own- one that is drastically different from the outside world and to even its own exterior. It does not lose its character in grandiose, nor does it scream sheepishly for attention.


For a picture tour through the church, scroll through the slider


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