Isfahan: Harmony of Contrasts of Armenian Christianity and Persian Islam

Photo: Tobi Gaulke

One needs to make hefty efforts to fit the story about the city of Isfahan in one article and present it to the reader in a laconic way. Those that bear no relation to Iran associate the country with Eastern fairytales and a certain aura of mysteriousness.

For a reason, sure enough!  And Isfahan is probably one of the parts of Iran that retains the aura of the picture-perfect charm.

Back in the day the curious European travelers who managed to visit the city, exclaimed dazedly “to see Isfahan is the same as to see half of the world!” and the city was even called Nesf-e Djekhan, i.e.  “Half of the world”.  It is a bold statement, isn’t it?  Let’s try to justify it. 

Where do the tourists usually start to walk around the city?  That is right – they start from the central part.  Practically all the travelers especially the ones fond of fancy towns say that the city is completely unremarkable at first glance. 

Indeed, in Isfahan, you will not see the glossiness of European cozy yards and streets, a neat row of bricks, cobblestone roads, and greenery hanging on the facades of the buildings. Isfahan is the kind of city you need to either literally or metaphorically dive into it to get to know its charm.    

Like all the ancient cities Isfahan was conquered multiple times and was under the yoke of different Empires and Kingdoms, however, it reaches its fullest flourishing under the rule of the Safavid dynasty, specifically under the rule of Shah Abbas the Great (1587-1629). 

He made the city the capital of the empire (for more than a hundred years the city preserved the status of the capital) and did his best to build up the city peculiar to the Eastern Muslim charm, which means mosques, educational institutions, bazaars, and of course famous Persian bathhouses. Isfahan becomes the largest city in Persia with a population of more than half a million people.

The ruinous raids of Afghan tribes that considered the luxurious life of the Islamic capital an indecency put an end to the dynamic development of Isfahan. Ever since Isfahan has lost much of its former magnificence and the status of the capital, however, it manages “to rise from the ashes” and currently it is the third-largest city in Iran that has a lot to tell and show even to a tourist who has seen the world.   

The golden age of shah Abbas’ rule has properly “left its marks” in Isfahan, and here stand out the ancient buildings dating back at least four centuries. E.g. the main culprit for the name “Half of the World” of Isfahan is the vast Imam Square. In the Middle Ages, the square was packed with an innumerable amount of noisy merchants of different nationalities, which made Isfahan a vivacious center.  On its trading area, one could see and obtain anything. 

Next to the Imam square is located the most beautiful mosque in the world (yes, that is how it is called); The Shah Mosque, astounding not only for its beauty and majesty but also for the meticulous work done on every inch of it during thirty years of construction.  Both the square and the mosque are included in the UNESCO World Heritage List.

Shah Abbas is famous not only as the restorer of Isfahan but also for the fact that he had resettled to the city thousands of Armenians “for the prosperity of our country and the growth of our population”.  Armenians compactly settled in the New Djulfa neighborhood known as Nor Djugha in Armenian. 

The name is translated as “New Djugha”, new because there is old Djugha; a town located in the north of Iran, by Nakhidjevan, and divided by the Azerbaijani-Iranian border. In 1604 during the Persian-Ottoman war from this very town that used to be part of Great Armenia, shah Abbas resettled the Armenian population to “the country of Persians”. 

Hence, the shah ensured that the biggest ethnic-confessional minority of Isfahan (and Iran) were the Armenians. The shah came up trumps: the Armenians turned New Jugha into a city inside the city by making it the biggest trade center that connected the Armenian merchants of Julfa with different trading cities of the world from Europe to China. T

oday Nor Jugha is still in marked contrast to the rest, Islamic part of Isfahan: here and there one can see nice open balconies, the shops sell alcohol prohibited in Islam. «Drinking alcohol is one of the privileges of Armenians, gifted to them back in the rule of Shah Abbas; the ingenious immigrants said that they need alcohol for religious faith» – wrote one of the travelers. In the Armenian neighborhood, the style of life slightly differs and the tourists can enjoy having not only alcohol but also sitting in cafés during the daytime that is closed in Iran during the religious holidays. 

But the main reason to visit the Armenian neighborhood is the churches.  Moreover, there are thirteen churches in one small neighborhood hidden from the prying eyes inside the streets and inhabitable yards. 

Even the main tourist attraction of the Armenians of Iran; the Cathedral of St. Christ the Savior (popularly known as the Vank church) is not remarkable in appearance and is shut in by tall stone enclosures and the very last thing to expect is that the modest appearance may embody such magnificence. 

There is a monument to Khachatur Kesaratsi in the yard of the cathedral; the archbishop-founder of the hardcopy industry in Iran.

Yes, the first printing machine in Iran appeared owing to the Armenians of New Julfa, and the first printed book in the Muslim country was a Christian one:  “The Psalms of David” and it was printed in the Armenian language. 

But one should not expect to see such stunning contrast of interior and exterior decoration in all the churches. E.g. the church of St. Gregory is quite modest in this respect and even ascetic. By the way, one may have a tough time visiting many Armenian churches, as there are not particularly open for tourist visits.  

Isfahan is amazing and to get to know Iran truly, it is necessary to visit this city.  Its attraction is in the legacy left in the streets by the history for the people and also in the people, who carefully maintain the legacy. 

It is the inconspicuous contrast of clay constructions with the luxury of medieval mosques, churches, and palaces.   It is the conservative Islam preserving the Christian holy places.  It is the spirit of times that seems to have decided to stop here. 

Eleonora Sargsyan

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