Istanbul’s Cast Iron Church

Apr 23, 2021 0 comments

Although it looks like stone, the Bulgarian St. Stephen Church with its richly ornamented façade on the shores of the Golden Horn in Istanbul, Turkey, is made of iron. It was cast in Vienna, floated down the Danube and across the Black Sea on barges, and bolted together here in Istanbul in 1871. It is possibly the largest prefabricated cast iron structure in the world.

Bulgarian St. Stephen Church

The Bulgarian St. Stephen Church in Istanbul is the largest prefabricated cast iron structure in the world. Photo: Daphnusia |

The Bulgarian St. Stephen Church was the culmination of a nearly century-long struggle for an independent Bulgarian church, which begun late in the 18th century. Many Bulgarian dioceses were discontent with the supremacy of the Greek clergy—the Bulgarian Orthodox Church being fully subordinated to the Patriarch of Constantinople. Starting from the 1850s the Bulgarians initiated a purposeful struggle against the Greek clerics, demanding their replacement with Bulgarian ones. In order to ease tension, the Ottoman Sultan Abdülaziz granted the right to establish an autonomous Bulgarian Exarchate for the dioceses of Bulgaria in 1870.

Originally, an wooden church stood on the shore of the Golden Horn between Balat and Fener squares, where the current church is located. After this church burnt down, the iron church was built in its place. Iron was chosen in lieu of concrete because of the weak ground conditions. The construction plans were prepared by the Istanbul-based Ottoman Armenian architect Hovsep Aznavur.

Bulgarian St. Stephen Church

Photo: Resul Muslu |

Bulgarian St. Stephen Church

The interior of Bulgarian St. Stephen Church. Photo: Fahrettin Ozcan |

Bulgarian St. Stephen Church

Photo: Evren Kalinbacak |

An international competition was conducted to produce the prefabricated cast iron parts of the church, won by an Austrian company, R. Ph. Waagner. The prefabricated elements, weighing 500 tons, were produced in Vienna in 1893 to 1896 and transported to Istanbul by ship through the Danube and the Black Sea.

The Bulgarian St. Stephen Church wasn’t the first prefabricated cast iron church, but it was certainly the largest. In the mid-19th century, the United Kingdom shipped hundreds of corrugated iron sheet churches, called Tin Tabernacles, to their colonies all over the globe. These churches were originally expensive, costing more than £2,000 for 500 seats, but they could be easily erected. Eventually, economies of scale reduced their cost to less than a quarter towards the end of the century. Many of these churches survive to this day.

Tin Tabernacle in Ballywillin

Tin Tabernacle in Ballywillin. Photo: Nick/Flickr

Tin tabernacle at Sandling, Kent.

Tin tabernacle at Sandling, Kent. Photo: Glen/Flickr


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