Vank Cathedral, Armenian Quarter, Esfahan, Iran

The Vank Cathedral, built by Armenians in what was then “New Julfa” (Jolfa now)

King Abbas the First demanded that among other groups, the Armenians relocate from old Julfa to new in order to flee the approaching Ottoman Empire. He then allowed them to settle, and build their own houses of Christian worship. This took place in 1606, our calendar year (It is only now 1397 once new year strikes in Iran under Islamic calendar)

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Shah Abbas I

Shah Abbas welcomed Armenians into the New Julfa and treated them very well, valuing their skill in the silk trade in hopes that it would be of benefit to Isfahan’s economy. His instincts proved correct, and it is said that the Armenians once had a trade route extending to places such as Amsterdam and Manila. It would become a ‘great hub’ in the trading world over the next few centuries.

What was first built as a small, humble church in Isfahan, was later expanded and beautified by the best architects, artists and engineers of the day, and upon completion, it stood much as the very same structure that you can visit today. Though the exterior style is quite Islamic/Arab in nature, the interior is floor-to-ceiling exactly what one would expect to view when visiting any old cathedral.

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Taken in recent years, the photo shows a priest offering services to visitors in Vank Cathedral.

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Artful and elaborate frescoes adorn wall and ceiling in this magnificent cathedral.

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Of the most popular artworks at Vank is this depiction of Christ speaking to his followers

By all historical accounts, the Christians, Muslims and Jews who settled into Isfahan in their escape from violence and persecution at the hands of the Ottoman Empire lived together in peace and cooperation, building the city and a vast history together.

To the present day, you will still find many Armenians living in Isfahan, a city known for being not only the first place they settled, but an area which still remains fairly friendly toward them today despite Christians being such a small minority in Iran overall.

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Armenians celebrating New Year in 2011 in Iran

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While the number of Armenians may be small in Iran, the contributions they have lent to Iran’s beautiful history, to include many buildings, artworks and industries cannot be denied. They played an important role in the trade economy, and to this day, many who live in Iran are quite proud of the country that welcomed them so long ago.

It is sometimes a confusing question, when someone asks if I or my family are “Iranian.” when so many westerners take this to actually mean “Persian” as ethnicity. I always say that we are Armenians who happened to come to the USA from Iran, which I think makes that cultural distinction without removing the national pride each of them felt  for Iran even long after they had left it to make new lives here in America.

Whatever the coming changes are for Iran, I suspect there will always be Armenians there, just as they remain in all the other countries in which they have scattered throughout the world.

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-Rachel

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