Iconic Bulgarian Church in Istanbul Reopens in Full Glory after Thorough Restoration
Iconic Bulgarian Church
in Istanbul Reopens in Full Glory
after Thorough Restoration
Istanbul, January 7 (Dima Shopova of BTA) - The Bulgarian church
of St. Stephen, one of few surviving cast iron churches in the
world, reopens solemnly Sunday following six years of major
restoration completed at the end of 2017. The works, co-funded
by Turkey and Bulgaria, engaged nearly 40 Turkish builders and
conservationists. They have succeeded in returning the church to
its full glory, project chief architect Fikriye Bulunmaz told
The event is expected to be attended by Bulgarian Prime Minister
Boyko Borissov and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, as
well as Bulgarians from Bulgaria and the local Bulgarian
St. Stephen's is iconic for Bulgarians as its site was where
they first declared their wish for independence from the
Ecumenical Patriarchate, as a result of which the Bulgarian
Exarchate was born.
St. Stephen's was built in the mid-19th century on donations
from the Bulgarian community in Istanbul. It was assembled of
prefabricated cast-iron elements in the Fanar residential area
on the Golden Horn's shore on a lot donated by Bulgarian
statesman Stefan Bogoridi.
The design was commissioned by competition to Armenian architect
Hovsep Aznavur. This well known master produced a highly
original solution. The church was to be built of prefabricated
cast-iron and hammered-iron panels, weighing some 500 t
altogether, magnificently executed by the Rudolf Philipp Waagner
Company of Vienna.
The same engineers have manufactured two identical churches,
which were supposed to be built in Australia and Romania. The
first sank at sea while being transported, while the second
church was destroyed during a bombing, thus leaving St. Stephen
the only Eastern Orthodox iron church in the world.
The panels for St. Stephen's transported by sea in 150 small
ships from Trieste to Constantinople and were assembled on site
by 15 workers of the company between December 1895 and 14 July
1896, using 4 million nuts, bolts, rivets and weldings - much
like the Eiffel Tower was built.
The two-storey building stands 15 m high, with the belfry adding
another 5 m to its total height, and has a total area of 500 sq
The solemn consecration, which drew Bulgarians from all over the
Balkan Peninsula, was conducted on the Feast Day of the
Nativity of the Virgin, 8 September 1898, by Exarch Yossif I.
In style, St. Stephen's is a radical departure from the Eastern
Orthodox tradition. It is a three-nave pseudo-basilica shaped as
a Latin cross, with a broad transept and large Gothic windows
(the stained glasses for them were not done for lack of money).
The church is 32.5 m long, 12.5 m wide, and 19.5 m high,
including the belfry. The sculptural ornamentation of the white
exterior harmoniously combines floral motifs interwoven into
garlands and angelic heads. Reliefs representing a bishop's
mitre and two crossed crosiers are placed above the northern and
southern entrances. The eclectic Neo-Gothic and Neo-Baroque
architecture and ornamentation of the church is in the typical
style of the 19th century.
Its iconostasis, also of metal, has exquisite ornaments
combining scriptural scenes with floral motifs. The icons, fine
examples of late 19th c. sacred painting, were done by Russian
academic painter Klavdii Lebedev and masters from Debur. The two
thrones, one for the monarch and the other for the church
primate, flanking the altar, emphasize the grandeur and
importance of their intended occupants. They are all covered in
wood carvings and feature the ciphers of the then incumbent
prince and exarch. One remarkable and untypical iconostasis icon
is of the Virgin with Sts Cyril and Methodius Equal to the
Apostles, the inventors of the Slavonic script. St. Petka, one
of the most revered Bulgarian saints, is also beautifully
painted. There are six bells, of which the largest weighs 450
The church turns 120 in 2018 and, Bulunmaz says, can now easily
hold out for another 100 years.
The glory of the interior has been restored completely, each
element being taken down, numbered, restored and then returned
to its original place. Efforts, skills and knowledge were not
In Bulunmaz's words, the most difficult part was in the
beginning, when a detailed inspection showed that the foundation
columns were extremely eroded and some were completely
destroyed. Prior to that, it was believed that the rust was only
Reconstruction started with the beams, some of which were
reinforced, while others were replaced with larger new ones. "If
this had not been done now, the church would have collapsed
within ten to twenty years," the architect said.
The reconstruction does not only restore the church's former
glory: it restored the church in the exact same way it was built
120 years ago.
Restoration works involved the use of new technologies.
Anti-corrosion paints were used, while the new bricks in the
church's foundations are made of materials close to the original
Restoration works began in 2011, with a short pause because of
the death of the contractor, and continued two years later with
a new one.
To this end, Istanbul municipality has extended 15 million
Turkish lira, 12 million of which have bene used to date. The
rest of the sum was used for the churchyard's reconstruction and
Repairs were also delayed by bad weather which repeatedly forced
restorers to stop work.
They said the most difficult job was related to the girders and
the belfry they think has remained in place by a miracle so far.
According to Deniz Kahraman, who supervised the project, the
iron church is a unique site that must be saved. He is adamant
that no one in Istanbul has ever considered turning the church
into a mosque or anything else. He described the building as
being part of the cultural heritage, while reconstruction works
were carried out with respect to the religions.
The remaining donated icons and church plate are of a historical
value as well.
Bulunmaz said she is now connected to the church, which turned
out wonderful after its restoration and about which the whole
world knows now. She is adamant that no outsiders should enter
the building, so its full glory can be revealed on January 7.
This is the most thorough restoration of the church to date. It
has undergone partial and superficial renovations in the past,
which have failed to contribute to the building's reinforcement,
Bulunmaz said. According to the architect, the welding
technology used in the past has sped up the metal's corrosion.
The master restorer, 72 year-old Haluk Yozguder, has worked on
the church over the past four years. During that time he was
stricken by a few serious ailments, including cancer, heart
failure and losing two fingers, but despite of it all managed to
return to the site every time.
Yozguder told BTA that the restoration was a success thanks to
the good team work with Bulunmaz and Kahraman. The three of them
made joint decisions about how things should be done. Yozguder
does not hide the fact that even he was surprised by the
restoration and still wonders how they managed to restore each
and every part to its original form.
The craftsman said that patience was needed in addition to
skills, while all details had to be thought out before a
decision is made, which has cost him hundreds of sleepless
nights. "When we took the job, the church was in such a state
that we had no idea where to start and how to prioritize things.
It was about to fall apart," he said.
The restorer said his ailments did not stop him from working
because he lives by his father's advice, which is that once a
job is started it must be finished. "To say the least, this is a
one-of-a-kind church and who would restore it and breathe a new
life into it, if not us?" Yozguder asked rhetorically.
He has restored other places of worship in the past and is
scheduled to start working on Istanbul's Blue Mosque. "I felt
the church as my second home and gave everything I had. I am
happy and proud of the results," Yozguder said.
The church stands amidst a lush park with dozens of different
kinds of trees and flowers. The three most prominent champions
of the restoration of Bulgarian church independence: bishops
Ilarion of Makariopol, Avksentii of Veles and Paissii of
Plovdiv, are buried in the churchyard.
BTA's Lyubomir Gigov and Bistra Roushkova contributed to this