Voices June 05, 2019
'Sistine Chapel' of Iran a reflection of Christian/Muslim coexistence
According to many travellers and pilgrims the most beautiful church in Iran is the historic Holy Savior Cathedral.
Located in the ancient Persian capital of Isfahan, this church is also known as Vank Cathedral (“Vank” is the Armenian word for monastery or convent).
An Armenian Orthodox church, this gem is hidden behind walls, a living intersection of Perso-Christian-Islamic culture in one of the world’s oldest civilizations.
The church is a part of old Christianity not often seen in that part of the world, a living proof of the harmony that has long existed among Muslims and Christians.
In fact, it is one of the best places to observe a coexistence of cultures and religions.
From the church yard emanates the charming sound of church bells heard, amidst the adhan – the familiar Muslim call to worship – both calling the respective masses to prayer. This is a rare sound in the Islamic Republic.
Construction of Vank Cathedral began in 1606 and was completed by 1664. It was built for Armenian Christians who were deported during the Ottoman War of 1603-1618.
These Armenians numbered about 150,000, coming to a new land, the land of ancient Persia.
By edict of the Shah, Abbas I, the Armenian quarter of the city was set up in 1606 as a distinct neighbourhood, today called New Julfa.
When the Armenians fled their homeland, their presence was deemed beneficial in Iran, due to their crucial knowledge and business dealings of the silk trade.
The Armenians numbered many trading families who were renowned for their business connections, their knack for craftsmanship and their industrious nature. They had trade networks that stretched from Amsterdam to the Philippines.
The church is located on Vank Church Alley in the heart of the New Julfa neighbourhood. Visitors describe the calm atmosphere that is felt the moment they enter the gate from the street.
The church is about a five-hour drive south of the country’s capital of Tehran in a beautiful city that was once one of the largest in the world.
The Julfa district is popular with young people and is well known for its great restaurants and cafes. It boasts 16 additional Armenian churches.
Generations of Armenian Christians have lived in this district for four centuries while retaining their distinct identity, cuisine, and religious and cultural practice.
Today New Julfa is said to house about 12,000 Armenian inhabitants, still one of the world’s largest ethnic Armenian quarters.
The experience of visiting the small and crowded Vank Cathedral is unique.
From the outside visitors are met by a relatively plain Islamic edifice, resembling a mosque, decorated with relatively modern brickwork.
The Shah ordered the original design in Islamic style for the purpose of not offending local sensibilities and for the purpose of converting the building into a mosque, if the need presented itself.
Upon entering the church visitors are captivated by the completely unexpected otherworldly sight before them as their soul is touched by the beauty and colourful display of art.
Inside is a thoroughly Christian church with an elaborately decorated interior. The colourful bright inner walls are adorned with frescoes and gilded carvings that carry visitors to a heavenly place.
The hybrid of art with Christian frescoes seen above Islamic ornaments is especially noteworthy.
The lower wainscot along the floor is of rich tile work in the Islamic style. Above that, every inch of the interior walls is covered with imagery, decoration and murals.
For this reason Vank Cathedral has been called the “Sistine Chapel of Iran.”
The sparkling central dome of the church is not like typical Armenian domes, but is Islamic in shape and design, delicately adorned with blue and gold.
Lower scenes between the cloud of windows depict the biblical story of creation in the book of Genesis, showing the making of the world and man, his fall, and his subsequent need for redemption.
Armenian-style pendentives are seen throughout – a curved triangle of vaulting – painted with the distinctly Armenian motif of a cherub’s head surrounded by folded wings.
These are the seraphim, the highest order of the nine-fold celestial hierarchy of angels, associated with light and ardour.
The ceiling above the entrance is painted in the style of Persian miniature, with delicate floral motifs. Two bands of murals run around the interior walls.
The top section depicts events from the life of Christ while the bottom depicts tortures inflicted upon the Armenian martyrs by the Ottoman Turks.
Many visitors describe a compelling feeling conquering the soul to remain and to return again.
Some return at night to see the interior walls illumined with lights and candles and to hear the ethereal Armenian chant, a melismatic monophonic song that is described by locals as the most beautiful sound in the city.
The semi-octagonal apse and raised chancel sanctuary are familiar to Christian churches.
There is also a small library and museum of history, a weighty tribute to the rich Armenian heritage in Iran, displaying many items of interest, including treasures from the community’s trading days.
Visitors gather in the outdoor courtyard where there is a freestanding belfry towering next to the Armenian cemetery.
Others are drawn to the memorial to the Armenian Genocide, commemorating the 1.5 million Armenian lives exterminated by the Ottoman Turks from 1914 to 1923.
Visitors pay a nominal entrance fee for the upkeep of the property and usually stay well over an hour.
Armenian cookies are available for purchase in the gift shop and are popular with Armenian coffee, both local delights.
J.P. Sonnen is a tour operator, travel writer, and history docent with Orbis Catholic Travel LLC.
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