Cost: Free, semi-active church
Great for: Architecture, Orthodox, Bulgarians, DIY Church Builders
Opened in 1898, the Bulgarian Orthodox Church of St. Stephen is one of the only churches in the world to be made almost completely of iron. While there are plenty of other churches that make great use of iron in their structure, this church uses cast iron for nearly every part of the building except the foundations glass windows. Unsurprisingly it’s locally known as the Bulgarian Iron Church.
The history of this church building is almost as unique as the building itself. Before a church was built on this site the Bulgarian population had worshiped along with the Greeks but, during a time of growing nationalism in Bulgaria, permission was given by the Sultan for a new church. Initially, starting in the 1870’s, a donated house was used as a church until a fire destroyed it. Only the stone altar of this original church is still in use today.
At this point the Bulgarian government put on a competition for the design of a new church on the old site. The design that won was done by an Armenian architect by the name of Hovsep Aznavur who lived in the Ottoman Empire. The design was for a cross shaped blend of Neo-Gothic and Neo-Baroque elements, made completely out of cast-iron.
The job of casting the thousands of pieces was given to a company in a third country: Austria. After casting, over 500 tons of iron were put on barges in Vienna and shipped down the Danube, across the Black Sea, through the Bosphorus, and finally up the Golden Horn to Fener where it was assembled in record time.
In other words, this Church was funded by the Bulgarian government, designed by an Ottoman Armenian, built in Austria, and, finally, assembled in Istanbul. On top of this the bells were from a Russian founder.
Like all good historical buildings there should be a factually suspect story to go with it.
The story goes that the Bulgarians wanted to build a church in Istanbul and the Sultan, not wanting to give them permission decided to only give them a month to do it, and so, with this restriction an ingenious plan was made to pre-fabricate the church elsewhere and assemble it in under a month. While the conflict makes for a compelling narrative this version of the history is apparently untrue.
Today the church functions as much as a museum as it does a church and is unusually accessible as most of the building is actually open to the public.
As nearly every part of this church is made of iron you can see the heads of screws all over the place. Every little bit of trim and decoration is a separate piece of cast iron screwed into place.
The iconostasis of St. Stephens is particularly beautiful and, in Turkey, somewhat unique in style reflecting the painting style of the time rather than the traditional Orthodox style of iconography.
On Jan 7 2018 the church was reopened to the public after a seven year restoration funded by the Istanbul municipal government. The building, being made of iron and sitting next to a body of salt water in humid, rainy Istanbul had begun to rust and was striped with dark red streaks of rust. The restoration was a part of a deal between Turkish and Bulgarian governments where both parties restored a religious building in one of their cities in a show of international cooperation.
How To Get There
As St Stephens is in one of Istanbul’s best neighborhoods and surrounded by all sorts of amazing sights you should really walk here if you have the time, energy, and good weather. The walk from Eminönü to Balat is particularly great. Stay off the main road and get lost in the backstreets and meander over to St. Stephens.
If you’re planning on taking a bus your best bet is to catch anything that goes from Eminönü to Eyüp. These will pass by Fener and Balat along the Haliç or Golden Horn. If you get off at the Balat stop you will go past the church and be able to see where you need to go quite easily. The 33ES, 44B, 48E, 99, and 99A are just a few options that run from Eminönü.
If you’re coming from the Asian side of Istanbul there is a ferry route called Haliç, which runs from Üsküdar to a number of stations along the Haliç including Balat and Fener. St. Stefans is about halfway between these two stations. The ferry doesn’t run too frequently so make sure you check the schedule first.
Where To Stay
As the St. Stephens is right near the touristic centre of the city your options are really in the thousands. That being said the neighborhoods of Fener and Balat are home to a number of new boutique hotels in nicely renovated historical buildings. Anything down here will have you close to the action and in a very cool part of town that is slowly having life and money brought back in after many years of neglect and poverty.
If you’re in this area you really need to check out the sights of Fener and Balat. These neighborhoods are home to some of the most beautiful homes, historic churches, and great cafes. The Greek Orthodox Patriarchate is a good place to start!
Have any tips or info to add? Spot any mistakes? We’d love to hear about it.