Vank Cathedral is located in the New Julfa suburb of Isfahan in Iran. New Julfa is one of the largest and oldest Armenian suburbs in the world.
Here’s why you should visit New Julfa and the Vank Cathedral when in Isfahan Iran.
Vank Cathedral | History and Exterior
The Holy Savior Cathedral is apparently the sites actual name. Though its more commonly referred to as Vank Cathedral. It’s located in the New Julfa district of Isfahan.
New Julfa and the Vank Cathedral were constructed in the early 16th century. Following the forcible relocation of Armenians during the Ottoman-Safavid War between 1603 and 1618.
Shah Abbas I relocated Armenians to New Julfa while protecting their rights and property through royal edict. And these edicts by Shah Abbas I and his successors are on display in the sites museum.
From the outside it’s difficult to tell just how old the site is. And it was difficult to judge the historical significance of the site from the buildings outward appearance.
I personally found the exterior architecture of the site relatively uninteresting. Made predominantly of brick, it has had many extensions and alterations over its history.
It was only on entering the cathedral that I came to fully appreciate the significance of the site. Its the interior of the cathedral with its frescos that have the site under consideration for addition to the UNESCO World Heritage List.
Vank Cathedral | Interior
Entering the Vank Cathedral results in a sensory overload. I didn’t know where to look. There are frescos, gilded carvings and intricate tile work covering every inch of the cathedrals interior.
Above the entry there is a large depiction of the biblical separation of heaven and hell. With 7 distinct divisions.
Different bands of artwork are separated by more traditional Persian floral patterns. These floral patterns feature the gold and blues found in Safavid decoration. While the bands themselves depict the life of Jesus and the persecution of Armenians by the Ottoman Empire.
Across the roof with its almost mosque like dome are traditional Armenian cherubs and further biblical scenes. Interspersed by more traditional Persian designs.
The interior of the cathedral is such a fusion of Persian and Armenian art that I found it hard to process. I would start by finding a particular band or motif. And then I would follow it through the church before moving to the next band and beginning the process again.
You only need to look at the pictures below to get a sense of just how intense the interior artwork is. With the exception of the floor every surface is covered in art.
Museum of Khachatur Kesaratsi
The Museum of Khachatur Kesaratsi is located within the Vank compound. It’s home to a large collection of religious texts and bibles. These works cover at minimum a millennia.
Also on display in the museum are the royal edicts protecting Armenians. These edicts start from Shah Abbas I and include some of his successors.
These royal edicts or decrees condemn the persecution of Armenians and prohibit interference with their property and affairs. And they sit beside artefacts testament to the Armenian Genocide of 1915 and the many massacres of Armenians by Ottoman or Turkish forces both before and since.
I found the contrast between the royal edicts of the Shahs and the atrocities committed by the Ottoman Empire sat in stark contrast.
Below is a video I took of a display case containing a selection of bibles dating from approximately the 8th century through the Middle Ages. The bibles were written in a host of different languages and printed with different methods. With the earliest of them transcribed by hand.
While I didn’t find the architecture at Vank Cathedral particularly impressive the artwork within the church was wholly overwhelming. Im not myself a religious person nor am I knowledgeable when it comes to religious art. Yet I found it hard not to be impressed by the art adorning the interior of Vank Cathedral.
The only other place in Iran that I found similar style frescos was in Chehel Sotoon Palace. Which is also in Isfahan and it too dates from the Safavid dynasty. Yet the artwork in Vank Cathedral appeared to be better preserved and more colourful than those I saw when I visited Chehel Sotoon.
I thoroughly enjoyed the attached museum. From the royal edicts to the early printing press and large collection of religious texts the whole museum was of interest to me. In the end I probably spent longer wandering around the museum than I did in the cathedral itself.
Each exhibit within the museum explained the cultural or religious significance of an item and its production or use. As an example when I was looking at the bibles the item description not only explained what I was looking at and its historical significance. But also its production method and materials.
The one caveat I’d put on the museum is a warning about the artefacts pertaining to the Armenian genocide. It provides a rather chilling account. If you’re one of those people that don’t believe the genocide occurred you can expect to have your views challenged and corrected.
I thoroughly enjoyed visiting Vank Cathedral. And I would recommend to everyone travelling to Isfahan to visit.
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