The Armenian Quarter of Isfahan, Jolfa, has been home to one of the highly respected minorities in Iran. Jolfa is among the most famous neighborhoods in the city. Its liveliness and numerous cafes has made it the perfect spot for many locals and tourists to spend time in. Iranian Armenians have been residing in Jolfa for more than 400 years. They have built several churches in the Jolfa neighborhood. Out of twenty-four churches built in the city, thirteen are still standing today. For visitors, Vank Cathedral with its magnificent artwork and an informative museum is definitely the most notable of all.
During the several Safavid – Ottoman wars in the late 16th century, the Armenians residing in the north-western parts of Iran were forced to move to the central parts of the country. Shah Abbas I implemented a “scorched earth” policy in the region in order to slow down the Ottoman invaders. In this military strategy, anything that might be useful to the advancing enemy in the battlefield is destroyed. This meant that all the buildings and assets of Armenians would be set on fire or destroyed. Most Armenians were resettled in Isfahan, they were inhabited south of the Zayandeh Rud river and close to the Marnan bridge which became known as New Julfa. Armenians soon started building a number of churches in the neighborhood.
Vank is the biggest cathedral in Isfahan, it was established in 1605 as a small church and fifty years later was expanded to accommodate the growing number of Armenians in the city. As Armenians were famous for their skills in farming and other industries, Safavid kings gave them more freedom to build and expand their churches in Isfahan, which back then was the capital city of the Muslim empire, the Safavid dynasty (1501–1736).
Vank soon became the center of religious activities for Armenians. As a result, several sections such as a library, museum, clock tower and a memorial for the Armenian genocide were added to the complex over time.
Architecture and Design
Even though all the churches in Isfahan were mainly built by Armenian architectures, they don’t share any similarities on the outside with the churches in Armenia or even the ones located in the North Western parts of Iran. There could be a number of reasons for that difference in design and architecture; one is the fact that these religious buildings were being established in the center of a Muslim empire. In order to prevent any sort of trouble between the new Christian minority and Muslims, Armenians were ordered to build their churches to be more similar to mosques and Iranian architecture. The second major reason for this shift in design was the change in the region. Therefore, architects had to use different, more common materials like mud and brick.
The interior design of the churches, however, have a completely different story. Churches built in that era are famous for the countless paintings on their walls and ceilings. There has been a lot of work put into drawing these paintings which depict biblical stories. In fact, this style influenced the churches built after the 17th century in Armenia and Nakhchivan. Almost none of the churches built before that time in Armenia had any sort of wall paintings.
Another contrast in the churches of Isfahan would be the size of the windows which are usually bigger than the ones found in Armenia. The reason for these bigger windows is for the paintings to be more visible and to stand out during daylight. Moreover, initially none of the churches built in Isfahan had any bell towers. Instead of the church bell, a big wooden object known as “Kuchnak” is there to call for gatherings. In later years, bell towers were added to most of the churches in the city.
Entering the Vank Cathedral complex gives you the option of visiting its museum, too. The museum displays a comprehensive collection of biblical manuscripts. A section of the museum is dedicated to the Armenian Genocide with relevant documents and pictures explaining the tragedy. Another thing that could make your visit to the Vank Museum worthy is a line of text written in Armenian script on a string of hair. On the second floor of the museum, there are a number of paintings and portraits of Armenians of Jolfa.
As noted in the beginning of this article, Vank Cathedral and its museum are definitely on the top of the list of places to visit in Isfahan. Apart from the cathedral, the surrounding neighborhood of Jolfa is a perfect spot to walk around and explore. There is still an ongoing feeling of authenticity in the neighborhood which you can’t find in any other part of the city.
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