In the Fener district of Istanbul, which tourists usually visit along with the Balat district of “colored houses”, right on the banks of the Golden Horn there is an unusual temple – all covered with iron! This is the Iron Church, or the Bulgarian Church of St. Stephen (Sveti Stefan, Aya Stefan, Bulgar Kilisesi).
This Orthodox church, built in honor of Stefan the First Martyr, belongs to the Bulgarian community of Istanbul. The church is called iron because it is actually iron – made of cast iron, which makes it one of the few churches of its kind in the world.
The church, which was originally wooden, went down in history due to the fact that the autocephaly of the Bulgarian Church was declared in it. This happened in the spring of 1872. Here, the decree of Sultan Abdul-Aziz was read, by which the Bulgarians of Istanbul were recognized as a separate ethnic group with the right to their own Church – the Bulgarian Exarchate. Services were held in Church Slavonic. Until the beginning of the last century, this temple was the main cathedral of the Bulgarian Exarchate in Istanbul, and it was returned to the Bulgarian community exactly one hundred years later – in 2012.
The original wooden building burned down in a fire at the end of the 19th century, but the Bulgarians decided to restore it. They received permission from the Turkish Sultan in 1890 and commissioned the project to Hovsep Aznavur, an Istanbul architect of Armenian descent. Due to the fact that the ground on the site turned out to be too weak for a reinforced concrete structure, it was decided to build a church from iron alone. As they would say now, the tender was won by the Austrian company R.Ph. Waagner, who cast parts of the future church on the spot – in Vienna, and then transported them to Istanbul along the Danube and the Black Sea.
The church was assembled as follows: iron sheets were fastened to the steel frame with bolts, nuts, rivets and welding. The assembly of the Iron Church was completed in the summer of 1896, and it was consecrated a couple of years later. The domes of the temple were covered with gilding only at the end of 2010, on the day of St. Stephen.
The architectural style of the temple is modern, and this style was used here for the first time in Istanbul. The decor features neo-Gothic and neo-baroque elements. Since the iconostasis was originally created in the Catholic style, it had to be redone, and this work was entrusted to Russian masters – the Moscow company of Nikolai Akhapkin. The icons were painted by the Russian artist Klavdy Lebedev.
Despite the fact that inside the church is magnificent – all decorated with gilding, it is very comfortable in it. It is distinguished from our temples by the presence of benches inside, which came in handy for us, tourists who walked a couple of tens of kilometers around Istanbul that day.
Not so long ago, the Iron Church was renovated: it opened after seven years of reconstruction in early 2018. The opening ceremony was attended by Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borisov and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The cost of reconstruction was largely borne by the Turkish side, since the Bulgarians contributed to the restoration of the Dzhuma-dzhami mosque in Plovdiv.