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 BTA.
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 community.
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 m.
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 kg.
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 spared.
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 superficial.
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 ones.
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 landscaping.
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 story.