During the Bulgarian Revival, the Turkish capital city of Istanbul, which Bulgarians and other Orthodox Christians used to call Tsarigrad, was inhabited by a large Bulgarian community. In the middle of the 19 th century, it numbered over 50 thousand people, mainly craftsmen and tradesmen, and quite a large group of cultural figures, too. The Tsarigrad Bulgarians were most active in the struggle for national church, and in 1849, they acquired their own prayer house. For the purpose, Knyaz Stephen Bogoridi, a Turkish officer of Bulgarian origin, donated his property, consisting of two stone and one wooden houses with a large yard, located in the Fener Quarter. On October 17, 1949, an official Sultan Firman (order) was issued, permitting the Bulgarians residing in the Turkish capital to have their own church in the Fener Quarter. The lower floor of the wooden house was turned into a temporary chapel which was solemnly inaugurated on October 9, 1849 by the Sozoagatopol Metropolitan Bishop. Later, the chapel was transformed into an autonomous temple (known as the Wood en Church), dedicated to the Holy Protomartyr and Archdeacon Stephen. A year later, in 1850, using the materials from the two pulled down stone houses was completed the construction of the so called Metoh (cloister). The Metoh was situated opposite the church, and was a big three-storey stone building with 25 rooms. Thus, 300 meters away from the Oecumenical Patriarchate, was formed the Tsarigrad Bulgarians' spiritual centre. From there, right under the nose of the Phanariots, the Bulgarian church functionaries used to wage their relentless struggle for independent church hierarchy. Their struggle ended on February 27, 1870 when the Firman permitting the establishment of Bulgarian Exarchate was issued.
After the liberation of Bulgaria from Ottoman rule in 1878, the headquarters of the Bulgarian Exarchate remained in the Turkish capital city. Meanwhile, on June 25, 1890, an other Imperial Sultan Firman was issued allowing the Bulgarian Exarchate to build a new church in the place of the old Wooden one. On initiative of Exarch Yossif I, started the construction of a new church in the church yard. The foundation stone of the church was laid on April 27, 1892. Since the site was an embankment, the architect Hovsep Aznavur, suggested a structure of assembled iron plates. They were manufactured by the firm of Rudolf von Wagner in Vienna.
The final assembly of the Iron Church was completed on July 14, 1896. A small problem was the form of the iconostasis which was made after the Catholic manner. The Chief Secretary of the Exarchate, Atanas Shopov, and architect Aznavur were sent to Moscow to negotiate on the elaboration of a new iconostasis in Orthodox Christian style. Its manufacture was assigned to the Moscow court manufacturer Nikolay Alekseevich Ahapkin.
The icons were painted by the Moscow painter Lebedev. In Russia The manufacture of six bells of various sizes was ordered in Russia. They were cast in Yaroslavl, in the factory of P.I. Olovyanishnikov.
The new church named after St. Stephen, alias the Iron Church, was solemnly sanctified by Exarch Yossif I on the day of the Christian holiday celebrating the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, September 8, 1898. After the sanctification of the new church, the old Wooden one was taken down. The altar throne stone was the only thing preserved. It is still there as a modest monument reminding of the historical role this small church played for half a century.
Thus, at last, the Bulgarian Exarchate and the Tsarigrad Bulgarians acquired a big and representative church – three-nave basilica in Eastern Orthodox style. Unique in architecture and technical accomplishment, it was the only iron church in the East Orthodox world.
The Iron Church is now visibly aging, the metal is rusting progressively. Soon will come the day when it will simply collapse into a pile of scap iron. It order to preserve this masterpiece of church architecture from the end of the last century, the church needs urgent restoration, performed by experts.
Who's Holy Protomartyr and Archdeacon Stephen?
After the ascension of Jesus Christ and the descent of the Holy Spirit upon the Apostles, God's Word was quickly disseminated and the number of believers increased continuously. The first Christians in Jerusalem lived a fraternal and communal life – everything was common, everyone was given according to his needs. Among those given food were people from various countries and peoples. And in those days, when the number of the disciples was multiplied, there arose a murmuring of the Grecians against the Hebrews, because their widows were neglected in the daily ministration. The Holy Apostles chose seven men of honest report, full of the Holy Ghost and wisdom to whom they assigned the allocat ion of food portions. These seven men were the first seven deacons chosen in the Christian church community, and Stephen was the first among them.”
Members of the Sanhedrin started arguing faith issues with Stephen. But they were not able to withstand the wisdom and the Spirit by which he spoke. And they stirred up the people, and the elders, and the scribes, and came upon him, and caught him, and brought him to the council. And set up false witnesses, who said, “This man ceaseth not to speak words against this holy place, and the law”. In return, Archdeacon Stephen delivered an inspiring speech about how God has been with the people of Israel from the beginning, how faithful God had been to them, how the Jews had always resisted the Holy Spirit, and how they betrayed and killed the Saviour. Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit, gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God; and he said, 'Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of man standing at the right hand of God'.
In demonic fury the onlookers rushed upon him, dragged him outside the city, and stoned him to death. Stephen's body was thrown to the wild beasts, however, there were some devout people who buried him. In 415 A.D. the relics of Stephen were solemnly brought in a great procession into the sacrarium of Mt. Zion, and later taken to St. Laurentius church in Tzarigrad. Finally the relics were transferred to the newly built church, named after Holy Protomartyr and Archdeacon Stephen. His memory is celebrated on December 27.