Armenian monasteries in Iran

The medieval Armenian monastery of Saint Stephen in Northern Iran, in the valley of the Araxes/Aras
More Armenian posts:
The Armenian cemetery of Julfa
Lake Van, the legend of Ara
“Russian first”
The excellent Días del futuro pasado blog gives news with images and drawings borrowed from the site of UNESCO about a group of monuments we especially love having recently been included on the list of World Heritage. Three monumental medieval Armenian fortified churches among the majestically barren northern Iranian mountains, the monastery of Saint Thaddeus, the monastery of Saint Stephen and the Dzordzor chapel. The map taken from only indicates the two larger ones, the chapel was localized on it by ourselves.

Map: three medieval Armenian monasteries on the list of the UNESCO World Heritage
All three sanctuaries lay in unpopulated valleys and have been abandoned since times immemorial. A monastery used to stand along the chapel as well, but it perished long ago. The environs are inhabited by Kurd and Azeri herdsmen and peasants. No Armenians live around here. One could regard it surprising to find so far from Armenia and among a foreign and Muslim population three monasteries so large that they would be considered noteworthy even in Armenia. But only as long as he does not know that not the monasteries were built far from Armenia, but it was Armenia that moved far away from them.

Map: The changing borders of Armenia in the past two thousand yearsThe changing borders of Armenia from around the birth of Christ until our days, from the Armenian historical atlas. We have marked the place of the three monuments with a red Armenian cross.

The map clearly shows that the monasteries were built on the central part of historical Armenia, in the Vaspurakan region to the east of Lake Van, which in the Middle Ages was also an independent kingdom for some centuries. This was the cradle of the Armenian people, a rich region, crossed by several caravan routes. At its eastern border lays Tabriz, the gate of Eastern commerce in the times of Marco Polo, and above it, on the side of the mountain river Araxes/Aras the Armenian town of Julfa which played a key role in Persian silk commerce and in the age of the Renaissance it also had its own commercial representation and Armenian colony in Amsterdam.

The church of St. Stephen on the side of the Araxes/Aras riverJulfa, the old Armenian church at the Araxes river

The reason of the destruction of this region and of historical Armenia was that from the end of the Middle Ages it laid on the periphery of three great powers. None of the three was strong enough to occupy and also maintain the Armenian territories like ancient Persia and later Byzantium did, but all the three had fear that it could serve to the other two as an area of supply and as an eventual ally in case of an offensive. Therefore all the three kept systematically depopulating it for centuries. The Persian shah Great Abbas resettled in 1606 the almost complete Armenian population of the territory under his dominion, including that of the town of Julfa, to his new capital Esfahan where their descendants still live in the Armenian quarter New Julfa. Two centuries later the Russians conquering the Caucasus settled in the internal parts of their country the Armenian merchants from the occupied territories. And during the First World War it was the Turks who, having fear of an eventual expansion of the Armenian province under Russian rule, definitely extirpated the more than one million Armenian inhabitants of historical Armenia. Where Xenophon, during his withdrawal with the Spartan army, but even the Hungarian discoverer Ármin Vámbéry wandering from the Black Sea to Tabriz, passed along a series of Armenian villages, the modern traveler only sees sublime mountains and deserted platos, for after 1915 the Turkish state systematically obliterated even the depopulated Armenian settlements and medieval churches.

The medieval Armenian monastery of Saint Thaddeus in Northern Iran
The monastery of Saint Thaddeus was built according to the tradition by the Apostle Saint Judas Thaddeus, “the brother of the Lord” and the first missionary of the Armenians in 66 A.D. According to the fifth-century Armenian chronicler Movses Khorenatsi, he is also buried here. If this is really so, then this church is equal in rang with the Roman basilicas of Peter and Paul, the tomb in Compostela of the Apostle Jacob, and the Madras cathedral of the Apostle Thomas, only much less known. It was rebuilt in 1324 after an earthquake, and because of its black and white stones local people call it with a half Azeri, half Persian name Qara Kelisa, Black Church. You can find a detailed description, many good images and drawings of it at

The medieval Armenian monastery of Saint Stephen in Northern Iran, in the valley of the Araxes
The monastery of Saint Stephen was also mentioned in the 7th century, but it was founded much earlier, according to the tradition by the Apostle Bartholomeus, companion of Saint Thaddeus and co-protector, together with him, of the Armenian church. This one is locally called because of its light brown stones Qizil Kelisa, Golden Church. A detailed documentation of this one also can be found at Some kilometers from here you can still see the ruins of the last Armenian village Darashamb. This monastery used to be the cultural center of the region for centuries, with its library, with its monastic school of theology and philosophy, and with its scriptorium whose several manuscripts are still conserved from the Armenian monastery of Venice to the Armenian museum of Esfahan.

The medieval Armenian chapel of Dzordzor in Northern Iran
The Dzordzor chapel is the lest known monument of this region of monasteries, so much that this far it has not even figured in the guides. It was built around the 10th century, and then rebuilt after the great earthquake in 1324. Originally there was a fortified monastery around it too, but it gradually declined after the resettlement of the Armenian population in 1606. The chapel was also rather ruined when in 1986-87, because of a dam built on the nearby river, the Iranian state moved it to a point some half kilometer higher and in the same time also restored it.

The medieval Armenian monastery of Saint Stephen in Northern Iran, in the valley of the Araxes/Aras
The monasteries lay near to each other, so the simplest way to visit them is by taxi from Julfa or from Maku. It does not cost much, as a liter of gasoil costs only around 8 eurocents in Iran. When we were there, already for 200 thousand rials, that is for about 18 euros you could have a taxi for a whole day trip. The mountain roads are breathtakingly beautiful, and one stops the car again and again for taking a photo. As the road follows the border river for a long while, you should count for Iranian border guides appearing at some point and checking your papers.

The border river Araxes/Aras between Irán and Azerbaijan
The Dzordzor chapel is usually closed, but in the two monasteries there live an old Kurd and Azeri guardian, respectively, who willingly open the church and guide you around. And there is a day in the year when the monastery of Saint Thaddeus comes to life again. On this day, the day of its holy patron a multitude of Armenians come together here from all around the world to celebrate Mass and having a feast with music and dance. Fabien Dany in the last year and Duško M Du Swami in this year were there and published their photos. Perhaps in the next year I will also manage to do so.

The medieval Armenian monastery of Saint Thaddeus in Northern Iran, on the feast of Saint Thaddeus

2 comentarios:

NOCTOC dijo...

Thanks so much for all this information that very few people know about.I hope next time I go to Iran, I will be able to visit the north part and go there as well.

Studiolum dijo...

I am happy if this short summary moved you to go to see that wonderful region. It is very much worth the fee. The next time when I go to Iran I plan to spend two whole weeks among these mountains, because there are so many beautiful spots to see with my own eyes.