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  • Writer's pictureTerry Richardson

A Brief History of St Stephen of the Bulgars Church in Istanbul

What is St Stephen of the Bulgars Church?

St Stephen of the Bulgars Church is a Bulgarian Orthodox church on the southern shores of the Golden Horn, made with iron cast in Vienna.

St Stephen of the Bulgars Church

St Stephen of the Bulgars Church History

Designed by Armenian architect Hovsep Aznavur, this building was largely constructed in Vienna by the Waagner Company following its success in an international competition to produce the parts of the church in cast iron. The prefabricated sections, all 500 tonnes of them, were loaded onto a ship that sailed down the Danube into the Black Sea and then down the Bosphorus and up the Golden Horn to the district of Balat.

The church combines Neoclassical and neo-Baroque styles with Gothic Revival elements. Aznavur chose iron as the material for the church as it was to be erected on soft, marshy ground on the edge of the Golden Horn, terrain unsuitable for a traditional heavy masonry structure. The iron panels were fitted to a steel frame using rivets or nuts and bolts, or else welded. The erection of the church took some 18 months, and it was inaugurated in September 1898.

Unusually for an Orthodox church, it’s not orientated towards the east but instead points towards the Golden Horn to the north-east. Cruciform (or cross-shaped) in plan, it’s illuminated by many striking arched windows with vertical bars. The main entry to the south-west is dominated by a two-tier tower surmounted by a gilded dome. The parapet encircling the church is adorned with numerous gilded Gothic finials. If anything, the interior is even more richly ornamented than the exterior – Art Nouveau-style metalwork in vegetal designs and gilt everywhere to be seen.

Built to serve the city’s sizeable Bulgarian population, it’s probably no accident that it was placed close to the Ecumenical Orthodox Patriarchate in the adjoining district of Fener. Driven by the nationalist movement of the 19th century, the Bulgarians wanted a ‘national’ church independent of what they saw as a Greek-dominated Orthodox Church.

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