The Armenian churches of New Djolfa
In 1604-5, when the war between the Ottoman Empire and Safavid Iran lasted for decades, Shah Abbas 1 decided to counter the Ottoman advance in Armenia by the scorched earth tactic: he destroyed crops and of cities, and deports hundreds of thousands of Armenians in Iranian cities. He took 20,000 inhabitants of Djolfa, a commercial city near the Araxe, to Isfahan, where they settled in a neighborhood baptized the New Djolfa. In exchange for his good and loyal services, the king granted the community an administrative and judicial independence and the monopoly of the silk trade. Its prosperity favored an astonishing artistic and intellectual flourish, as witnessed by thirteen churches. The most important is the Cathedral of Vank (1658-62). Built in brick, its plan is inspired by the mosques with dome on Safavid pendants. The ceramics are Armenian by their religious themes, and safavides by technique and some bucolic scenes.
The cathedral view from the street looks the same as a mosque if not the cross at the top of the dome. The interior is covered with frescoes recounting among other things the legendary martyrdom of St. Gregory the Illuminator, founder of the Armenian Church. Next to the cathedral is an Armenian Art Museum, with an Armenian Genocide Memorial.
The interior wall paintings are in Italian-Flemish style punctuated by Russian influences: they represent scenes from the Old and New Testaments, as well as the life of St Gregory the Illuminator, who converted Armenia to Christianity at the beginning of the 4th century. The twelve other churches date from the 17th century. Saint-Grégoire-l'Illuminateur was built in the 18th century, Saint-Etienne and Saint-Jacques were restored in the 19th century. Their aesthetics are similar: architecture in half-Armenian bricks, half-Safavid, mid-European paintings and semi-oriental ceramics.
The library of Vank cathedral contains over 700 handwritten books and many valuable resources which are unique for research in Armenian and medieval European languages and arts. The museum displays numerous artifacts from the history of the cathedral and the Armenian community in Isfahan, including:
- the 1606 edict of Shah Abbas I establishing New Julfa;
- several edicts by Abbas I and his successors condemning and prohibiting interference with, or persecution of, Armenians and their property and affairs;
- 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 Turkish documents (with translation) related to the 1915 Armenian Genocide in Turkey.
The cathedral has greatly influenced the architecture and decorative treatment of many subsequent Orthodox churches in the region.
The testimony of Jean Chardin (17th century)
A rich merchant of the place, named Avadick, who had traveled in Italy, had been persuaded that painting the churches was of great merit before God, because the churches full of paintings are much more agreeable to him than the others. This merchant, I say, having returned to Julfa [that is, the New Julfa at Ispahan], began to annoy the bishop and the monks to let him paint the church. She was previously naked, like the Armenians who do not suffer from representation in their churches, only a picture of the Virgin with her child in her arms, placed on the sacred table. After much resistance, they consented at last, but have since repented; for the Mahometans come to this church, as to a theater, to amuse themselves by the sight of these paintings. They must open their doors at all hours; and as they abhor the images, it is an occasion for most to curse the Christian people and their religion, believing that these paintings are their idols and the objects of their worship. The Armenians made several deliberations in my time to remove and efface all these paintings; and they would certainly have done so if they had not apprehended that the Mohammedans would not be angry that they had been deprived of an entertainment.
Excerpted from Jean Chardin, Voyage en perse, texts chosen and presented by Claude Gaudon, UGE, 10/18, 1965, p. 306-307.