Contra el mal de ojo

Nazars contra el mal de ojo en una tienda de regalos de  Azerbaiyán, de la entrada Nazar de la Wikipedia

La amenaza del mal de ojo, así como sus antídotos, son bien conocidos en todo el Mediterráneo. Uno de ellos se difunde ahora por todos lados: un talismán de vidrio en forma de ojo que refleja contra el maligno la mirada dañina. De hecho, puede adoptar diversas formas. En las regiones árabes, la variante más efectiva es la hamza – «la mano de Fátima» –, con el ojo protector en la palma, mientras que de las regiones turcas procede este estilizado ojo de círculos concéntricos azules, el nazar.

El logo de la compañía aérea turca FlyAir, con el dibujo de un apotropaico nazar, y el talismán de nuestro deteriorado bus de alquiler durante el reciente viaje a Azerbaiyán (con un logo debajo que celebra la toma de Constantinopla en 1453)


El peligro del mal de ojo es también familiar a la cultura tradicional judía, que lo combate con fórmulas apotropaicas parecidas. Además de la «Mano de Miriam», versión judía de la mencionada «Mano de Fátima», también encontramos esta información en la Wikipedia, en el artículo “Evil Eye”:

Muchos judíos practicantes evitan hablar sobre los objetos de valor que poseen, o sobre la buena suerte que hayan tenido, en particular sus hijos. Si alguna de estas cosas se menciona, quien habla y/o su oyente dirán: “b'li ayin hara” (hebreo), que significa “sin ningún mal de ojo”, or “kein eina hara” (yidis; a menudo abreviado en “kennahara”), “no hay mal de ojo”.

Podemos ver la variante visual exacta de este gesto en Quba, el asentamiento de los Judíos de Montaña, donde los acaudalados judíos caucasianos han ido edificando impresionantes palacetes de varios pisos, cubiertos de mármol, de un gusto y una ostentación similar a la de los «palacios gitanos» que encontramos en tantos pueblos de Transilvania y Maramureș. Y los protegen con la versión local, turca, del talismán, el nazar, contra cualquier malicioso asalto de la inevitable envidia.

Nazar protector contra el mal de ojo en la puerta de un ostentoso palacete de unos Judíos de Montaña recientemente construido. Barrio de los Judíos de Montaña, Quba, Azerbaiyán

El nazar, tan popular entre los musulmanes de Azerbaiyán, salta a la vista en muchas otras casas del barrio de los Judíos de Montaña azerís, a menudo al lado de los «mezuzah samaritanos», hechos de piedra, de los que hablaremos próximamente.

Nazar protector del mal de ojo, junto a un “mezuza samaritano”, en la cancela de una casa de Judíos de Montaña. Barrio judío, Quba, Azerbaiyán

La preparación a la vida adulta nunca empieza demasiado pronto. La industria de chucherías apoya así a la juventud de Azerbaiyán con los caramelos «Nazar». No solo el nombre nos recuerda el amuleto contra el mal de ojo, la bolsa muestra también el conocido talismán. Obviamente contra la envidia de los amiguitos que no tengan una.

Caramelos de Azerbaiyán “Nazar”, con el talismán protector contra el mal de ojo. Foto de Dani Kálmán en una tienda de carretera cerca de Quba

Against the evil eye

Nazars against the evil eye in an Azerbaijani gift shop, from the Wikipedia entry Nazar

The threat of the evil eye is well known across the Mediterranean, as well as its antidote, the eye-shaped talisman that reflects the malefic look back onto the evil eye. The talisman can take many forms. In Arab regions, the most effective variant is the hamza – “Fatima’s hand” –, with the protective eye on its palm, while in Turkic regions we find a stylized eye painted with concentric blue circles, the nazar.

The logo of the Turkish FlyAir airline, in the shape of an apotropaic nazar, and the talisman of our decaying rental bus during our recent Azerbaijani tour (with a logo below it celebrating the conquest of Constantinople in 1453)


The threat of the evil eye is also familiar in traditional Jewish culture, which defends itself against it with similar apotropaic formulas. In addition to “Miriam’s hand”, a Jewish version of the above mentioned Arab “Fatima’s hand”, we also read in the Wikipedia article “Evil Eye”:

Many observant Jews avoid talking about valuable items they own, good luck that has come to them and, in particular, their children. If any of these are mentioned, the speaker and/or listener will say “b'li ayin hara” (Hebrew), meaning “without an evil eye”, or “kein eina hara” (Yiddish; often shortened to “kennahara”), “no evil eye”.

We can see the visual variant of exactly this gesture in Quba, the Mountain Jewish settlement, where the extremely wealthy Caucasian Jews have been erecting breathtaking, multi-story, marble-covered representative palaces, similar to the “Gypsy palaces” of Transylvania and Maramureș. And they protect them with the local, Turkish version of the talisman, the nazar, against the malicious intent of obvious envy.

Nazar protecting against evil eye on the gate of a lavish recently-built Mountain Jewish palace. Mountain Jewish quarter, Quba, Azerbaijan

The nazar, so popular among the Azerbaijani Muslims, pops up on many other houses in the Mountain Jewish quarter of Azerbaijan, often next to the “Samaritan mezuzah”, made out of stone, about which we will write in the following post.

Nazar protecting against evil eye, next to a “Samaritan mezuza”, on the gate of a Mountain Jewish house. Mountain Jewish quarter, Quba, Azerbaijan

Preparation for the adult life cannot be started too early. The Azerbaijani candy industry supports in this the Azerbaijani youth with the candy named “Nazar”. Not only the name of the candy reminds you of the amulet against the evil eye, but its bag also displays the well-known talisman. Obviously against the envy of the little companions left without candy.

Azerbaijani candy called “Nazar”, with the talisman protecting against evil eye. Photo by Dani Kálmán in a roadside convenience store next to Quba

Interpretation of an object found

On the basis of the elaboration of objects of many thousands of years ago and of their historical context, archaeologists are able to reconstruct the function and use of such objects, as well as the way of life and mentality of the societies that used them. How will they interpret these never-before-seen objects, which were placed all over Berlin only two days ago?


1. In the society of Berlin of that era, when everyone was heading to some social event, especially after dusk, certain members of the middle class would go about on the streets and on public transportation with open bottles of beer in their hands. We know that in other societies of the period, this habit was considered uncivilized, but who are we to judge the customs of societies of many thousands of years ago?


2. When the bottle was empty, they would throw it out. The Berlin society of the age was, relatively speaking, rather clean and orderly compared to the European norms of the age, and therefore they would preferably throw the empty bottles into the street dustbins, which were generally arranged on the streets in sufficient density, with the exceptions of the immigrant neighborhood of Moabit, where the local norms were still in an incomplete state of acquisition, the yuppie neighborhood of Kreuzberg, where there was the conscious practice of neglecting these norms as a form of group identification, and the neo-nazi neighborhood of Köpenick, where internalized frustration directed at immigrants and yuppies elicited the response of symbolically breaking the bottles on the ground next to the dustbins. However, on the whole, these represented a small minority within the population of street beer-drinkers in Berlin.

3. A non-negligible segment of Berlin society of that era consisted of a sub-group of rubbish-hunters, for whom the beer bottles and beer cans, which were redeemable for ten cents in currency, were an important source of revenue. We deliberately do not use the terms “class” or “stratum”, because according to their origin, qualifications, livelihood and ideology, they could have been divided among many groups, which included a range identifications, from chronic alcoholics to destitute pensioners who would strenuously try to keep up their bourgeois image, and who, on their early-morning bike ride for good health, would stop at each bus stop, clean off the discarded beer can with leaves from a nearby rosebush, and, having carefully packed it away, would continue on their way (as observed this very morning).

“Many people are afflicted by poverty in our neighborhood. Many of them manage to conceal their situation, others withdraw and become invisible.”

4. Among the middle-class street beer drinkers of Berlin, bottle collecting as a source of livelihood was widely known. Therefore, to make the work of the collectors easier and more hygienic, by way of an implied convention, they would place the empty bottles next to or under the dustbins. Indeed, the principle of solidarity was a premium value of the Berlin society of the age. However, this practice thereby neglected the important “garbage into the dustbin” principle, on which a sustainable public state of cleanliness in the city of Berlin was based.

5. The Berlin magistrate, which considered its task not to discipline the citizens, but rather to satisfy their emerging needs, solved this incipient conflict by affixing next to the dustbins intended for non-recyclable garbage and on the same columns, a kind of bottle-holder expressly invented to serve this function, resembling canted stair treads with openings at a propitious angle to receive the unwanted beer containers. As for their aesthetics, they were somewhat undeveloped, but their function neatly fit the demands of the citizenry who sought to express their solidarity with the needy on the one hand, and those who aspire to create their livelihood by reducing street litter, on the other.


Sett'ispadas de dolore



Eva Lutza (trumpet, song): Sett’ispadas de dolore (Seven swords of pain) (video here). Medieval Lamentation of Mary in Sardinian language, still sung in the towns of Sardinia on the Holy Week.

Eva Lutza (trompeta, voz): Sett'ispadas de dolore (Siete espadas de dolor) (vídeo aquí). Lamentación medieval de la Virgen, sardo. Aún se canta en las ciudades de Cerdeña durante la Semana Santa.

Pro fizu meu ispriradu
a manos de su rigore
sett’ispadas de dolore
su coro mi han trapassadu.

Truncadu porto su coro
su pettus tengo frecciadu
de cando mi han leadu
su meu riccu tesoro
fui tant’a cua chignoro
comente mi es faltadu
sett’ispadas de dolore
su coro mi han trapassadu.

In breve ora l’han mortu
pustis chi l’han catturadu
bindig’oras estistadu
in sa rughe dae s’ortu
e bendadu l’ana mortu
cun sos colpos chi l’han dadu
sett’ispadas de dolore
su coro mi han trapassadu.

Morte no mi lesses bia
morte no tardes piusu
ca sende mortu Gesusu
no podet vivever Maria
unu fizu chi tenia
sa vida li han leadu
sett’ispadas de dolore
su coro mi han trapassadu.
For my son, who died
at the hands of violence
seven swords of pain
have pierced my heart

My hart is broken
my chest pierced by arrows
since they have taken away
my precious treasure
with such fury, that I do not
know, how he disappeared
seven swords of pain
have pierced my heart

In short time they killed him
after they captured him
it lasted fifteen hours
from the garden to the cross
they killed him blindfolded
with the beating they gave him
seven swords of pain
have pierced my heart

Death, do not leave me alive
death, do not delay more
because being dead Jesus,
Mary cannot live any more:
from the only son I had
they took away the life
seven swords of pain
have pierced my heart
Por mi hijo que ha muerto
a manos de la violencia,
siete espadas de dolor
han traspasado mi corazón.

Tengo el corazón roto
el pecho asaeteado
desde que me han robado
mi tesoro precioso
con tanta saña que ignoro
cómo se me ha ido,
siete espadas de dolor
han traspasado mi corazón

En breve tiempo lo mataron
después de capturarlo,
pasaron quince horas
desde el huerto a la cruz,
atado lo mataron 
con los golpes que le dieron,
siete espadas de dolor
han traspasado mi corazón

Muerte, no me dejes viva,
muerte, no te tardes más
pues estando Jesús muerto,
María no puede vivir:
un hijo que tenía
le han quitado la vida,
siete espadas de dolor
han traspasado mi corazón.

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Giovanni Tedesco: Fragment of a Crucifix. Perugia or Siena, ca. 1460. Berlin, Bode Museum
Giovanni Tedesco: Fragmento de Crucifixión. Perugia o Siena, c. 1460. Berlín, Museo Bode

Ghost sign


مرگ بر شاه morg bar shâh, death to the shah. Now, in July 2015. Thirty-six years after the revolution. In Isfahan, in the alleys behind the bazaar.

“Forty days after the Qom events, people gathered in the mosques of many Iranian towns to commemorate the victims of the massacre. In Tabriz, the tension grew so high that an insurrection broke out. A crowd marched through the street shouting “Death to the Shah.” The army rolled in and drowned the city in blood. Hundreds were killed, thousands were wounded. After forty days, the towns went into mourning – it was time to commemorate the Tabriz massacre. In one town – Isfahan – a despairing, angry crowd welled into the streets. The army surrounded the demonstrators and opened fire; more people died. Another forty days pass and mourning crowds now assemble in dozens of towns to commemorate those who fell in Isfahan.”
Ryszard Kapuściński: Shah of Shahs, 1982


Ashura-day mourning song about Abolfazl, the brother of Imam Hussein, who died a martyr’s deat along with his brother at Kerbala. As we wrote earlier, this is the defining event ot the Shiite martyrdom paradigm.

Photo by Abbas (Magnum Photos), 1979

Señal fantasma


مرگ بر شاه morg bar shâh, muerte al sha. Ahora, en julio de 2015. Treinta y seis años después de la revolución. En Isfahán, en los callejones detrás del bazar.

“Cuarenta días después de los acontecimientos de Qom, la gente se reunió en las mezquitas de muchas ciudades de Irán para recordar a las víctimas de la matanza. En Tabriz, la tensión creció tanto que estalló la insurrección. Una muchedumbre recorría las calles gritando “Muerte al Sha.” Se desplegó el ejército y convirtió la ciudad en un baño de sangre. Cientos murieron, miles quedaron heridos. Tras cuarenta días, las ciudades estaban sumidas en el luto – era el momento de conmemorar la matanza de Tabriz. En una ciudad – Isfahán – el gentío desesperado, colérico, se lanzó a la calle. El ejército rodeó a los cabecillas y abrió fuego; murió más gente. Pasaron otros cuarenta días y el dolor volvió a reunir a la gente en docenas de ciudades para lamentar la suerte de los caídos en Isfahán.”
Ryszard Kapuściński: El emperador, 1982


Canción de dolor del día de Ashura, por Abolfazl, hermano del imam Huseín, muerto en martirio junto con su hermano en Kerbala. Como ya hemos escrito, este hecho define el paradigma del martirologio chiíta.

Foto de Abbas (Magnum Photos), 1979

Come with us to Iran!


Iran does not belong to the trendy tourist destinations. This is a great blessing, because if the stunning beauty of the country, its urban civilization, the kindness of the people, the multitude of historic monuments, the sophisticated music and art, and the great Iranian cuisine were widely known, we would not be able to step away from the many tourists, and would not be able to invite our readers to such exclusive tours, like this one, with which we begin to ramble in Iran.

We begin, I say, because Iran is a huge country. From one corner to the other, two thousand five hundred kilometers, and this is just one way. And at the same time, a very diverse country, with so many attractions, from the spring floral splendor of the Kurdish mountains to the amazing colors of the desert of Kerman, the thousand-year-old cities to the caravanserais of the silk roads, the nomadic tribes to the centuries old bazaars, where in the spring the tribes bring down in colorful procession the carpets woven in the mountains during the winter. To see all this, we must return several times. On our first tour, between 22 October and 1 November, we will travel along the central historical axis of Persia, the chain of ancient cities from Tehran to Persepolis.



Soheil Nafisi: همه فصلن دنیا Hame-ye faslân-e donyâ, “All the seasons of the world”. From the album ترانهای جنوب Tarânehâ-ye jonūb, “Southern Songs” (2010). Already quoted in this favorite post, together with the photo of Alieh Sâdatpur.



Our plane departs on 22 October at noon and arrives in the late evening from Vienna via Istanbul to the international airport south of Tehran, from where we will immediately go by rented bus to Kashan, lying about two hours away. In fact, the next day is Iran’s largest religious celebration, the day of Ashura, and if we are this lucky, we must attend it in a traditional town such as the many-thousand-year-old caravanserai city, Kashan. Apart from the series of celebrations, processions and public ceremonies encompassing the whole city, we ramble in the old town built of clay, see the historical merchant houses, and in the evening we dine in a traditional tea house next to the five-hundred-year-old Safavid garden, a world heritage site. We will stay in a four-hundred-year-old merchant house, transformed by young managers into a traditional-style guest house (we will write more about it, together with an interview).


On 24 October, Saturday we make a bus excursion to the mountainous area south of Kashan. We pass by the Natanz uranium enrichment center (taking photos is strictly forbidden, but looking is not), we stop by the 13th-century mosque of Natanz, built by the Mongol khans, and then we reach Abyaneh, the Red Village. We walk the town and its surroundings, have picnic at the creek (where our friend Hamid, the local hotel owner delivers us lunch on donkey-back), and in the afternoon we get back to Kashan. We look around in the bazaar of Kashan – which will have been closed the previous day for the ceremony –, and in the evening we cook Persian dinner together with Farshad, the young Kurdish manager of the guest house.


On 25 October, Sunday morning, we go by bus to Isfahan, two hours away, while stopping at some beautiful sights and traditional villages. Isfahan is the most beautiful city of Iran, which was also its capital for centuries. In this and the following day we tour the city. From our hotel in the center, through the huge bazaar, we reach the main square, which is considered by art historians to be among the world’s ten most beautiful squares. We visit the Imam Mosque, decorated with the blue tiles of Armenian craftsmen, the thousand-year-old Friday Mosque, we ramble in the eight-hundred-year old and still vivid Jewish quarter, the largest Jewish center in Iran, and we cross the five-hundred-year old Si-o-se, that is, the Thirty-three-hole Bridge, to see the Armenian quarter over the Zayande, that is, Life-giving river. We will visit Persian gardens and palaces, will begin the hopeless attempt of going through the entire bazaar, see nomadic carpets, have dinner in old tea houses, listen to traditional concerts.


On 27 October, Tuesday morning, we go by bus to Yazd, the caravanserai town on the edge of the desert. We submerge into the maze of the old town built of clay, which is even more archaic than that of Kashan, and visit still-working caravanserais, mosques many centuries old, merchant houses, sanctuaries. The Zoroastrian religion of ancient Persia – which is tolerated by Islam as a “religion of the book” – has the most followers in Yazd, so we will visit Zoroastrian shrines and “towers of silence” outside the town, where the bodies of the dead were placed to decompose, so they may not contaminate the sacred elements of earth, water and fire. We will have dinner in a traditional caravanserai, and the next day we will make a bus excursion to the most beautiful part of the Iranian desert, which is a national park.


On 29 October, Thursday, we go by bus to Shiraz. This is the longest stretch of our journey, about 400 kilometers, but we do it on highway, while repeatedly stopping at beautiful sights, historical monuments, and, most importantly, at Persepolis, the capital of ancient Persia, magnificent even in its ruins. There I will offer a very detailed art historical tour about the well-preserved buildings, reliefs and royal tombs. Late in the afternoon we arrive at Shiraz, where on that day and the next morning we visit the old city, the bazaar, the beautiful mosques and merchant’s houses. In the afternoon we go back to Tehran on a domestic flight.


In our last day, 31 October we summarize our impressions in Tehran. In the young capital, founded in 1790, there are not many historical monuments, so we will walk in the modern downtown, have a picnic in the Taʿbiat Park, at the world’s largest pedestrian bridge, opened in the past year, and in the evening we will have our farewell dinner a thousand meters higher, under the mountains and next to a brook, in a traditional tea house of the Bohemian quarter of Darband. We fly back in early morning via Istanbul, arriving in Vienna about noon.


On Iran and the Persian culture we have already written a great deal in río Wang, and we will write even more, especially about the places we intend to visit. The posts about Persia are continuously collected in the post Persian letters, look back again and again. And if you are curious about anything, tell us. We are happy to write posts on order, too.

The participation fee, which includes the hotels with breakfast (one bed of a twin/double room), the long distance and rented buses, the domestic flight from Shiraz back to Tehran, and the guide-craft of a Persian-speaking and Iranian culture-savvy art historian, that is, me, is 700 euros. Add to this the cost of the flight ticket (Vienna–Istanbul–Tehran and back is now 330 euro, but you can of course take the flight which is most convenient for you), and the cost of the Iranian visa, which is about 100 euros. The deadline for application is 20 August, Thursday, at the usual e-mail wang@studiolum.com.



Armenian Iran: New Julfa


Earlier:
Armenian Iran: from Tabriz to Julfa
Armenian monasteries in Iran
Armenian cemetery in Julfa
To reach the Armenian quarter of Isfahan, you must first cross the river, the Zâyandarud, which crosses the oasis where Isfahan developed.

From the main square of Isfahan, the Naghsh-e Jahân, you descend straight to the south. The avenue that runs through the gardens, reaches the river at right angle. The four gardens – Chahâr Bâgh –, the extension of the Safavid palaces intended to shape the city as a figure of the paradise.

The map of the Maidan-e-Shah (or Maidan-e Naqsh-e Jahan, the Image of the World) and its extensions built between 1590 and 1602 by Bahaʿ ad-Din al-ʿAmili for Shah Abbas. The various axes of the plan point to an essentially palatial urbanism. The rest of the city was only a disordered aggregate of buildings at that time. The orthogonality of the squares, palaces, canals and gardens is in contrast to the strange curvature of the bazaar that stretched towards the old town, dominated by the ancient Friday Mosque. The Armenian neighborhood of Julfa was built in the following years on the other side of the river, to the southwest of the city.

Under the shady paths, along the fountains, people look at you, smile at you, talk to you. Young girls are playing ball under the trees, old men are having a rest in the grass, children are running. A man I meet every day asks me each time whether he could be photographed with me. And every day someone takes a photo of us with my camera, a photo he does not look at and he will never see, with his hand on my shoulder, and a twisted smile on his lips.

Close by, I pass by a building place, next to which a group of workers are standing on the sidewalk. When I am passing by them, one of them turns to me, with a slice of watermelon in the hand, and he hands it to me. He says nothing, and I do not remember whether he smiled or even looked at me.

I only remember the gesture of the arm that reaches toward me, the watermelon, red like blood, the sunny street with low trees, the deep gap, like a trench, where in the spring a stream has to run. In August, there were only leaves in its bottom.

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Arriving at the river, the avenue leads across the most beautiful bridge of the city, the “Bridge of Thirty-Three Arches”, Si-o-Se Pol, built in 1608 by the grand vizier of Shah Abbas, the Georgian Allahverdi Khan. However, in August 2013, not a drop of water passed under the thirty-three arches.

Nobody has really been able to explain what happened to the river. A month ago, it was still there, friends could testify, walkers on the shore could assure me. Maybe it had been diverted to irrigate some other place, a young man suggested. Who knows it?

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Beyond the bridge, on the southern bank of the river, you have to cross some modern neighborhoods to reach what was once only a suburb, a city within the city, New Julfa.

View of Isfahan. Adam Olearius, Vermehrte Newe Beschreibung Der Muscowitischen und Persischen Reyse (Schleswig, 1656)

The door of the palace and the courtroom. Nicholas Sanson, The Present State of Persia… (London, 1695)

The grand entrance of the bazaar. Jean Chardin, Sir John Chardin’s Travels in Persia (London, 1720); Les Voyages (Paris, 1811)

Julfa along the Aras, the river which separates Iran from the enclave of Nakhichevan, the city of Julfa no longer exists. Even its last remnant, its medieval cemetery was transformed into shooting ground by the Azerbaijani army.

However, the destruction goes back much further in time, when, in June 1604, Shah Abbas occupied Yerevan, and marched against Kars. Unable to face the Ottoman army, he had to withdraw, and he imposed the policy of scorched earth onto the areas south of the Caucasus, and ordered the deportation of their population to Iran.

All the cities, including Julfa were destroyed, and the entire population, perhaps 400 thousand people, were forced to cross the Aras. The following spring, the Armenians were spread in several regions, including Gilan and Mazandaran in the north, as well as in the rural areas between Isfahan, Shiraz and Hamedan.

Abraham Ortelius (1527-1598), Map of Persia, Antwerp 1608

In 1606, when Shah Abbas began the construction of Isfahan, he ordered the artisans of Julfa to be its first builders. He settled the whole population of Julfa next to Isfahan, some 75 thousand people, maybe more. He also estimated, that the knowledge of the Armenians of Julfa, who were masters of the silk trade in the Levant, would be essential to the integration of Persia in the international commerce: their trading skills would enrich the coffers of the Safavid state, while their profit would increase the capital of Persia. Thus, of all the deportees of the Caucasus, the Armenians of Julfa had the best treatment. Shah Abbas gave them enough time to gather their possessions before destroying the city, they received means of transportation, and they could spend the winter in Tabriz. Upon arrival in Isfahan, they could immediately begin to build on the right bank of Zâyandarud what would become New Julfa, and Shah Abbas authorized them to own land. Twelve years later, the Italian traveler Pietro Della Valle (1586-1652) described the quarter as a cluster of vast houses around a dozen churches. The Armenians built six more churches even on the other side, in the city of Isfahan itself.

Not only the churches showed the importance of the Armenian community in the early seventeenth century. Beginning with January 1607, the Armenians organized large processions through New Julfa on the occasion of Christmas and Epiphany. Among the thousands of participants led by two hundred members of the clergy with cross and banners, and singing hymns, there were not only Armenians, but also Safavid dignitaries, and foreign guests. The scene reminds me a painting – perhaps Carpaccio? or Bellini? Yes, the architecture drawn by Gentile Bellini behind the preaching of St. Mark probably originates from the buildings he saw in Constantinople, when, in 1479, he was the guest of Mehmet the Conqueror. However, the mountains in the background seem to be on a better place in Isfahan than in Alexandria. The turbans, the high hair styles of the women, the purple and silk, the giraffe at the stairs of the church, everything evoke the fabulous East, of which Isfahan was a pearl.

Bellini, The preaching of St. Mark in Alexandria, Pinacoteca Brera, Milan

In New Julfa, the ten thousand Christians were isolated from their Muslim neighbors, while in Isfahan itself, where there were about a thousand Armenian families, the living together was much more tense. The churches, the ringing of bells, the planting of vines offended the Muslims, who obtained the expulsion of the Armenians from the city to its suburbs under the reign of Shah Abbas II (1642-1666). New Julfa was thus enlarged by seven new neighborhoods: Tabriz, Gâvrâbâd, Šamsâbâd, Gask, Kʽočʽēr, Laragel and Yerevan. The entire quarter extended on the both sides of a long avenue oriented east-west, cut by nine north-south streets, which encircled about twenty areas, sets of lanes and courtyards. The main gate was closed at night. The quarter was ruled by the heads of the noble families of the city.


Islamic law recognized the personal and communal rights and freedom of worship of the Christian Armenians – like of a monotheistic minority (ahl al-ketāb, “people of the book”) –, as long as they paid their personal tax. The security of the site was assured by a Muslim police chief (dāruḡa), whose main task was the collection of this tax. He also had to ensure the maintenance of order, and was charged of the criminal cases and the conflicts between Christians and Muslims.

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Some pages of the Voyages de monsieur le chevalier Chardin en Perse et autres lieux de l’Orient dedicated to Jolfa (BnF)

Half a century later, beginning with 1686, the French Huguenot traveler and goldsmith Jean Chardin spent a few years in Isfahan. He described the city at length in his Voyages de monsieur le chevalier Chardin en Perse et autres lieux de l’Orient (Travels of Mr. Knight Chardin in Persia and other places of the East), completed in 1711. In the third volume, dedicated to the architecture of the city, Chardin described in detail each quarter of the city, including le bourg de Julfa.

According to him, New Julfa had nearly 30 thousand inhabitants. This population was ruled by the clerics and nobility, the twenty richest families of the community, the princes (išxān), nobles (malek or beg) and lords (paron or āqā). The rest of the population were dependent on them, or, like the poorest, their servants.

On the lower grades of the social ladder, there were the great merchants, who were either dependnt on, or independent of the great families, and the craftspeople – painters, goldsmiths, jewelers, sculptors, scribes and illuminators, watchmakers –, who worked in large workshops.

At the bottom there were the more ordinary artisans, those working on the constructions and ornamentation of buildings, the workers and the domestic servants.

The traders of New Julfa maintained a network of agents, mainly in India and Southeast Asia. They traded with raw silk as well as with cotton fabrics. Their most striking trade route led up the Volga, linking Isfahan to Amsterdam via Arkhangelsk.

They say that in New Julfa once there were more than a dozen churches, schools and scriptoria. Later there were presses, newspapers and libraries as well. The city was long the heart of the production of books in Armenian, hence the many scribes and illuminators. The Primate of the Armenian Church of Isfahan, Xačʽatur Kesaracʽi was invited in 1629 to Lemberg at a theological dispute within the Armenian community of Poland, and he brought back the first printing press, which was set up in the Monastery of the Savior in 1636. The monastery still has a small exhibition showing the manuscripts below.

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At the beginning of the 18th century, the situation of the Armenians of Isfahan underwent a dramatic change. The economic difficulties, and the religious tensions related in part to the presence of Catholic missionaries from Portugal and Italy, drove out much of the Armenian merchants. The major setback for the Armenian community came during the Afghan invasion in 1722, which devastated New Julfa, causing a mass exodus of the Armenians. A part of their descendants, who have not left Iran even after the 1979 revolution, still live in the suburb reserved to them by Shah Abbas.

In the hot afternoon, the shops have lowered their curtains, and everything seems deserted. Although the neighborhood is still largely populated by Armenians, the signs are subtle – some shop labels, a menu in the window of a closed restaurant.

From the sixteen churches that remain, only the cathedral, the Church of the Savior, or Kelisa-ye Vank, completed between 1655 and 1664, is consecrated. No doubt, the same Armenian architects traced the plans of this church and of the mosques on the other bank. In Isfahan, the churches are adjusted to the city, and their architecture has little to do with the churches of historical Armenia: raw brick facades, slightly swollen Persian domes, arched decoration.

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The exterior of the church seems to be more sober than the excessively decorated interior. The walls and the vault are covered with glazed tiles, the blue and gold dome evokes the Safavid mosques, while the arches have the figures of angels nested in a floral pattern. On the walls, alongside with the images from the life of Christ, they represent scenes of martyrdom of the Armenians in the Ottoman empire – a far cry from the peaceful and inviting Persia. In one corner, an old man with glasses, probably a guard, looks at his newspaper. He yawns, stands up, and goes to chat in the shade of the trees. Birds, flies. A little girl with eyes wide open.

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The entrance and hallways, probably because they have not been renovated with the same vigor, seem more welcoming and conducive to meditation. Their motifs come from the Persian miniaturist tradition, along the walls, under the pillars and in the passage, where they align some tombs and funerary monuments. The small cemetery in the backyard has much more recent graves.

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As in Julfa, there are very few visitors. A few Westerners, none of the many tourists coming to Isfahan from the Gulf States, no, mostly Iranian families. Persians? Armenians? Who knows? No one asks them, the gate is wide open.