With its story and formidable architecture, the Bulgarian Church symbolises the Ottoman period's values and the cultural mosaic of Turkey’s Istanbul.
The Bulgarian St. Stephen Church is the world’s only Orthodox church made of prefabricated cast iron and draws attention for being one of the most important historical, cultural and religious novelties in Istanbul, Turkey.
Now, on its 124th birthday, the 300-person capacity church remains under the auspices of the Bulgarian Exarchate Orthodox Churches Foundation. It continues to be one of the most prominent symbols of the Bulgarian Orthodox faith.
As shown in the photo below, the Church was built in the shape of a cross by using 500 tons of iron. As iron oxidised and started to decay over time, restoration efforts started in 2011 to protect and save this structure.
The church reopened on January 7, 2018, with a ceremony attended by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the former Bulgarian prime minister Boyko Borisov.
From a historical aspect, the church's construction has its roots in the Bulgarians who migrated to Istanbul from the Balkans starting in the 19th century. Those Bulgarians came to this commercial hub to find job opportunities and better their socioeconomic status.
The community later began to live here and settled by bringing their families to Istanbul.
In time, as the Bulgarian community expanded, their need for a place of worship became apparent. Although they attended Greek churches temporarily, their desire to have their own church resulted in initiative from the Ottoman leader at the time, Sultan Abdulaziz.
Below is the restored structure of the church that Bulgarians might have aspired towards.
Furthermore, the rise of nationalist movements in the 19th century also drove the Bulgarian community to seek a church where they could perform rituals in their own language. Initially, these efforts culminated with the sultan's permission to build a wooden church for the Bulgarian minority in 1870.
This church was the home of a Bulgarian pasha named Stefan Bogoridi. Since there was no opportunity to build a church anywhere else at that time, Bogoridi donated the land of his house for the construction of a church, and that’s how it began.
However, after several fires started by lit candles caused the church to catch fire during worship, the congregation decided to build the church from metal to prevent similar incidents in the future.
They then planned a larger and more grand stone church to be built in place of the wooden church. For such a project, significant architects of the period, the Fossati brothers, began the construction but could not complete it as the ground underneath was too swampy.
Today, it looks like a pearl positioned between the streets, avenues and buildings of Istanbul.
Then, a competition was organised on how to build a church in that spot. Eventually, Hovsep Aznavur, one of the Ottoman Armenian architects of the period, won the competition with his entirely iron-clad church idea, and the building process began in 1892.
After nearly 4.5-5 years of construction, the church was opened with a ceremony in 1898.
The iron church is said to be among one of the first prefabricated structures in the world due to its castings and metal parts which were prepared in Vienna and brought to Istanbul's Balat quarter via loaded ships.
There is a 40-meter-high bell tower above the entrance door of the church, 3 Russian-casted domes, and 6 bells including one weighing 750 kilograms. All of the bells were sent as gifts from Russia's Yaroslavl, a place also known as the 'bell city' since it is a major production hub for Orthodox church bells.
The icons adorning the structure were made by the famous Russian painting artist Klavdy Lebedev who was awarded a large silver medal from the Imperial Academy of Arts and received the title of a class artist.
The iconostasis, on the other hand, were made by Alexievich Agapkin, the chief carpenter of the Russian tsar of that period.
Below you can see both icons and iconostasis of religious figures.
Although the Neogothic and Neobaroque church carries traces of the Renaissance period, it can be said that the architectural style has evolved into a more eclectic style.
With its historical spirit and architectural essence, St. Stephen Church continues its journey not only as a religious symbol but also as one of the exquisite structures that have defined Istanbul for 124 years.