I was really surprised to find beautiful Christian sites on our travels in Iran plus a Jewish holy place. Iranians like to say how tolerant they have been of other religions, throughout history. This was quite new to me as the few Iranians I have met outside of Iran had escaped the country because of religious persecution. From what I understand there is quite a difference in the treatment of those who have always been Christian (e.g. Armenian minority in Iran- accepted) and Muslims who convert to Christianity (illegal & punishable).
The first Christian site we saw was Vank Cathedral in the Armenian quarter of Esfahan. This quarter was established during the time of Shah Abbas I (1588-1629). He sought the Armenian Christians’ skills as merchants, entrepreneurs and artists so brought them to Esfahan and ensured that their religious freedom was respected. There are now around 5000 Armenian Christians living there but the population was as high as 42,000 in the past. Opposite the entrance to the fairly non-descript sand colour church was a statue of the Archbishop who set up the first printing press in Iran (and the Middle East) here, in 1636.
In total contrast to the simple exterior, the inside of the church is richly decorated and it just blew me away! Its elaborate interior was a mix of Islamic tiles & Christian frescoes – there was no space free of colour. Very interesting to see the mix of Armenian, European and Islamic architecture and art. So many old and new testament stories were portrayed and below and above these in the blue and gold dome, were beautiful mosaic tiles. It was sensory overload for the eyes.. so much to take in! The church was built between 1655 -1664, with the frescoes done by famous Armenian artists of that time who used oil paints and gold leaf. The tile work was done between 1710-1716.
Vank Cathedral, Esfahan
Beside the church a museum showed the history of printing in Iran and many, many old manuscripts, beautifully illustrated gospels and bibles. There was also a display regarding the terribly sad Armenian genocide, something neither of us knew much about. We were later to learn a lot more when we visited Armenia itself.
In the town of Hamadan we visited the alleged tombs of the Jewish Queen Esther (married to the Persian King Xerxes I / Ahasuerus) and her cousin Mordecai (who overheard a plot to kill the king & warned him, through Esther). According to the Biblical story Mordecai refused to bow down to Haman, the senior most official in the King’s court. Haman was duly outraged and ordered all Jews to be killed. Esther managed to beguile the King and revealed to him that she was a Jew and the plot to kill her and her people. The King then overturned Haman’s order, killing Haman on the gallows prepared for Mordecai and appointed Mordecai as primeminister. This story of Esther saving the Jews in the Persian Empire is celebrated in the Jewish holiday, Purim. Iranian Jews have for centuries made the pilgrimage to this site throughout the year but especially at Purim. These days there are not so many visitors.
The tombs are now housed in a tomb tower beside the more recently built synagogue (in the shape of the Star of David). To enter, one must bow low to get through the door- a heavy granite slab less than 4 feet tall. It was crazy to see the tombs of people one has read about in Old Testament stories, although there is question as to whether they actually were buried here. Not many Jews remain now in Hamadan but one guy has responsibility for the synagogue and letting people in to see the tombs.
Toward the end of our time in Iran we visited the Church of St Stephanos in the beautiful Aras River valley, 16km west of Jolfa. The location for a monastery was just perfect. Very scenic, quiet spot.
Some Armenian historians say Bartholomew, one of the 12 disciples, founded the church here after he went off to spread the message of Jesus to the world. The Lonely Planet guide says the original church was built on this spot in 62AD. The earliest surviving part of the current buildings is from the 14th century.