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Middle East Brian Dispatch

My Visit to the Vank (pronounced Bonk)
April 12, 2000

Jasmine and I weave our way through crowded streets past countless women in flowing black chadors. All the women are covered from head to toe, and after a few weeks here in Iran, I have begun to grow accustomed to this requirement of Islamic law. I often assume that all these women we pass are Muslim, but we are on our way to visit a church today, and it brings up a question in my mind: If we are going to visit a church, then there must still be Christians in Iran. But how can you tell who is Muslim and who is not? The chador is a requirement of Iranian law, so even women of other faiths must also cover their heads in public. I guess there is no way to tell unless you hang out in the chapel and see who shows up.

Although Iran is 99% Muslim, we have taken some time to look at some of the religious minorities still worshipping freely here. We have visited with some Zoroastrians who showed us their homes and also visited several Christian landmarks including the Black Church.

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Welcome to the Vank Cathedral!  Doesn't it look a little like a mosque?
This time we are weaving our way through the streets to visit the Vank Cathedral (rhymes with bonk), which is a church built in the city of Esfahan. The courtyard is full of people when we arrive, and the neighboring museum is absolutely packed with curious folks. It makes sense that Muslims are so interested in a Christian museum because Jesus is recognized as one of 124,000 prophets that their God has sent to Earth. Because of this, the Vank Cathedral is still revered as a holy place, and no cameras are allowed in the museum or the sanctuary of the church. So you will just have to listen to my words and use your imagination until you come and visit here yourself!

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larger view
-This archway is a perfect mix of Persian Islamic and Christian European styles - look for the painting of the figures near the bottom
After wandering around the courtyard for a few minutes and blinking in the blinding sun, the first thing we did was head straight for the sanctuary. As we got closer to the door, I saw that everyone inside was staring straight up at the ceiling, and for a moment, I wondered what all the excitement was about. When we stepped through the doorway, a brilliant world of color unfolded before our eyes. The interior surface of the Vank Cathedral is covered in paintings from the bottom of the walls to the top of the dome. I was immediately reminded of the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel painted by Michelangelo. There are flying angels and battling demons, and around the base of the walls is the story of Jesus as told through pictures. The colors are rich and deep, and it is easy to get lost in the picture and stare forever. Big angel heads flying on wings smiled down from the ceiling.

Website about Eshafan
the central square in Eshafan
Pictures of the Vank Cathedral
It was quite a change to be surrounded by all these painted faces after our many visits to Islamic mosques throughout Iran, which are never decorated with any pictures of people or animals. This church seemed to be the best of both worlds: the outside looks very similar to a Persian mosque, while the interior explodes in colors and figures that are absolutely beautiful to behold.

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Monica paid a visit to the Armenian church in Ghazvin
Much of this beauty can be attributed to the fact that the Cathedral was built during the reign of the Safavid dynasty in Iran. The Safavids ruled from the 16th through the early 18th century, and this time is now recognized as the Golden Age of Persian architecture Shah Abbas I made Esfahan his modern capital, so money for construction was plentiful when the cathedral was built from 1655 through 1664 CE. Business was booming, and great Islamic mosques such as the Masjed-e Emam were springing up throughout the city. The style of this period was contagious, and the mixture of Islamic Persian and Christian European styles is very obvious in the Vank Cathedral.

chador - a large cloth donned by Muslim women (especially in Iran), worn as a combination head covering, veil, and shawl
focal - having a focus
votive candle - a candle lit in devotion or gratitude
This church is also very important for another reason. The churches that we have visited in Iran all have one thing in common - emigrants from the country of Armenia established them. Traditionally, most Christians in Iran have been Armenian, and this is still true today. Armenian Christians first settled in a town named Jolfa near the northern border, until Shah Abbas I moved them to Esfahan and named their settlement "New Jolfa." The Vank Cathedral sits right in the middle of New Jolfa today. Do you remember the four quarters of the old city in Jerusalem, where Christians, Muslims, Jews, and Armenians each live with their own distinct traditions and religions? The neighborhood of New Jolfa is like the Armenian quarter in Jerusalem, and the Cathedral is now the focal point for Armenian Christians in Iran.

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larger view
Christian pilgrims or Muslim tourists?
But even if you are an Armenian Christian looking for a new church, don't pack your bags yet. Most Christian churches in Iran are now tourist attractions. The Black Church only holds one service a year, and a church that we visited in the town of Ghazvin has been waiting eight years for a new pastor. Although no services are held in Ghazvin, people still come in and pray or light a votive candle for someone they love. The Vank Cathedral is in a similar position. No regular services are held there, but it remains a powerful presence in this Armenian neighborhood and provides a safe place for them to come and worship according to their beliefs.

Iran does not persecute followers of other faiths, but there are certain "perks" to being Muslim here. If a son in a Zoroastrian family (or any other faith) converts to Islam, he is immediately declared the sole heir of the family inheritance and any non-Muslim siblings are excluded. On the other hand, if a Muslim converts to another faith, they are immediately disinherited and excluded from the family in legal and financial matters. So although this is not aggressive persecution, it could be characterized as strong persuasion.

Did you know that Iran hosts more refugees than any other country in the world? This may surprise you at first, but when you take a look at the map of the Middle East it begins to make more sense. Iran is surrounded by countries that are often engaged in ethnic or political struggles. Thousands of Kurds flee from Turkey and Iraq every year, where they endure heavy persecution. Refugees from Armenia and Azerbaijan continue to arrive as civil strife upsets these countries.

The ongoing civil war in Afghanistan has made the greatest impact on Iran. Over 1.5 million Afghan refugees now make their homes in Iran, primarily in the cities of Tehran and Mashhad.

As the crowd files out into the sun, I look at each person and wonder again if they are Christian pilgrims or Muslim tourists. To my untrained eye it is impossible to tell. The flowing chadors only heighten the mystery, and, in this case, I am grateful for the personal privacy that their clothing affords.

- Brian
p.s. - Please e-mail me at

Abeja - Out of Town, Across the Sand, Into the City: Nothin' but Desert! Iran Gets Creative with Wind and Water
Jasmine - The Golden Age: Safavid Rule
Kavitha - Balancing East and West: Pars Grows Up
Monica- Home is where the heart is... Zartosht's House
Team - Turn Off That Faucet! Water Doesn't Grow on Trees, You Know

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