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The Last of Its Kind: The Great Iron Church of Istanbul

In the richly religious lands of Istanbul, Turkey, a great Orthodox Christian church made of cast iron has stood — against all odds — for 123 years.

The Bulgarian-owned St. Stephen’s Church (Sveti Stefan Kilisesi in Turkish), completed in 1898, is made entirely of poured iron slabs, nutted and bolted together on the site. It is located in a part of the city with diverse places of worship, but St. Stephen stands out for its ingenious construction technique. 

Imported from neighboring countries, the cast-iron pieces for the Neo-Byzantine edifice traversed across several bodies of water — from the Danube River to the Black Sea to the Bosphorus — through a cargo ship. The pieces were then assembled and attached in Balat, Istanbul.

A postcard of the St. Stephen’s Church (Source)

The material was cost-effective and easy to work with, which explains how the building process itself took an expeditious one and a half years. However, because of these reasons, it was also incredibly flimsy. 

The fact that St. Stephen’s Church survived for a century and a few decades — after a lone but extensive renovation effort — is considered a miraculous feat. It is also noted as the last surviving iron church in the world.

A New Place of Worship

As a Christian structure in a predominantly Muslim country, St. Stephen’s Church had a history of stories behind its foundation. One famous account involved a lengthy contention between the Sultan and the Bulgarian minority in Istanbul. 

As the legend goes, the Bulgarians demanded a Christian place of worship in the city. However, the Sultan prescribed — rather contemptuously — that they could only have this place of worship if it was built within a month.

The instructions were impossible, but the architects came up with a resourceful proposition: source the material from somewhere else, and quickly assemble them onsite. 

But this was only a tall tale — and an impossible one at that. 

The Iron Church today, photo courtesy of TRT World (Source)

The real history behind the 19th-century iron church is far less dramatic, but just as politically charged. 

With ideologies like nationalism on the rise, tensions were starting to grow between Bulgarians and Greeks in the Ottoman Empire. Although both groups were Christians, the Bulgarians were dissatisfied with the Greeks being at the forefront of religious activities. 

To keep strained relations at bay, Sultan Abdülaziz (1830-1876) granted permission for the Bulgarians to build their own church in the city. Thus, plans for the construction of St. Stephen began to be carried out.

St. Stephen’s Church as a wooden structure (Source)

However, it hadn’t been a complex iron building in the beginning — it was a humble wooden church. A large fragment of it had been built from a house donated by Prince Stefan Bogoridi, a high-ranking statesman and Imperial Counselor of Bulgarian descent. 

St. Stephen’s Church presides over a great view of the Golden Horn, a natural fjord in the Bosphorus dividing the Asian and European prefectures of Istanbul. 

It would also become crucial in the Bulgarian National Revival movement, as well as the formation of the Bulgarian Exarchate (also known as the official Bulgarian Orthodox Church) in 1870. 

An Innovative Architectural Achievement

The church would later be severely destroyed by a great fire, and new efforts to rebuild it would take underway. Instead of going about the process conventionally, the Bulgarian decided to hold and fund a competition to design the church. 

Armenian architect Hovsep Aznavur had been the one to go forward with the idea of rebuilding the structure made entirely of cast iron. He ended up winning the contest, and the project was handed to him promptly. 

Aznavur laid out his architectural plans and cast the mold for the new church. The Rudolph Philip Waagner Company (presently Waagner-Biro), an Austrian-based manufacturing and engineering enterprise, was given the task of manufacturing the prefabricated materials for the building. 

The company spent a few years meticulously creating thousands of iron pieces based on Aznavur’s cast. After about three years, the completed disassembled pieces — which weighed a substantial 500 tons — were shipped from Vienna to Istanbul by boat.

St. Stephen’s Church is often described as an edifice “built like a cathedral,” but despite the simplicity of its building materials, the architectural framework was considered quite complex. It took inspiration from Neo-Byzantine and Neo-Baroque styles.

However, the building process — which mostly involved attaching the pieces with nuts, bolts, and welding machines — was extremely swift, taking only one-and-a-half years. 

A few months after its completion in 1898, the church was inaugurated by Exarch Joseph I.

A postcard of the inauguration of the church (Source)

Upholding Diverse Cultural Traditions

While iron buildings were not necessarily uncommon at the time, it was still considered an unorthodox architectural technique. The material was a double-edged sword — on one hand, it was cheap, fast, and allowed for a unique visage; on the other, it disintegrated quite quickly and easily.

Although there were many iron churches built in history, St. Stephen’s Church is generally recognized as the only surviving one with the skeleton and foundation still fully intact.

However, its age and location would ultimately take a toll — being near a harbor would expedite the building’s decline by contributing to rusting and corrosion.

To preserve its state, the landmark would undergo a major renovation process. It would take seven years for the church to be fully restored, and in 2018, it finally opened its doors to the public again. 

More visitors flocked to the historic municipality of Fatih in Istanbul — once known as the flourishing city of Constantinople — since the great iron church has re-opened.

St. Stephen’s Church interiors (Source)

Beyond its beauty and opulence as a monument built on resourceful tactics, St. Stephen’s Church stands as a witness of cultural harmony and religious reverence in the neighborhood.

“Istanbul is a city with a great historic heritage that needs to be preserved for the future,” said Istanbul Mayor Mevlüt Uysal after the church was renovated. “We aim to show that coexistence is possible with diverse faiths, languages, and cultures.”

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