22 August 2015

An Anglican church in Istanbul to memorialise the Crimean War

The Crimean War (1853-6) was a very strange war, fought between the Russians on one side and the British, French and Ottoman Turks on the other. The motivation for each of the belligerents was both complex and shifting. Even the location for the battles was unfortunate - the Crimean Peninsula saw most of the hostilities presumably because the most important Russian naval base was in Sebastopol. 

Battle of Balaclava, Oct 1854 
part of Siege of Sebastopol 
Painted by Richard Caton Woodville Jnr

Yet it is clear that religions and religious freedoms were at stake. The Russians insisted on extending protection to the Russian Orthodox subjects of the Ottoman Empire. And at the same time Russia and France were very anxious to protect the privileges of the Russian Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches in Palestine, a territory that was still ruled by the Ottoman Empire.

But if Emperor Napoleon wanted Catholic allies who would flock to him if he attacked Russia’s Eastern Orth­odoxy, why did he think he would attract Anglican Britain to the French Alliance? I am assuming that Britain did not give a toss about the religious rights of French Catholics or Russian Orth­od­ox in Ottoman territories. Rather Britain was hoping to maintain the Ottoman Empire as a buttress against the expansion of Russian power in Asia.

Neutral Austria too did not want to see Russia controlling the Dardanelles. But I believe that Austria, Britain and France were hoping for a diplomatic settlement and did not expect a war covering half of Europe's population. When the Ottoman Turks declared war in October 1853 and attacked the Russians, everyone was caught by surprise. Everything I know about the Crimean War came from the catast­rophic Charge of the Light Brigade in October 1854 and the catast­roph­ic attempt by Florence Nightingale (Oct 1854-Aug 1856) to save young, wounded soldiers’ lives.

Crimea Memorial Church, Istanbul

In February 1856 the war ended but the loss of life had also been catastrophic; of 1,650,000 soldiers who began the war from both sides, hundreds of thousands of young men died. 90,000 of these deaths were French, 21,000 were British, approximately 120,000 were Ottoman and approximately 250,000 were Russian. As soon as the surviving British soldiers were back at home, an appeal was launched in London to build a memorial church in Istanbul to British soldiers and their sacrifices in the Crimean War.

The Crimea Memorial Church was to be designed by the selected arch­itect William Burgess, the man famous for restoring Waltham Abbey and for building Saint Fin Barre's Cathedral in Cork. Yet something went wrong. The selection committee cancelled their choice of architect and instead gave the nod to ecclesiastical and royal courts of justice arch­it­ect George Edmund Street (1824-1881). Perhaps the selection committee suddenly discovered that Burgess did not like gothic reviv­al and that G.E. Street did.

Whatever the thinking, G.E. Street took over in 1863 and built on land granted by the Ottoman sultan. He had the church consecrated in 1868 and had all the other buildings completed before his death in 1881. The belfry looked like a minaret but everything else looked normal for a neo-Gothic Victorian church surrounded by a beautiful garden, a high stone wall and a tall iron gate. The church was rectangular, made of stone and has two small steeples above the door.

The narrow, tall interior of the nave featured a brown and black patterned floor, simple wooden chairs and a side chamber with a baptismal fountain. There were four arches impressed into the side walls of the nave, each adorned with three columns of stained glass and five support columns. The altar, separated from the rest of the nave by a decorated choir screen, was dimly lit by a rose window on the front wall. A beautiful pulpit, featuring white, red, and blue-green shades of marble, stood in front of the altar. The baptismal font inside the church was made of one piece of marble. The church's huge organ, made in England in 1911, was on the wooden mezzanine level and reached via a cast iron staircase also brought from England.

Crimea Memorial Church 
nave, painted rood screen and rose window

How many British Anglicans were there living in Constantinople back then and how many Anglican tourists visited the city each year? Not enough, apparently. The church was de-consecrated in 1976 when the altar was smashed, and the furniture and tiles were sold or destroy­ed. The entire church property would have been sold off to the highest bidder but a miracle occurred: in April 1990, just in time for the 75th anniversary of the Allies' Gallipoli campaign against Turkey, the property was saved; victims were remembered by an oak chancel screen in the church. Wrong war but never mind!
How times have changed. Norman Stone, in his Crimea Memorial lectures, described the Crimea Memorial Church as a heroic little island left behind by the retreating tide of empire. The imperial British banners, which once domin­at­ed the nave, are now in cupboards. Istanbul's Anglican chaplain said that it was no longer appropriate to have such nationalist and imperialist British symbols on display in Turkey any more. Does that mean that there are no longer any memorial plaques for the dead lads from the Crimean War? Or that the church itself remains as their memorial?


We Travel said...

I have been to Istanbul but the tour guide never mentioned the Crimea Memorial Church. It must be hidden away.

Joseph said...

Apparently there was an Australian involvement in the Crimean War, even as early as the 1850s. Have you ever heard that?

Parnassus said...

Hello Hels, I am always disappointed when a monument is deconsecrated, those memorialized by it apparently forgotten. While I can imagine that forces in Turkey may have objected to an English memorial, I have been frequently surprised to see War memorials obliterated in the United States--sometimes rededicated and sometimes just forgotten. Are there similar instances in Britain or Australia?

Hels said...

We Travel

You may have visited Istanbul at just the wrong time. The church was closed in the 1970s (due to either its poor condition or the lack of a congregation) and didn't reopen until the early 1990s. Nobody could get in.

But I also wonder if tour guides for Brits, Australians and New Zealanders in Istanbul were uncomfortable about our nations being allies in the Crimean War but bitter enemies in WW1.

Hels said...


I was also surprised. Elena Govor said that the Crimean War was a war in which only a relatively small number of Australians participated. But it left its impact on all layers of the colonial population, which gave the mother country its moral and material support. This war strongly influenced the formation of the Russian image in the Australian minds. Never before the Australian newspapers had written so much about Russia, never before the Russian Czarism had been condemned by such a mass of people during populous meetings. And the map of Australia is still decorated by Russian names which appeared here during a military action on another end of the Earth.


Hels said...


Turkey was particularly generous to its arch enemies after WW1 finished. On the battlefields of Gallipoli these lines were written by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk: "Those heroes that shed their blood and lost their lives (in Gallipoli). You are now lying in the soil of a friendly country. Therefore rest in peace. There is no difference between the Johnnies and the Mehmets to us where they lie side by side here in this country of ours. You the mothers who sent their sons from far away countries wipe away your tears. Your sons are now living in our bosom and are in peace. Having lost their lives on this land they have become our sons as well."

*nod* Churches are deconsecrated all the time and rectories are sold off. But this church was a war memorial and therefore should have been protected from dereliction and possible sale.

Robert Travers said...

The church was saved from dereliction in the 1990s and is still open (April 2018)! Divine service from the Book of Common Prayer is sung there each Sunday at 10am. Just ask for Kırım Kilisesi (Crimean Church)- its not too far from the Galata Tower.

Hels said...


Thank you. I have been to the Galata Tower because of its architecture and its special location at the Golden Horn's connection with the Bosphorus. And I must admit that the food and views were rather special as well :)

However I wish I saw the Crimean Church before it was damaged and de-consecrated. One side of my family came from Crimea.