Armenian Iran: from Tabriz to Jolfa


Earlier:
Armenian monasteries in Iran
Armenian cemetery in Julfa
I arrived in Tabriz in the late afternoon. Near the Blue Mosque, I met the girl who would be my host for the week. Wrapped in her black Islamic dress, she was francophone, lively, eager for debate and for knowledge. Together with her and her friend, a capricious teenager, we roamed Tabriz as the day waned. I do not know how she came to speak to me about the Armenians of Tabriz: they are Christians, that should interest me. Yes, they are many, no, she does not know them, yes, they have schools and meeting places, and even churches. Who knows, perhaps one ought to be able to learn Armenian in Tabriz.

The churches.

She became enthusiastic. Yes, there are churches, but she does not exactly know, where. No, she has never been there, she does not know what a church is like, and besides, she thought that as a Muslim, she was forbidden to enter a church. However, says her friend, this prohibition does not apply to me… but by that time it was already dark. They asked the shopkeepers of the area. Yes, the church has to be hidden there, in that block of houses. We had to go down many small alleys, a dead end, and there we were. A gate, an intercom, a long discussion. The caretaker who opens the gate for us glances at the girl wrapped in her chador, and lets her in first: “who could see you?” Buildings in the courtyard, with closed windows, he must take the chains off the door – the church is no longer open to the faithful, only at Christmas and Easter. A new church, an empty and ugly one, where nothing recalls the memory of Marco Polo’s visit in the 13th century. But there is the caretaker who tells us these things, the mounting excitement, the questions, the hands that reach out and shake each other, the thanks, and I suddenly understand, that the young polyglot man with us, who previously pretended to be a tourist by speaking Italian to me, has just asked in Farsi, whether he might be allowed to learn Armenian. “Yes”, the caretaker answers, and then he hesitates, because, he says, the courses are also religious classes. Nevertheless, he gives a phone number and names.

Two or three days later, sitting on a carpet pile in the bazaar, the boy appears, and whispers to me that he has called, he has met someone, he can follow the course, all alone, secretly and without compulsion.

And that he had his first Armenian lesson that morning. The alphabet.


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And the girl? When she told her mother how she went with me at night to visit the Armenian church hidden deep in the maze of streets, in an enclosed courtyard behind high blank walls, and how the caretaker explained to her about the paintings, the four Evangelists, Christ on the cross in the choir, the tombstones with their long epitaphs on the sidewalls, and how the three of us were talking with the old caretaker in the shadows, her mother warmly congratulated her.

Afterward, we went with her father to visit other Armenian churches, lost in the mountains, far from the eyes of passersby. He, too, wanted to see a church.

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From Tabriz we went up to Jolfa, on the border with Nakhichevan, an enclave of Azerbaijan between Armenia and Iran. On the other side of the river Araz – the ancient Araxes – a bare hilly landscape, red earth, and in the center, a pale blue mountain, like a cone. This is Ilandag, the Snake Mountain, a huge blue fang that dominates the landscape of Nakhichevan; probably a volcano, about which it is said to have been struck by Noah’s Ark while drifting in the floodwaters. It is seen from far away. I did not enter Nakhichevan, I just admired it from the Iranian bank of the Araz, which borders it; on the other side, at the foot of the red cliffs, a railway, barracks and watchtowers.



And there were also other watchtowers all along the border, and anti-aircraft guns, and dusty and unshaven soldiers, bored in their forts, forgotten on this and that side of the Araz. At one point we stopped to take photos of the landscape on the other side of the river, the ragged red and brown and rose and white mountains, and in the distance the Ilandag. A loud voice called us from a little bastion that sat there, almost on the bank of the Araz, “forbidden”, said the voice. No pictures then, so we get back to the car, go ahead a hundred meters, and after the turn stop again. The angle is less good, but no soldiers in sight. Further on, we are halted. The two soldiers are young and hilarious, you cannot go further, they say, there is a chemical contamination. Impossible, really dangerous. Sepideh and her father try to convince them, we came so far (especially me), all for nothing, such a shame. The soldiers bend down to see me, and they suggest that we see their superior. We leave. A dirt road, a concrete cube surrounded by barbed wire under a blazing sun; under a tamarisk, a yellow dog watching me without moving, as I come closer. In the background, the Araz, moving green water, red mountains, and the gray-blue Ilandag. Stifling air, blinding light, heat. Not yet the terrible heat of the desert, that came only later, but at that very moment it seemed to be the hottest heat I could bear.

The superior comes out from the concrete cube, he pulls back the barbed wire fence, and comes toward us. A weary grimace on his young face, his eyes looking at me sideways. A handsome blond boy, bored in his guard post. He listens to the request, shrugs his shoulders, and pulls out a pen from his pocket. He draws a pass in fine arabesques in the palm of the guide’s hand, directly on his skin. We pass the road block. A few hundred meters further, they are re-asphalting the road – that must be it, the chemical contamination.

Beyond that, the road starts winding between the cliffs, it climbs up, descends a steep slope, with the green river far below. The cliffs are barren, purple, orange, punctuated with yellow bushes. The guide slows down and points at a pile of rocks on a hill. These are the remains of a small church, the church of the shepherds, Kelisâ-ye Chupân, founded in 1518.

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Ten kilometers ahead, in a place which suddenly becomes like an oasis, a jumble of trees in a grove, we arrive to one of the most beautiful Armenian churches of Iran, the fortified monastery of St. Stepanos. The valley is deserted, nobody has lived here for centuries. Once Armenia stretched from here to Lake Van, Tabriz was its last point towards the East, and Jolfa an important stop on the Silk Road, a city of esteemed artisans and merchants. During the Renaissance, Jolfa had commercial representatives even in Amsterdam.


However, trapped between the Persians, the Russians and the Turks, the region could not remain forever outside of the conflicts which for centuries roiled the Caucasus. And in 1606, when Shah Abbas began the construction of Isfahan, he invited the artisans of Jolfa to settle there and to be its master builders – and at the end he resettled the entire population of Jolfa to Isfahan. During WWI the region was under Ottoman control, and after 1915 the Turks tried to erase all traces of the Armenian presence. No villages have survived, only a few churches. The only remains of Jolfa in the present enclave of Nakhichevan, an Armenian cemetery consisting of nearly ten thousand headstones carved before the 17th century, were entirely destroyed in 2005 by the Azerbaijani army. Or rather, in the words of Aliyev, President of Azerbaijan, “no Armenian cemetery was destroyed, since there were never any Armenians in Nakhichevan.”

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The monastery of St. Stepanos was probably founded before the 7th century (tradition traces it back to the Apostle Bartholomew). It occupies an area of approximately 70 × 50 m, encircled with high fortified walls and circular or semicircular towers. It has two internal courts, the one outside the church, the other within the monastery buildings. The bell tower is built close to the southern wall of the church. The recently restored church has a cruciform plan with three apses, and an elaborately carved exterior, which shows various influences, including Seljuk artistry, whose revival was characteristic of the Armenian Renaissance during the Safavid period in the 17th century.

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The place was not entirely deserted, all doors were open, the caretakers were smiling and talkative, the very few tourists curious and attentive. Only Iranians. Or maybe Armenians. Yes, the caretaker was too proud of the expertise of the Armenian craftsmen to not to be one of their descendants.