Istanbul has a very special church. A Bulgarian orthodox church: St Stephen of the Bulgarians (1896). What makes it so special is that it is one of the world’s few surviving prefabricated cast iron churches. That’s why the St. Stephen’s church is commonly known as the ‘Iron Church’ in Istanbul.
I consider this historical prefab house of worship one of the most interesting old buildings on the shores of the Golden Horn. The church has undergone extensive renovation works since 2011 and reopened for prayer in January 2018.
The richly ornamented church is a three-domed cross-shaped basilica. The altar faces the Golden Horn and a 40 m-high belfry, the six bells of which were cast in Yaroslavl, rises above the narthex. In terms of architecture, the church combines Neo-Gothic and Neo-Baroque influences.
The church, which frame comprises steel profiles of different lengths, was built in 1896 along the Golden Horn close to the old Jewish quarter of Balat, now part of Fatih district. The ‘Iron Church’ is close to the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate as well. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century there was a lot of rivalry between ethnic Greeks and Bulgarians that was to lead to much bloodshed in the eastern Balkans.
The construction plans were prepared by Hovsep Aznavur, an Armenian of Istanbul origin. An international competition was conducted to produce the prefabricated parts of the church, won by an Austrian company. The prefabricated parts, weighing 500 tons, were produced in Vienna in 1893-1896 and transported to Istanbul by ship through the Danube, the Black Sea, the Bosporus and the Golden Horn.
All of the cladding on the façade, the valves, the roof, the bell tower and the four balconies adjacent to the tower are made of iron. The different parts of the church were reassembled on top of a ready-made foundation.
The Istanbul municipality is currently cleaning and restoring the ‘Iron Church’. The parts of the church that have become dirty and carbonated will be cleaned, while missing ornaments on the façade will be replicated using original material. The crooked parts of the roof will also be renewed. The facelift will cost 985.000 Euros ($1.4 million).
The church belongs to the Bulgarian minority in the city. The Bulgarians of the Ottoman Empire used to pray at the churches of the Phanar Orthodox Patriarchate, but due to nationalistic movements, Bulgarians were allowed to have their own national church in the 19th century.
St. Stephen was the product of 19th century experimentation with prefabricated iron churches. The British, who invented corrugated iron in 1829, manufactured portable iron churches to send to far-flung colonies like Australia. The Eiffel Tower’s creator, French engineer Gustave Eiffel, designed iron churches that were sent as far as the Philippines and Peru. Now St Stephen is one of the world’s few surviving prefabricated cast iron churches.
On December 27, 2010, Saint Stephen’s feast day, a celebratory mass was held at the church in honor of its patron saint. Honoring the celebration the dome of the church was gold-plated using funds donated by the Bulgarians of Plovdiv.
Check out the church here:
Bus: Take bus 99A from Eminönü bus station, next to the Galata bridge, that heads down Abdülezel Street (Caddesi). This street is the mainstreet along the coast of the Golden Horn. Tell the driver: Sveti Stefan Kilisesi.
Taxi: If going to the church, tell the driver Sveti Stefan Kilisesi. If leaving the church, you can easily make your way to the more central areas of Istanbul within 5-10 minutes.