With its mixture of Byzantine, Ottoman and fin-de-siècle heritage, Istanbul is never short of sights to visit, explore and marvel at. Among its lesser known treasures, one stands out. It is both a curiosity and a place with an intriguing history, strongly connected to Bulgaria.
The Church of St Stefan on the banks of the Golden Horn is made entirely of iron. It belongs to the city's Bulgarian community and played a crucial part in 19th century Bulgarian history.
In the early 19th century, Istanbul was home to a thriving Bulgarian expat assemblage of merchants, craftsmen, politicians, men of letters and hotheads. They arrived from all over the Bulgarian lands, worked hard, made money, established businesses, studied in the best schools and generally absorbed anything new that arrived in the imperial capital. By the 1840s, there were so many that they needed a place to gather.
In 1849, the sultan allowed the Bulgarians to have their own church in Constantinople. Stefan Bogoridi, a Bulgarian who had risen to the top ranks of Ottoman society, donated a plot of land with three wooden houses on it. The property was a desirable location in the predominantly Greek Fener neighbourhood, close to the residence of the Patriarch of Constantinople, under whose jurisdiction Bulgarians, as Eastern Orthodox Christians, fell.
Initially, Bulgarians held their services in a small chapel, but soon they built a church out of wood. They called it St Stefan, in honour of Bogoridi.
In 1860, the Wooden Church witnessed a seminal event. At that time, Bulgarians were becoming anxious to emancipate themselves from the cultural and religious influence of the Greeks. This frustration was mostly due to the Ottoman Millet system that defined minorities on religious rather than national grounds. Thus, Eastern Orthodox Bulgarians were grouped with the Greeks, who dominated the Patriarchy and celebrated the mass in Greek, a language few Bulgarians spoke. In the mid-19th century, Bulgarians had had enough. They started a struggle for an independent church. It was to become one of the foundation stones of the modern Bulgarian nation.
St Stefan in 2008
The movement for religious independence turned radical on 3 April 1860. During Easter Mass in St Stefan, the Bulgarian bishop Ilarion Makariopolski replaced in his blessings the name of the Patriarch of Constantinople with that of the incumbent sultan. That was a serious breach of protocol. Makariopolski was exiled to Mount Athos, but what he had done galvanised the Bulgarians. In the following 10 years protests sprang up across the Bulgarian lands against the Greek clergy. As the crisis intensified, reaching a turning point, the sultan established an independent Bulgarian church, the Exarchate, in 1870. That had huge consequences. The Exarchate was the first proper Bulgarian institution since the fall under the Ottomans, in the late 14th century. Bulgarians had used the Millet system to achieve a bigger goal: their recognition as a separate minority in the empire. The first step towards national independence had been taken.
The seat of the Exarchate was next to the Wooden Church. It remained there until 1913, even after the Bulgarian state was restored in 1878, as it also served Bulgarians who remained in the Ottoman Empire. Back then, the idea for the unification of all Bulgarians in one nation state was hugely popular (among Bulgarians, that is) and seemed achievable.
The increased symbolic importance of St Stefan as a church that belonged to all Bulgarians required a proper building. In 1890, the sultan allowed the construction of a new St Stefan.
There was, however, an impediment. As the plot was on the shore, the ground water was too close to the surface and anything built on stone foundations would sink. The architect, Hovsep Aznavur, came up with a brilliant solution: the new church would be assembled from wrought-iron elements.
The idea was not as crazy as it might sound. Wrought-iron construction would be lighter, and it was all the rage in Europe. The previous year the Eiffel Tower had been erected in Paris, and Britain was shipping iron churches to its colonies, a precursor to the prefabricated buildings of the 20th century.
St Stefan in 1979
The new St Stefan cost the Bulgarian government 1 million francs, but the money was well spent. The wrought-iron elements were made between 1893 and 1896 by the Viennese company Waagner-Biro, which still exists and was responsible for the famed tessellated roof of the British Museum's Great Court. The elements weighed 500 tonnes; about 4 million bolts, nuts and rivets were used for the assembly. The church was 32.5m long and 12.5m wide, its architecture elegantly combining neo-Baroque, neo-Gothic and Byzantine style. The Art Nouveau interior, the first in Constantinople, was also made in Vienna. As the altar was erroneously designed in the Catholic style, a new icon door was purchased in Russia. The six bells, two of which are still in use today, are also Russian.
St Stefan was inaugurated on 8 September 1898. Today it is one of the few surviving iron churches in the world.
With the transfer of the Exarchate to Sofia and the decline of the Bulgarian community in Istanbul in the 20th century, the Iron Church lost its significance as an embodiment of the Bulgarian national cause. Lack of proper maintenance resulted in deterioration and corrosion. By the early 2000s St Stefan was in dire need of restoration.
In 2007, the Turkish government transferred the property ownership to Bulgarian association in Istanbul. In 2011, restoration works began. Most of the 3.5 million euros for the project were provided by the Turkish government.
The restored St Stefan reopened in January 2018. Last Easter, a group of Bulgarians even celebrated midnight mass in it.
The church interior after the restoration, in 2018
Church custodian, 1979