We are in Istanbul, Turkey, a city that has no shortage of houses of worship, and the Bulgarian Church of St. Stephen set along the shore of the Golden Horn blends in with its holy brethren at first glance. Upon closer inspection, however, this cross-shaped basilica is like few others in the world.
St. Stephen Church has the detailed ornaments of a regular Orthodox stone church, but it’s actually made of prefabricated cast iron elements.
Sometimes referred to as “The Iron Church”, it is considered the largest prefabricated cast iron building in the world. It consists of thousands of prefabricated pieces of cast iron, from large walls, to small, intricate decorations, all of which weigh over 500 tons. As almost the entire structure and its décor are cast out of iron, and a close inspection reveals the heads of the large screws holding it together everywhere you look.
The story of Istanbul’s cast iron church began in the mid 19th century, during a time of growing Bulgarian nationalism. For decades, the Bulgarian population of the Ottoman Empire had worshipped along with the Greeks, but eventually Bulgarian dioceses were discontent of the supremacy of the Greek clergy and wanted their own places of worship.
In order to ease tensions between Bulgarian and Greek minorities, Sultan Abdülaziz granted the Bulgarians their wish.
Initially, a donated house on the shore of the Golden Horn, between Istanbul’s Balat and Fener squares, served as the first Bulgarian church in the Ottoman city, but it was destroyed by a terrible fire.
To replace the burned down church, the Bulgarian government announced a contest for the design of a new church on the site of the old one, won by an Armenian architect by the name of Hovsep Aznavur, who suggested a structure made up exclusively of cast iron.
Austrian company R. Ph. Waagner was tasked with creating the thousands of prefabricated cast iron pieces, and the entire process took about three years (1893 – 1896), after which the 500-tons of cast iron was loaded on barges and shipped from Vienna to Istanbul, through the Danube River and the Black Sea.
According to a popular tale, Sultan Abdülaziz was disinclined to allow the city’s Bulgarian Orthodox minority to build its church. “Permitting” its construction in a fashion he surely thought foolproof, the sultan stipulated St. Stephen must be completed within a single month’s time.
So, the architects came up with the ingenious plan to have St. Stephen Church made up of prefabricated parts somewhere else, and then assembled in Istanbul in less than a month.
It sounds like a beautiful story, but, like so many fantastic stories, the tale of the sultan’s challenge and the Bulgarian triumph isn’t quite true.
Unfortunately, being made entirely of iron and being located close to the salty Marmara sea turned out to be a bad combination, as the church started rusting soon after completion.
Luckily, the Turkish and Bulgarian governments reached an agreement to have it restored, and in 2018 it was once again opened to the public.
Either way, inaugurated on September 8, 1898, one of the world’s few full-metal churches has remained in constant use ever since.