Vank Cathedral is one of the largest and most beautiful churches of Iran, the cathedral was completed in 1664. It includes a bell-tower, built in 1702, a printing press, founded by Bishop Khachatoor, a library established in 1884, and a museum opened in 1905.
History of Vank Cathedral
Following the Ottoman war of 1603-1605, Armenians began to arrive in Iran in search of a new life under the Safavid King Shah Abbas I. Shah Abbas I, who settled tens of thousands of them in the Iranian provinces south of Aras River, also relocated Armenians, who had fled from the Ottoman massacre in Nakhchivan to Iran. Nakhchivan suffered a lot during the 14th to 18th century wars between Persia and the Ottoman Empire. The city fell under Safavid rule in the 16th century. In 1604, when Shah Abbas I realized that the lands of Nakhchivan and its surrounding areas might fall into Ottoman hands, he decided to force the entire Muslim, Jewish and Armenian population of the city to leave their homes and move to Iran.The Armenian immigrants settled in Isfahan, the capital of the Safavid Dynasty, and populated the city’s New Jolfa district, which was named after their original homeland in today’s Azerbaijan Republic. Upon entering Iran, Armenian refugees started building churches and monasteries to continue their religious activities in their new home.
The first monastery in Jolfa was built in 1606 and included a little church called Amna Perkich, which means ‘All Healing.’The little church was later expanded and turned into the magnificently designed Vank Cathedral, which was built 50 years later under the supervision of Archbishop David.
Architecture of Vank Cathedral
The architecture of the building is a mixture of the 17th-century Safavid style with high arches and an Islamic-style dome.The cathedral has greatly influenced the architecture and decorative treatment of many churches in Iran and the Mesopotamian region.
The main entrance of the cathedral is a large wooden door through which visitors enter the courtyard of the building.Upon entering the courtyard, one encounters two rooms that were once used as administrative offices, which helped Armenians process their paperwork.Inside the Armenian Cathedral of the Holy Savior.A large freestanding belfry stands in the cathedral courtyard and towers over the graves of Orthodox and Protestant Christians who have been buried along the wall before the entrance.Built 38 years after the main structure, the belfry leads into the nave.
On the right side of the belfry there is a large blue inscription surrounded by crucifix stones. The stones have been collected from the ruined churches of the Jolfa quarter.On a raised area to the left, a memorial has been set up in memory of the victims of the Ottoman massacre. Every year on April 23 Armenians gather by the memorial to light candles in honor of their martyrs.
At a corner of the cathedral’s courtyard, rooms and halls have been built to accommodate guests, the Isfahan archbishop and his retinue, as well as other Armenian religious authorities in Iran.Across the courtyard and facing the cathedral is a building, which houses the Vank library and museum.The library contains more than 700 manuscripts and hard-to-find sources on 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 and prohibiting interference with, or the persecution of, Armenians and their property and affairs in the district.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 written 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.The Vank museum also houses an extensive collection of photographs, maps, and Turkish documents related to the 1915 massacre of Armenians by Ottoman kings.Vestments, monstrances, chalices and other sacramental objects have also been displayed at the museum.
The Vank printing house is known as the first of its kind in Iran and the Middle East. The first book published at Vank was about the lives of Armenian priests and monks, a few prints of which are now kept at the Vank museum.
The early printing machine, which was built by Bishop Khachatoor, was replaced by a new one brought from Amsterdam in 1647.Later in 1844, an Armenian resident of Jolfa brought a printing machine from Europe, which is also housed at Vank Museum.The first book printed by the machine was the Psalms of David, which is now kept at Oxford’s Bodleian Library.
The dun-colored brick exterior of the cathedral gives way to a stunning combination of Persian tiles, Byzantine gold and European-style frescos inside.The modern and plain exterior has a striking contrast with its gloriously decorated interior.The entrance ceiling is adorned with floral motifs and the top of the walls are covered with murals depicting events from the life of Jesus.The interior is adorned with paintings, gilded carvings and eye-catching tile work and the pendentives bear painted images of a cherub’s head surrounded by folded wings.On the northern wall of the cathedral paintings of Judgment Day can be seen with heaven depicted above and hell below.The bottom parts of the interior walls are covered with paintings depicting Armenians being tortured by the Ottoman Turks.
The double-layer brick dome is beautifully gilded and adorned with paintings and floral patters in its azure interior.The paintings depict the Biblical story of the creation of the universe and man’s expulsion from Eden.An Armenian fresco depicting Heaven, Earth, and Hell, at the Vank Cathedral.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 patterns 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.
After the death of Shah Abbas I, his successor Shah Abbas II also paid close attention to Armenians and New Jolfa, which is located on the banks of the Zayandeh River and still houses a large part of the Iranian-Armenian community.
Iran’s Armenian community grew in number as until 1933 immigrants and refugees continued to flock to Iran from the Soviet Union.They built churches, schools and various cultural, artistic and sports centers across the country and eventually became Iran’s largest Christian community.Today, Iranian-Armenians have two seats in the Iranian Parliament (Majlis) and are the only minority with official observing status in the country’s Guardian and Expediency Councils.Armenians also publish books, journals, periodicals, and newspapers, including the daily Alik.