Alongside the Islamic and Persian landmarks, one of the most visited places in Persia’s ancient capital Isfahan, and one of the must-see sights of every Iran tour, is the Vank Cathedral, also called of the Saint Savior, in the city’s Armenian district of New Julfa.
Named after the city of Julfa in Armenia, the quarter was created by Safavid-dynasty Shah Abbas the Great following the deportation of thousands of Armenians between the 1603 and 1605 after the war against the Ottoman Empire. What today looks like a cozy and quaint neighborhood was very much welcomed by Shah Abbas I as Armenians’ knack for arts and craftsmanship has always been very well-known in the region.
Started around 1606, the Vank Cathedral has been one of the very first churches built in New Julfa, and today it certainly is its most important religious building.
Completed with important additions in 1655 and 1664, while the exterior appears rather bare and simple, the cathedral’s interior offers a striking contrast, with fine paintings on the walls and ceiling and a dome that recalls Persian mosques. To complete the Christian scene and recall more of the Armenian heritage, inside you can see a semi-octagonal apse and a raised chancel typical of Western churches. As a matter of fact, the exterior, too, recalls a local style as the typical pastel hues are typical of Persian desert architecture with its fascinating interplay of sand, light blue and white, like the beautiful Yazd Grand Mosque and the unusual main mosque in Natanz.
Inside the Vank Cathedral, it’s also easy to spot elements from Persian-style decorations with flowery patterns and bright colors. Built in the moment of greatest splendor of the Safavid dynasty under the rule of Shah Abbas I, after whom the power of his family began to fall relentlessly, the Armenian church is defined by a fascinating mix of architectural styles.
As it happens in most migration waves, then and now, but for sure in a much bigger scale in the past, thousands of Armenians died in the journey, and the rest of the refugees started building cemeteries alongside their churches in order to carry on with their religious rituals and ceremonies thanks to the great religious freedom they were granted with by the Persian shah. Inside the same complex of the Vank Cathedral, too, lies a graveyard that hosts the remains of clerics and ordinary people.
Apart from the church and the graveyard, the complex includes also a memorial to remember the massacre carried out by the Ottomans and a museum displaying artwork, precious and sacred objects belonging to the Armenian tradition, tapestry, documents, books and maps most of which recalling the Armenian genocide.
Iran, too, is the theater of preparations, both religious and more mundane ones, for the yearly Christmas celebrations that according to the Armenian tradition falls on January 6th. Oriental Christians, in fact, kept the original tradition of Christmas while western Christianity adopted the Roman customs more prone to reproduce the celebrations around the winter solstice as they were more familiar also thanks to the subsequent introduction of Mithraic rituals of Persian origins.
Even though I’ve been to Julfa more than once, I’ve never seen the Armenian Christmas, one of the reasons why I would like to organize one of my next Iran trips around the end of December to enjoy the different rituals that take place in the occasion of the winter solstice, December 21st. Apart from Christian rituals, in fact, I would love to witness Yalda, the year’s longest night, when Iranians gather around an opulent table filled with season fruits, food, and nuts, and read Hafez’s Divan.
Quite frankly, with all these festivals and celebrations, all excuses are welcome to make me book yet another Iran trip any time of the year.