The most beautiful churches in Istanbul come from very different backgrounds. The Hagia Sofia, Chora Church and the Pammakaristos have deep Byzantine histories, while the Bulgarian Iron Church rivals the Catholic, St. Anthony of Padua in splendor.
The Byzantine churches in Istanbul are some of the oldest structures of worship left standing in the world. While the Church of Hagia Sophia, the Church of the Holy Saviour in Chora, and the Church of Theotokos Pammakaristos were converted into mosques after Fall of Constantinople, their beauty and artistic legacies still live on.
Also known as The Church of Theotokos Pammakaristos. Originally built as a monastery between the 11th and 12th centuries, it was subsequently converted to a church and was home to the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate. In 1591 the building was converted to a mosque and renamed Fethiye Mosque, the Mosque of the Conquest. While the main building remains a place of worship, the side chapel, the Parekklesion, is now a museum.
The Parekklesion is of particular architectural significance. It is considered one of the best examples of late Byzantine architecture in Istanbul. It has the standard five dome design but differentiation between the vertical and horizontal dimensions are greater than usual.
The main building and the Parekklesion still hold many impressive Byzantine mosaics, only the Hagia Sophia and Chora Church contain better examples.
Not to be outdone, the Catholic churches stand proud in Istanbul with St. Anthony Padua being incredibly popular for Christmas mass and has the largest congregation. Other significant Catholic Churches include the Cathedral of the Holy Spirit, the Church of Saints Peter and Paul, and St. Mary Draperis.
St. Anthony of Padua
Known locally as Sent Antuan, this is the largest Roman Catholic Church in Istanbul and is dedicated to Saint Anthony of Padua, the Patron Saint of lost things.
The Turkish architect of Italian origin, Giulio Mongeri, designed this impressive basilica. It was built in the Venetian Neo-Gothic style between 1906 and 1912. The church stands on the original church’s site built by the Italian community in 1725 and demolished to make space for a tramway. The entrance to the church is off the famous pedestrian Istiklal Avenue in the cultural district of Istanbul.
This prime location is the subject of an ongoing legal dispute over the land ownership of the church. In 2016 a man claiming to own the land tried to put the site up for sale, but the Vatican intervened to block the deal.
Of the four, St Anthony of Padua has the largest congregation. One of the reasons behind this is the number of languages used to conduct Mass. Throughout the week services are held in English and Turkish, and on the weekend there are additional services in Italian and Polish. All Masses are open to the public.
Church of Saints Peter and Paul
After the fall of Constantinople, the Dominican Church of St. Paul was converted to a mosque. The Dominican monks relocated to a house gifted by a Venetian nobleman that contained a small chapel dedicated to Saints Peter and Paul. In 1603 work commenced building a larger church and monastery. In 1608 the church was placed under the King of France’s protection whilst also receiving a yearly subsidy from the Republic of Venice.
In 1640 a coveted Hodegetria style icon was relocated from the Dominican Church of Santa Maria di Constantinopoli to the Church of Saints Peter and Paul. The church was soon destroyed by fire in 1660, but fortunately, monks were able to save the Hodegetria icon.
A new church was constructed in 1702, but the church lost its subsidy from Venice in 1706 when it refused to gift the Hodegetria Icon to Venice. In 1843, the brothers Gaspare and Giuseppe Fossati completed the stone church that stands today and still houses the icon.
Church of St. Mary Draperis
This church is one of the oldest Roman Catholic parishes in Istanbul. First established in 1584 by Franciscan monks, this church has suffered from several disasters, but it survived along with its icon of the Virgin Mary.
The first church was established in Galata when a local woman, Clara Maria Draperis, gifted the order a small house with a chapel. The alter of the chapel held a wooden statue of the Virgin Mary. The Church took its name from its benefactor, and the icon has remained with the church ever since.
The chapel burned down entirely in 1660. The monks rebuilt it but did not request approval from the Sultan, so authorities demolished the church in 1663. In 1678 the monks built a new church in the Pera neighborhood.
This church also burned down in 1697 and was then rebuilt, only to be destroyed by an earthquake in 1727. Once again the monks rebuilt the church but in 1767 fire struck yet again. The church was rebuilt in 1769 and stands to this day with the icon of the Virgin Mary on the altar.
Needless to say, their prayers have been answered since, as there have been no further disasters. Today, there is daily mass in Italian, along with mass in Spanish every Sunday.
You’ll think by their modest designs the Greek churches knew they’d be invaded if things got too flashy on the outside, but the spared no expense on the interiors. The Bulgarian churches on the other hand seem a little less so whereas the Iron Church actually had building materials shipped into Istanbul.
Bulgarian St. Stephen Church
St. Stephen’s Church is one of two Bulgarian Orthodox Churches in Istanbul and is also known as the Bulgarian Iron Church. It’s a unique building in Istanbul. Although the building doesn’t appear unusual at first glance, on closer inspection, you realize the church is made from cast iron, not stone. In fact, it’s one of the world’s last remaining prefabricated cast-iron churches. Cast iron was a fashionable building material at the time. Builders chose cast iron over stone because the ground at the designated site was considered weak.
St. Stephen’s was erected in Istanbul in 1871. However, the actual fabrication of the church took place in Vienna, Austria some 950 miles away. It took 100 different barges to move the individual sections down the Danube River and the Black Sea to Istanbul. On arrival, workers bolted the church together on-site where it still stands today.
Over the years, St Stephen’s Church has undergone some significant renovations to maintain the building’s integrity. The most recent renovation was extensive. Approximately 90% of the building required attention, and it took seven years to complete the work.
The official reopening of the Bulgarian St. Stephen Church was held on the 8th January in 2018. The Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borisov both attended.
St. George’s Cathedral
This unassuming, small cathedral is a hidden gem. The modest exterior hides the importance of this church in Orthodox Christianity as St. George’s Cathedral is the home of the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate in Istanbul. To put it in perspective, before the Fall of the Byzantine, the symbolic home of the patriarchate was the Hagia Sophia.
Fire damaged the building on several different occasions and little remains of the original monastic building. While the cathedral is not much to look at externally, it is worth visiting to view the lavish interior. St. George’s is home to several historical artifacts such as the patriarchal throne from the 5th century. The church is open to the public daily, but you must pass through strict security screening to enter the building.
The Hagia Triada is a Greek Orthodox Church and the largest Greek Orthodox Shrine in Istanbul. It was completed in 1880 and holds architectural significance as the first domed Christian church to be built in Istanbul since the Fall of Constantinople in 1453.
During the pogroms of 1955, the church incurred considerable damage. An organized mob tried to set the church alight. The attack failed, but the building received significant damage with many external walls badly charred. It wasn’t until a generous donation from businessman Panagiotis Angelopoulos that full repairs were able to be undertaken. In 2003 the repairs and renovations were finished, and the Church was reopened to the public.
St. Mary’s of the Mongols
The Church of St. Mary of the Mongols is named after its founder Maria Palaiologina, the illegitimate daughter of Emperor Michael VII. Sent to marry the Khan of the Mongols as part of a political alliance at age 8. After his death, she returned to Constantinople and dedicated herself to Christ. She used her fortune to build the church and furnish it with holy relics.
This Greek Orthodox church has a distinctive rose-colored exterior and is unique in Istanbul. It’s the only Byzantine Church never to be converted to a mosque after the fall of Constantinople. Sultan Mehmed II granted a royal decree gifting the structure. The royal decree still hangs inside the church. Several attempts were made to convert the church, but all failed thanks to the royal decree’s protection. The Church has been allowed to exist in peace since the late 17th century.
The Church that stands today is very different from the original building of the 13th century. Badly damaged by fire on several occasions, the Church has consequently been rebuilt and enlarged. However, some of the original 13th-century structure does remain.
The Armenian Patriarch has a long and proud history in Istanbul. Two churches bear the name Surp Krikor Lusavoric as a tribute to Saint Gregory, Patron Saint of Armenia which can cause considerable confusion.
St. Gregory the Illuminator Church of Galata
Also known as the Surp Krikor Lusavoric Ermeni Kilisesi, building sits on the European side of Istanbul in Galata/Karakoy, Beyoglu. It’s the site of the oldest known Armenian Church in Istanbul. An Ottoman survey from 1455 confirms the church’s existence, but other documents show its presence as early as 1391.
The church was severely damaged by fire on two occasions during the 18th century but was rebuilt and subsequently renovated in the late 19th century. Despite its age and historical significance, the church was subject to local government acquisition and later demolished in May 1958 to widen the local road. The architect Bedros Zobyan designed the current building which was consecrated in 1965 and officially opened in May 1966.
The new building is significantly narrower than the original due to the limited space available but, it remains the only example of Armenian Church Architecture currently standing in the city thanks to the conical roof.
St. Gregory the Illuminator Church of Kusguncuk
The second church dedicated to Saint Gregory the Illuminator, the Surp Krikor Lusavoric Kusguncuk stands on the Asian side of the Bosphorus and is easily accessible by passenger ferry. Originally built as a wooden church in 1861, Bedros Agha Shaldjian funded the construction of the stone church that stands on the site today. Compared to other churches around Istanbul, Surp Krikor Lusavoric is rather plain but compared to other Armenian Churches in the city its structure is quite ornate. It includes a Byzantine dome, traditional cruciform layout, and Byzantine style painted glass windows.
Over the years, there have been several additions to the church. These include a courtyard fountain in 1910, a gallery staircase in 1944, and ornamentation in 1967.
Holy Vortvots Vorodman Church
The Surp Vortvots Vorodman Kilisesim or The Sons of Thunderclap Church, and home to the Mesrob Mutafyan Culture Center is located in Muhsine Hatun, Fatih,
In 1641, the Armenian Patriarchate was transported from Samatya to Kumkapi where it currently stands. Since then, the church standing opposite to Armenian Patriarchate has become the Holy Asdvadzadzin (Virgin Mary) Armenian Church.
On the 6th of July in 1718, a huge fire that last thirty hours destroyed the church, along with fifty thousand homes in the area. The church congregation took a year to recover and rebuild, and in 1719 It was blessed as the Main Church. The Holy Asdvadzadzin was originally planned as three separate buildings with The South of Holy Asdvadzadzin being blessed as Holy Hagop, and the North of Holy Asdvadzadzin blessed as Holy Sarkis.
On the 17th of May in 1762 another fire that lasted 24 hours tore through the church and badly damaged it once again. It was repaired in 1764 with the help of the Istanbul Patriarch, Archbishop Hagop Nalyan, and dear friend and poet, Grand Vizier Koca Ragip Pasa.
In December 1819, the Patriarchate and the church were renewed and the church was re-opened with a big ceremony on the 25th of February in 1820 under the names of Holy Hac and the South of Holy Vortvots Vorodman. Another fire wreaked havoc on the church in 1826 and it took until 1828 for the churches to open their doors once again.
This time, however, the churches were combined and developed into a complex with classrooms. In 1913, the old school building was destroyed and the building you see today was erected.
In 2011, the Vortvots Vorodman Church was again opened after restoration and the Mesrob Mutafyan Culture Center was named on behalf of their respectful Patriarch, Mesrop Mutafyan of Constantinople.
Holy Mother of God Patriarchal Church
The Surp Asdvadzadzin Patriarchal Church or the Aziz Meryem Ana Patriklik Kilisesi in Turkish is an Apostolic church in the Armenian Patriarchate of Constantinople.
The exact origins of the Surp Asdvadzadzin are not clear. The original church existed in Besiktas from the early 17th century. This church was demolished in 1759 as it had been expanded without permission.
A wooden church was built in the early 19th century and then the current building in 1838. Designed by architect Garabed Amira Balyan, the clever design incorporated a doomed structure even though such a design was forbidden by law. The building has an interior dome defying the then law, but the dome is disguised on the external structure.
The church’s last major restoration was finished in 2013 when the Deputy Patriarch Archbishop Aram Atesyan sanctified the church and reopened it for worship.
While not well-represented in numbers, the Crimean Memorial Church is dedicated to those who fought in the Crimean War.
Crimean Memorial Church
This is the only Anglican Church in Istanbul and is built on land gifted by the Sultan so the English community would have somewhere to worship. The church commemorates those that fought in the Crimean War, and all the building funds came from donations from Anglican congregations in the UK. Building the church was not easy. A competition was held to select a design, and in 1858 the project was awarded to William Burgess. However, his design was considered insufficiently English in style, so the project stopped in 1863. George Edmund Street took over the project and completed the existing church in 1868.
The distinctive Anglican architecture of the church stands in stark contrast to the ornate Ottoman and European building dotted throughout the city. Hidden away by tall trees in the surrounding garden, the building would be very much at home in any English town.