The Unique Cast Iron Church of Istanbul

The Bulgarian St. Stephen Church in Istanbul, Turkey, has the detailed ornaments of an Orthodox stone church, but it’s actually made of prefabricated cast iron elements.

Sometimes referred to as ‘The Iron Church’, St. Stephen Church 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 exquisite décor are cast out of iron, a close inspection reveals the heads of the large screws holding it together everywhere you look.

Photo: Darwinek/Wikimedia Commons

The story of Istanbul’s beautiful 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 now Bulgarian dioceses were discontent with 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.


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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.


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To replace the burned down church, the Bulgarian government announced a competition for the design of a new church on the site of the old one. An Armenian architect by the name of Hovsep Aznavur, who suggested a structure made up exclusively of cast iron, ended up winning the contest.

Austrian company R. Ph. Waagner was tasked with creating the thousands of prefabricated cast iron pieces. 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.


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Legend has it that Bulgarians kept asking the Sultan for their own church in Istanbul, and not wanting to grant them permission, the Ottoman ruler gave them only a month to build it. 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 nice story, but apparently that’s all it is.


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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.


Stunning to look at both inside and out, The Iron Church is one of the most worthwhile attractions in all of Istanbul.