Background Christianity in Iran has a long history, dating back to the early years of the faith. A number of Christian denominations are represented in Iran. Many members of the larger, older churches belong to minority ethnic groups – the Assyrians and Armenians – having their own distinctive culture and language. The main Christian churches of Iran include Armenian Apostolic Church of Iran, Assyrian Church of the East of Iran and Chaldean Catholic Church of Iran. Examples of other denominations are: Presbyterian, including the Assyrian Evangelical Church; Pentecostal, including the Assyrian Pentecostal Church; Jama’at-e Rabbani (the Iranian Assemblies of God churches) and the Anglican Diocese of Iran. Vank Cathedral Holy Savior Cathedral also known as Vank Cathedral and The Church of the Saintly Sisters is the most visited cathedral in Isfahan, Iran. Vank means “cathedral” in the Armenian language. Among the churches built in the Jolfa District of Isfahan, the magnificent and architecturally significant “Vank” Cathedral is the most famous. Jolfa is the Armenian and Christian quarter of Isfahan which was established in 1603 during Shah Abbas I Safavid. Jolfa is located on the south bank of the Zayandeh River and is linked to the Muslim part of Isfahan by Si-o-se-pol bridge. The town of Jolfa on the Araxes River in Azarbaijan (now on Iran’s northern border) at one time was the major Armenian setlement until Shah Abbas I transferred Armenian families to new Jolfa in Isfahan. Today, Jolfa is a quiet area of Isfahan with predominant Christian community. When the first Armenians arrived in Jolfa one of their first tasks was to erect a monastery for their priests to replace the one they had lost in Armenia. Within the monastery, they established a small church which they called the “All Healing” (Amna Perkich) in 1606. The present cathedral was built on the site of this church some 50 years later. Work started in 1655 C.E. and the cathedral was completed in 1664 C.E. Architecture The varying fortunes and independence of this suburb across the Zayandeh River and its eclectic mix of European missionaries, mercenaries and travelers can be traced almost chronologically in the cathedral’s combination of building styles and contrasts in its external and internal architectural treatment. The architecture of the building is a mixture of the 17thcentury Safavid style with high arches and an Islamic-style dome. Construction is believed to have begun in 1606, and completed with major alterations to design between 1655 and 1664 under the supervision of Archbishop David. The cathedral consists of a domed sanctuary, much like a Persian mosque, but with the significant addition of a semi-octagonal apse and raised chancel usually seen in western churches. The cathedral’s exteriors are in relatively
modern brickwork and are exceptionally plain compared to its elaborately decorated interior. The area surrounding the cathedralmincludes a belltower, erected in 1702, a printing press, founded by Bishop Khachatoor, a library established in 1884, and a museum which was opened in 1905 and contains many historical objects and manuscripts, including the original grant of land. Jolfa is the Armenian and Christian quarter of Isfahan which was established in 1603 during Shah Abbas I Safavid. Jolfa is located on the south bank of the Zayandeh River and is linked to the Muslim part of Isfahan by Si-o-sepol bridge. The town of Jolfa on the Araxes River in Azarbaijan (now on Iran’s northern border) at one time was the major Armenian setlement Ornamentation The interior is covered with fine paintings and gilded carvings and includes a wainscot of rich tile work. The eye-catching tilework and the pendentives bear painted images of a cherub’s head surrounded by folded wings and the delicately blue and gold painted central dome depicts the Biblical story of creation of the world and man’s expulsion from Eden. Throughout the church, Pendentives are painted with a distinctly Armenian motif of a cherub’s headmsurrounded by folded wings. The ceiling above the entrance is painted with delicate floral motifs in the style of Persian miniature. Two sections, or bands, of murals run around the interior walls: the top section depicts events from the life of Jesus, while the botom section depicts tortures inflicted upon “Armenian martyrs”. Apart from the paintings which are imitations of Italian styles, the architecture and all the decorations are totally Iranian. The courtyard contains a large freestanding belfry towering over the graves of both Orthodox and Protestant Christians. A tile work plaque inscribed in Armenian can be seen by the entrance to the cathedral; graves are also placed along the exterior wall before the entrance, with inscriptions in Armenian. The dun-colored brick exterior of the cathedral gives way to a stunning combination of Persian tiles, Byzantine gold and European-style frescos inside.
On the northern wall of the cathedral, paintings of Judgment Day can be seen with heaven depicted above and hell below. The double-layer brick dome is beautifully gilded and adorned with paintings and floral paterns in its azure interior. The paintings depict the Biblical story of the creation of the universe and man’s expulsion from Eden. Eight windows surround the dome with biblical scenes painted between them. The creation of Adam and Eve, eating the forbidden fruit and the death of Able are among the stories painted between the windows. The narthex is also adorned with four paintings, which are surrounded with floral paterns and show tortures inflicted upon holy figures. The birth of Jesus, the Last Supper, the crucifixion of Jesus and the Ascension of Jesus are also among the biblical stories depicted in the paintings inside the cathedral. The paintings have been inspired by both old and new testaments and have been painted by Armenian masters and three monks, namely; Havans, Stepanus and Minas. Throughout the church, Pendentives are painted with a distinctly Armenian motif of a cherub’s head surrounded by folded wings Library & Museum Across the courtyard and facing the cathedral is a building housing a library and museum; outside of this building are several carved stones showing scenes from the Bible. The library contains over 700 handwriten books and many invaluable and unique resources for research in Armenian and medieval European languages and arts. The Vank museum houses unique and priceless collections of various types of items gathered from across the Armenian world. Built in 1871, the museum contains numerous objects related to the history of the cathedral and the Armenian community of Isfahan, including the 1606 edict of Shah Abbas I establishing New Jolfa. Exquisite Bibles are also part of the museum’s dazzling collection. A seven- gram bible displayed at the museum is believed by some to be the world’s smallest writen text in seven languages. Safavid costumes, tapestries, European paintings brought back by Armenian merchants, embroideries and other valuable items from the Iranian-Armenian trading heritage are also part of the museum’s unique archive. Vestments, monstrances, chalices and other sacramental objects have also been displayed at the museum including: • The 1606 edict of Shah Abbas I establishing New Julfa, • Several edicts by Abbas I and his successors condemning and prohibiting interference with the lives and properties of the Armenians in New Julfa, • A historic printing press and the “first book printed in Iran”, • Vestments, monstrances, chalices, and other sacramental artifacts, • Safavid costumes, tapestries, European paintings brought back by Armenian merchants, embroidery, and other treasures from the community’s trading heritage • Ethnological displays portraying aspects of Armenian culture and religion, • An extensive display of photographs, maps, and documents (with translation). The cathedral has greatly influenced the architecture and decorative treatment of many subsequent and smaller Orthodox churches in the entire Persian-Mesopotamian region.