Historical Churches & Christianity Roots in Iran
October 14, 2004
The majority of churches in Iran that possess historical and artistic
value were built around the eight century A.H. or the 14th century AD,
and the period thereafter. Of course, this does not mean that there were
no churches existing in the country before that period.
During the reign of Shah Abbas, the Safavid king, his sagacious policies
caused a sizable number of Armenians from Armenia and Azerbaijan to
transfer and settle in Isfahan and other regions of Iran. A place called
Jolfa was built at the banks of the Zayande-rud River in Esfahan and
became the residence of these migrating people. Consequently, churches
were erected in that town.
Meanwhile, after a short lapse of time, some Armenians moved to Gilan
and some resided in Shiraz.
After the death of Shah Abbas the First, his successor, Shah Abbas the
Second, also paid close attention to the welfare of Armenians and more
churches were erected in Jolfa.
The influx of many Europeans during the reign of the Qajars led to the
flourishing of other churches, in addition to those that were
constructed previously. A number of these edifices have lasted and
acquired architectural and artistic significance.
Azarbaijan is host to the oldest churches in Iran. Among the most
significant are the Tatavous Vank (St. Tatavous Cathedral), which is
also called the Ghara Kelissa (the black monastery). This is located at
the Siahcheshmeh (Ghara-Eini) border area south of Makou. There is also
the church known as Saint Stepanous, which stands 24 kilometers south of
Azarbaijan's Jolfa town.
Generally, each church has a large hall for congregational prayers; its
foremost part is raised like a dais, adorned with the pictures or images
of religious figures and it also serves as an altar. Here, candles are
lighted and the church mass is conducted by the priest. On the
foreground is the praying congregation which face the platform where the
priest is leading the rites in the church; this is similar to the Muslim
practice of praying facing the niche in the mosque. While the mass is
being said, the people stand, kneel, or sit depending on what the rites
The structure of churches in Iran follow more or less the pattern of
Iranian architecture, or they are a mixture of Iranian and non-Iranian
Saint Stepanous church is another old church located at an intersection
west of the Marand-Jolfa highway and east of the Khoy-Jolfa road. Also
having a pyramidal dome, it is, nevertheless, quite beautiful and far
more pleasant to behold than the Saint Tatavous church.
The general structure mostly resembles Armenian and Georgian
architecture and the inside of the building is adorned with beautiful
paintings by Honatanian, a renowned Armenian artist. Hayk Ajimian, an
Armenian scholar and historian, recorded that the church was originally
built in the ninth century AD, but repeated earthquakes in Azarbaijan
completely eroded the previous structure. The church was rebuilt during
the rule of Shah Abbas the Second.
Saint Mary's Church in Tabriz:
This church was built in the sixth century A.H. (12th century AD) and in
his travel chronicles, Marco Polo, the famous Venetian traveler who
lived during the eight century A.H. (14th century AD), referred to this
church on his way to China. For so many years, Saint Mary's served as
the seat of the Azarbaijan Armenian Archbishop. It is a handsomely built
edifice, with different annex buildings sprawled on a large area. A
board of Armenian peers are governing the well- attended church.
Aside from the above three churches, there are others in Azarbaijan such
as the old church built in the eight century A.H. at Modjanbar village,
which is some 50 kilometers from Tabriz Another one is the large Saint
Sarkis church, situated in Khoy; this building has survived from the
time of Shah Abbas the Second (12th century A.H.). During the reign of
the said Safavid king, another edifice called the Saint Gevorg (Saint
George) church was constructed, using marble stones and designed with a
large dome, at Haft Van village near Shapur (Salmas). A church, also
with a huge dome, likewise stands at Derishk village in the vicinity of
Shapur, in Azarbaijan.
The Saint Tatavous Monastery or the Ghara Kelissa:
Initially, this church comprised of a small hall with a pyramid- shaped
dome on the top and 12 crevices similar to the Islamic dome-shaped
buildings from the Mongol era. The difference was that the church dome
was made of stone. The main part of this pyramid structure followed
Byzantine (Eastern Roman) architecture, including the horizontal and
parallel fringes made of white and black stones in the interior and
black stones on the exterior facing.
Since the facade is dominated by black stones, the church was formerly
called the Ghara Kelissa (or black monastery) by the natives. During the
reign of the Qajar ruler, Fathalishah, new structures were added to the
Saint Tatavous church upon the order of Abbas Mirza, the crown prince,
and the governor of Azarbaijan. The renovations resulted in the
enlargement of the prayer hall and the small old church was converted
into a prayer platform, holding the altar, the holy ornaments and a
place where the priest could lead the prayers. The bell tower and the
church entrance were situated at one side of the new building, but
unfortunately, this part remained unfinished.
Meanwhile, due to border skirmishes and other political disturbances in
the area during the succeeding periods, the church was abandoned and
ruined. Some minor repairs have been carried out in recent years. Each
year, during a special season (in the summer), many Armenians from all
parts of Iran travel to this site for prayer and pilgrimage. They come
by jeeps or trucks after crossing a very rough mountainous passage. They
flock around the church, stay for a few days and perform their religions
ceremonies. For the rest of the year, however, the church remains
deserted in that remote area.
The additions made to the Saint Tatavous church on the order of Abbas
Mirza consist of embossed images of the apostles on the facade and
decorations of flowers, bushes, lion and sun figures and arabesques, all
of which had been done by Iranian craftsmen. The architecture of the
church interior is a combination of Byzantine, Armenian and Georgian
designs. Beside the large church, special chambers have been built in
the yard to shelter pilgrims and hermits.
Historical Churches at Jolfa of Isfahan:
The most important historical church in Iran is the old cathedral,
commonly referred to as the Vank (which means "cathedral" in the
Armenian language). This large building was constructed during the reign
of Shah Abbas the First and completely reflects Iranian architecture. It
has a double-layer brick dome that is very much similar to those built
by the Safavids. The interior of the church is decorated with glorious
and beautiful paintings and miniature works that represent biblical
traditions and the image of angels and apostles, all of which have been
executed in a mixture of Iranian and Italian styles. The ceiling and
walls are coated with tiles from the Safavid epoch.
At a corner of the large courtyard of the cathedral, offices and halls
have been built to accommodate guests, the Esfahan archbishop and his
retinue, as well as other important Armenian religious hierarchy in
Iran. The church compound also includes a museum that is located in a
separate building. The museum displays preserved historical records and
relics, and the edicts of Iranian kings dating back to the time of Shah
Abbas the First. It also contains an interesting collection of art work.
Esfahan has other historical churches, the most important of which is
the Church of Beit-ol Lahm (Bethlehem) at Nazar Avenue. There are also
the Saint Mary church at Jolfa Square and the Yerevan church in the
The Armenian Church in Shiraz:
In the eastern section of Ghaani Avenue, in a district called "Sare
Jouye Aramaneh", an interesting building has survived from the era of
Shah Abbas the Second. Its principal structure stands in the midst of a
garden-like compound and consists of a prayer hall with a lofty flat
ceiling and several cells flanking the two side of the building. The
ceiling is decorated with original paintings from the Safavid era and
the adjoining cells are adorned with niches and arches and plaster
molding, also in the Safavid style. This is considered a historical
monument at Shiraz and definitely worth a visit.
Saint Simon's Church in Shiraz:
This is another relatively important, but not so old church in Shiraz.
The large hall is completely done in Iranian style while the roof is
Roman. Small barrel-shaped vaults, many Iranian art work and stained
glass window panes adorn the church. Meanwhile, another church called
the Glory of Christ, stands at Ghalat, 34 kilometers from Shiraz. This
building has survived from the Qajar period and is surrounded by
Saint Tatavous Church, Tehran:
This edifice is located at the Chaleh Meidan district, one of the oldest
districts in Tehran It stands south of the Seyed Esmail Mausoleum, at
the beginning of the northern part of the so-called Armenians' Street.
The oldest church of Tehran, it was built during the reign of the Qajar
king, Fathalishah. The building has a dome-shaped roof and four alcoves,
an altar and a special chair reserved for the Armenian religions leader
or prelate. The vestibule leading to the church contains the graves of
prominent non-Iranian Christians who have died in Iran, and in the
middle of the churchyard, Gribaydof, the Czarist ambassador at the court
of Fathalishah, and his companions were laid to rest. They were killed
by the revolutionary forces of Tehran at that time.
Meanwhile in Bushehr, there is a church from the Qajar period that is a
good specimen of Iranian architecture. All the windows are modeled after
old Iranian buildings and the colored panes are purely Iranian art work.
There are also many other churches in Ourumieh, in hamlets surrounding
Arasbaran, Ardabil, Maragheh, Naqadeh, Qazvin, Hameadan Khuzestan,
Chaharmahal, Arak, in the old Vanak village north of Tehran, etc. These
churches, though, are all deserted and are of little artistic significance.