"Short stories and travel reports from my life adventures around the globe".

Istanbul’s Unique Cast Iron Bulgarian Church.

Istanbul's Unusual Cast Iron Bulgarian Church

Istanbul’s Unusual Cast Iron Bulgarian Church.

October 2020.

Having crossed off a large chunk of Istanbul’s grand highlights, Sladja and I were now firmly focusing on one of our favourite travel territories. Yes, those underrated and often unique and unusual spots that tickle the curiosity. Well, our curiosity at least.

Turkey flag.

We certainly hadn’t been seeking out another church. But as soon as we read about Bulgarian St. Stephen, we knew it couldn’t be ignored. It piqued our interest for two reasons. 1: This is a fully functioning Bulgarian Orthodox church located in the heart of Istanbul. 2: The entire structure was made of prefabricated cast iron and shipped to Turkey from Austria in the late 1890s! 

Istanbul's amazing prefabricated Cast Iron Church

Istanbul’s Unique Cast Iron Bulgarian Church.

Photo courtesy of A.Savin.

Excited and just a touch bewildered, we set off one morning for a visit to Planet Earth’s only remaining prefabricated cast iron orthodox church. It was a Friday morning as we made our way through the city’s Balat District, the so-called Old Town that sits on the Golden Horn’s western shore.

Istanbul’s Unique Cast Iron Bulgarian Church.

Visit Bulgarian St. Stephen Church Istanbul

Closing in on Bulgarian St. Stephen.

While we had already seen plenty of photographs online, I was definitely full of anticipation to check out the church in person. Seriously, imagine the scene in late 1896 when 500 tonnes of cast iron parts arrived by sea from Vienna. That’s where they’d been made by the construction company Ph. Waagner.

St. Stephen Bulgarian Church Istanbul.

Istanbul’s Unique Cast Iron Bulgarian Church.

It must have been an incredibly exciting time for the city’s Bulgarian community. Who, up to that point, had made do with a small wooden church at the same location. And you know what happens with wooden churches, time and time again…

The original wooden St Stephen Church in Istanbul

Istanbul’s first St. Stephen Church, made of wood. Doomed from the very start.

In the church garden we came across a memorial to a man called Stefan Bogoridi. A high-ranking Ottoman statesman with Bulgarian roots, Bogoridi donated an old wooden house he owned so that it could be transformed into a church.

Stefan Bogoridi memorial in Istanbul.

An Ottman statesman. And, bizarrely, prince of the Greek island Samos!

After the church burned down the Bulgarian government announced that they’d fund a brand new church on the same spot. Unfortunately, initial plans to build a stone structure swiftly fell through when they realised the ground was just too darn swampy. Thus the idea sprang forth to make it using cast iron. Genius.

Bulgarian St. Stephen Church. 

Bulgarian St. Stephen Church in Istanbul.

Istanbul’s Unique Cast Iron Bulgarian Church.

I’m loving how, for what feels like the zillionth time, my travel experiences have brought me to another Armenian architect. This time the dude in question was Hovsep Aznavur, who designed the cast iron beast and oversaw its eventual completion in 1898.

Hovsep Aznavur Armenian architect.

The only surviving photograph of Hovsep Aznavur. Clearly not taken with an iPhone.

Staring at his creation that morning in the deserted church grounds, we couldn’t help but comment on its unusual look. Especially with the sun having disappeared behind a sheet of clouds, bathing the church in an almost interplanetary turquoise glow. In case you’re wondering, yes it really is an entirely cast iron structure, except for the glass windows.

Istanbul's Unusual Cast Iron Bulgarian Church

Istanbul’s Unique Cast Iron Bulgarian Church.

Bearing in mind how perfectly silent it had been in the garden, Sladja and I got quite the surprise when we stopped at the entrance door to see that the church was packed! Inside, a service was in full swing, hence we decided to hold off on entering.

History of Bulgarian St. Stephen Church.

Uh oh, there’s a service afoot.

Rather, we took a full loop of the garden, which revealed a couple of noteworthy spots. First, we came across a collection of 19th century graves. According to several online articles, they hold the remains of numerous Bulgarian priests and holy men. Including none other than Hilarion of Makariopolis, a cleric who was a key part of the campaign to establish an autonomous Bulgarian church in Turkey.

Istanbul’s Unique Cast Iron Bulgarian Church.

Garden graves at Bulgarian St. Stephen Church

Garden graves.

Secondly, I spied a cute but somewhat forlorn dog dozing in what looked like a recently constructed wooden doghouse. I wonder if its creator had been tempted to make it from cast iron. Probably not.

Dog house in the garden at Bulgarian St. Stephen Church

Istanbul’s Unique Cast Iron Bulgarian Church.

Finally, after a spell of bench sitting, we watched as the congregation filed out of the church. Chattering excitedly, they soon dispersed, heading off in different directions. As a result, we were able to rise and tentatively saunter inside. Luckily it was a case of bingo, as we entered the perfectly empty interior of Bulgarian St. Stephen Church.

Inside St. Stephen Bulgarian Church.

Istanbul’s Unique Cast Iron Bulgarian Church.

Although not that large (capacity is around the 300 mark), the church is undeniably beautiful. This is thanks to a 15 million lira renovation project that took place in 2018. A fitting present, I’d say, for what was the building’s 120th anniversary. Fascinatingly, the stone altar is the sole surviving element of the wooden church. 

Blog review of Bulgarian St Stephen Church

Istanbul’s Unique Cast Iron Bulgarian Church.

Enjoying the silence, we drank in the eclectic styles, which include Neo-Byzantine, Neo-Baroque and Renaissance. The iconostasis, for example, set in glimmering gold, were made in the Russian orthodox style by an artist called Alexievich Agapkin. Sadly there is little known information about the man, despite the fact that he was chief carpenter to the Russian tsar Nicholas II.

Istanbul’s Unique Cast Iron Bulgarian Church.

Inside Istanbul's Bulgarian Iron Church.

Some serious St. Stephen bling.

Elsewhere, there are dripping chandeliers, a large wooden throne featuring a painted image of Jesus and a golden winged ox statuette said to represent Luke the Evangelist. Because, by all accounts, historic paintings often showed him accompanied by the beast.

Winged ox statue Bulgarian St Stephen Church.

Istanbul’s Unique Cast Iron Bulgarian Church.

And yet, among all these shiny bits, you can actually pick out a number of original bolts that hold the church’s steel panels together. Moreover, and I kid you not, there are just a few traces of rust here and there.

Blog review of Bulgarian St Stephen Church Leighton Travels

Istanbul’s Unique Cast Iron Bulgarian Church.

Delightfully, nobody ever did join us inside. So we hung around for a bit absorbing some history on our phones.

Morning silence in Bulgarian St Stephen Church Istanbul

Not a sound to be heard.

With just a few hours left until our online classes started for the day, it was time to make tracks.

Cast iron Bulgarian church in Istanbul.

Istanbul’s Unique Cast Iron Bulgarian Church.

Outside the church grounds, just across the road, we stopped briefly to photograph an exceptionally handsome building dating back to 1910.

Originally used as a convent, it later stood as homeless shelter and as Istanbul’s first Bulgarian primary school. Furthermore, for several decades a number of Bulgarian newspapers and magazines were written and printed here. Today it occasionally holds exhibits on the history of Bulgarian culture in Turkey.

Former Bulgarian Convent.

Former Bulgarian convent in Istanbul.

A convent, a school, a shelter, a newspaper office.

A few streets away, prior to jumping on a bus, we stopped by a store for some pastries and fridge bits. Outside, we came across four hungry kittens. So we nipped back into the store, bought a small can of cat food and fed the poor little things.

Feeding cats Istanbul.

Hungry kitties.

This is the first time I’ve mentioned the cats of Istanbul. The city’s amazing wild feline community and the way local people take care of them remains one of our favourite aspects of Istanbul life. So much so in fact, that I’ll be putting out a single article on the subject in the near future. Watch this space.

Leighton Travels travel reports short stories.

Like this? Take a look at my series of articles on Istanbul.

I’ve been living, working and traveling all over the world since 2001. So why not check out my huge library of travel reports from over 30 countries.

Leighton Travels logo travel reports and short stories.


  • christinenovalarue

    September 17, 2023 - 3:15 pm Reply
  • anoush

    This is a very unique and interesting church in Istanbul. I love how you explored every corner of its interior and churchyard. Great article, Leighton, on a not-so-familiar monument. The kittens are adorable.

    September 17, 2023 - 3:29 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      Hey Anoush, thanks for kicking off the comment thread. I’m glad you enjoyed reading about this quirky church. 🙂

      September 17, 2023 - 3:39 pm Reply
  • Toonsarah

    That is really stunning, and amazing to think how it was constructed! I’m looking forward to reading more about the cats 🙂

    September 17, 2023 - 3:43 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      Cheers Sarah, this church was such a delightful discovery but the city’s cats truly stole our hearts. That piece will be out on Wednesday September the 27th.

      September 17, 2023 - 3:47 pm Reply
  • Anonymous

    what a great discovery leighton. it is indeed an unusual building i do enjoy the strange glow that envelops it at certain times of the day as you clearly experienced. hanging back for a spell until the congregation left really paid off – stan –

    September 17, 2023 - 3:43 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      Appreciate that Stan! THanks for reading about an Istanbul church that doesn’t get much online (or in person for that matter) love.

      September 17, 2023 - 3:48 pm Reply
  • kagould17

    What an amazing little church Leighton. A great idea to create this place and the details. As to wild cats, as a farm boy, I haft a soft spot for kittens, but I am not a fan of abandoned cats just running wild and populating a place. Edmonton has a feral cat problem. They are no capturing them and spaying and neutering to try to slow the population growth. Not working real well. Hope your day is going well. Allan

    September 17, 2023 - 5:15 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      Glad you enjoyed this church Allan. Bearing in mind your feelings about feral cats, I’m curious to see what you make of my article on Istanbul’s many feral kitties.

      September 17, 2023 - 6:02 pm Reply
  • Little Miss Traveller

    Interesting to learn about one of Istanbul’s lesser known churches and of the feline population. I’m actually more of a dog person but l like all animals and it’s great to learn the cats are being cared for.

    September 17, 2023 - 5:51 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      Thanks Marion. I was a dog lover as a kid and a young man, while these days I’m probably leaning more towards cats on the whole. But as you say, it’s always heart-warming to read about people caring for animals, especially ones that would otherwise be quite helpless without our support and care.

      September 17, 2023 - 6:04 pm Reply
  • Memo

    A cast iron church certainly is attention getting. Then your photographs become an optical illusion of sorts. All of the varied external shots make the church seem huge. I was expecting the same with the interior. But it turned out to be more modest in size. Being capable of holding 300 in the congregation is not tiny but I was expecting something more spacious. Being smaller allowed you to get a better look at the ornate details. Very impressive.

    September 17, 2023 - 6:53 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      It is indeed quite cosy inside and much more intimate than its exterior suggests. Thanks for checking in Memo, I’m glad you enjoyed this curious church.

      September 17, 2023 - 7:03 pm Reply
  • Rochelle | Adventuresfromelle

    Wow, a cast iron church? I can only imagine how difficult and expensive that was to construct. It surely wouldn’t do well in the tropics, but it looks great where it is. Thanks for sharing 🙂

    September 17, 2023 - 7:56 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      Ha, you make a good ;point about the tropics. Thanks for reading Rochelle!

      September 17, 2023 - 8:10 pm Reply

    Well this is definitely something I didn’t come across on my trips to Istanbul. You definitely found one of your not-so-well-known quirky interest destinations here, Leighton. Just shows how many hidden gems this brilliant city has to offer

    September 17, 2023 - 9:01 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      Absolutely, thanks for reading!

      September 17, 2023 - 9:39 pm Reply
  • Rebecca

    Never heard of the Bulgarian Church, but what a fascinating architectural piece in the middle of Istanbul! Very ornate and its icy-blue exterior reminds me vaguely of the equally-icy color of the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg…the cats in Istanbul are adorable (as well as the dogs!), and it’s surprising that they’re taken cared of so well by the locals.

    September 17, 2023 - 10:32 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      Hey Rebecca, icy blue is a good description, it really does look like that when the sun gets behind the church and works its magic. I have a feeling you will really like my piece on the city’s lovely cat community. Thanks for spotting the typo on the date of my visit. Ha, it was of course October 2020, I’ve just amended it 😉

      September 17, 2023 - 11:09 pm Reply
  • Monkey's Tale

    We hadn’t heard of this church, and our hotel was likely close. Too bad it looks stunning. As for the cats, we continue to see them throughout Turkey. All well cared for and not many cat fights.

    September 18, 2023 - 12:37 am Reply
    • Leighton

      I don’t think we ever saw a cat fight, which is remarkable. Thanks for reading about this church Maggie, it needs a bit of love I think.

      September 18, 2023 - 7:31 am Reply
  • thomasstigwikman

    I can understand why you had to go see it. Like you said a functioning Bulgarian church in the middle of Istanbul but also all cast iron. I have to admit that is amazing and it is so beautiful too.

    September 18, 2023 - 1:53 am Reply
    • Leighton

      Yeah we were admittedly hooked by the tagline and happily not at all disappointed by the experience. Thanks for reading Thomas.

      September 18, 2023 - 7:33 am Reply
  • Travels Through My Lens

    How very unusual and interesting. The turquoise glow makes it looks quite reverent, and the interior is certainly ornate. I’m glad to hear that you fed those poor, hungry kittens, and I hope they crossed paths with other animal lovers. I’m looking forward to reading more about Istanbul’s cats in your future post. Thanks Leighton, for sharing!

    September 18, 2023 - 10:06 am Reply
    • Leighton

      Thanks Tricia, I had a lot of fun doing the cat article, looking forward to sharing that one.

      September 18, 2023 - 2:57 pm Reply
  • Lyssy In The City

    What a unique church! I’m very glad they decided against building another wooden one. The inside is gorgeous and I’m glad they have little bits of the old church inside. I am also impressed by how much you can remember from 3 years ago. I’m finishing my Italy posts from 3.5 months ago and I have to really try to remember haha.

    September 18, 2023 - 4:22 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      Hey Lyssy, thanks for checking out this little Istanbul church. We are diligent note takers, which always help when we invariably get round to writing up trips from years ago. I don’t actually know how three years have passed since that autumn trip to Istanbul. The passing of time be messed up.

      September 18, 2023 - 4:42 pm Reply
  • grandmisadventures

    Cast iron for a church- brilliant, practical, and definitely more long standing than wood. I just can’t even wrap my mind around shipping cast iron like that and that the final product would be so beautiful. I love that pale turquoise glow of the outside with the soft golden touches here and there. And inside the church is stunning. I love that great mix of eras and influences everywhere. 🙂

    September 18, 2023 - 6:01 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      Ha right, take THAT potential fires! Like you I also love the church’s strange alluring colour, I don’t think I’ve seen another structure that quite compares. Thanks for your enthusiasm as always Meg.

      September 18, 2023 - 6:57 pm Reply
  • rkrontheroad

    Who would have thought a church in Istanbul would be sent in pieces from Austria? (An early inspiration for Ikea?) I wonder if they have sent them to other places around the world. Beautiful inside and out.

    September 18, 2023 - 6:41 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      I wouldn’t be surprised if you could pop into Ikea these days and pick up a Bulgarian cast iron church 😉 Thanks for the catchup Ruth, much appreciated.

      September 18, 2023 - 7:01 pm Reply
  • Erin of the Hills

    So sweet of you two to feed the kittens. And that church looks spectacular! I guess I’ll have to inch Istanbul a bit higher up on my ever-growing travel list…

    September 19, 2023 - 3:02 am Reply
    • Leighton

      It’s a fantastic city Erin, I’m sure you’d love it. The kittens are gorgeous and a bit heartbreaking, I fear if we lived in Istanbul we’d end up adopting at least a dozen.

      September 19, 2023 - 8:56 am Reply
      • Erin of the Hills

        I would probably do the same!

        September 19, 2023 - 2:12 pm
  • wetanddustyroads

    Cast iron church? Never seen anything like it! And to my surprise, it’s quite beautiful. The Bulgarians probably couldn’t believe their luck to go from that little wooden church to this cast iron church. And how lucky you were to be alone in the church – I usually cherish such moments. Oh, and I love that you fed the little kittens … my heart, there is no way I would have walked past too!

    September 19, 2023 - 10:46 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      You’re right, it would have been quite the upgrade at the time for Istanbul’s modest community of Bulgarian orthodox churchgoers. Ah Corna, those cats, I think you are going to love one of my upcoming articles…

      September 20, 2023 - 6:31 pm Reply
  • WanderingCanadians

    It’s wild to hear how the entire structure of the church was made of prefabricated cast iron and that it was shipped from Austria. I can’t imagine just how heavy the pieces were to transport and then assemble. It looks beautiful from the inside as well.

    September 20, 2023 - 4:40 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      Hey! Yes what an operation it must have been simply to get all those pieces into the desired spot. I’m sure conditions for the workers were awful and the physical strain required um… not fun. But hey, they really put together something special.

      September 20, 2023 - 5:01 pm Reply
  • ThingsHelenLoves

    Fascinating. You’d think ‘cast iron’ and ‘pre-fab’ and think of something quite stark and functional but this is a beauty.

    September 22, 2023 - 11:22 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      Absolutely, the way the church looks is something of a revelation. Thanks for reading Helen.

      September 23, 2023 - 8:55 am Reply
  • travelling_han

    Wow what an interesting place and it’s such a beautiful building despite being cast iron!

    September 23, 2023 - 8:44 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      Thanks for your comment Han, I definitely haven’t seen another church that can quite compare to this one.

      September 23, 2023 - 8:57 pm Reply
  • Len Kagami

    It’s hard to believe that this church has stood there for 120 years. Despite being made out of cast iron, it looks so elegant. The altar is just wow!

    September 25, 2023 - 6:54 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      So glad you get the appeal of this unusual church. Thanks for wading through some of my recent articles Len.

      September 25, 2023 - 7:36 pm Reply

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: