Before leaving Iran, it is only fitting in a way that I/we step away from the beauty and progressive qualities on display in the country to reflect on the reality that "all is not gold" and turquoise. The Near East, not unlike all the other geographical regions of our world, has been cauldron of war, atrocity, greed and incompetence from time to time. Iran’s governors and citizens are not blind to this fact. To the bad gets mixed with the good. While some countries like the US tend to perceive the nation of Iran with suspicion of all its motives, it is important to know that many minority religions, even Christianity and Judaism, thrived in this Muslim land for centuries. A memorial to an Armenian catastrophe, known as the Ottoman massacre of 1915, has been established in Isfahan, where Orthodox Armenian Christians still number more than 10,000. The memorabilia of the catastrophic event is housed on the grounds of the famous Vank Cathedral in the new Jolfa Quarter of the city and are a somber tribute to an event that devastated a non-Muslim population in this region under Ottoman, not Persian rule.
New Julfa is still an Armenian-populated area with an Armenian school and sixteen churches, including Surp Amenaprgitch Vank, which is a Unesco World Heritage site, and undoubtedly one of the most beautiful churches in Iran.
Courtyard of The Vank
The Holy Savior Cathedral (or Vank) is a marvel unto itself. The Orthodox Christian structure displays a striking blend of Armenian and Safavid architecture. Built in 1606 and expanded in 1655, the church accommodated the needs of Armenian refugees from the Ottoman lands. Adjacent vaults essentially draw from both the Christian and Islamic sensibilities. One literally drowns in scenes from the Bible and the other blasts ornate colors with Islamic patterns all the way to heaven.
A blue and gold painted central dome depicts the Biblical story of the creation of the world and man's expulsion from the Garden of Eden. A cherub's head surrounded by folded wings is a distinctly Armenian motif . The ceiling above the entrance is painted with delicate floral motifs in the style of Persian miniature (an artistic technique that normally is applied to illustrate sacred texts like the Bible and Koran).
A miniature on the cover of an ornate Bible
Miniature artist is Isfahan
The cathedral library contains more than 700 manuscripts and rare sources on Armenian and medieval European languages and arts.
As one Internet commenter stated (with the approval of others), “Iranian Muslims have been good to Armenians in Iran. Even … the current Muslim Regime of Iran, has shown much kindness and goodwill to Armenians in Iran. Armenian Churches in Iran are in good condition, Armenian Schools also function well in Iran.”
Walking around this church, one gets an ever changing charge of color and history. I only wish I knew more of the myths and history, as the hundreds and maybe thousands of characters depicted are overwhelming.
Two bands of paintings or murals cover the interior walls: the top section depicts events from the life of Jesus; while the bottom section depicts tortures inflicted upon Armenian martyrs by the Ottomans.
After gazing on the battle of Christianity, detailed and depicted on cathedral walls as a dual track adventure of biblical faith and cultural warfare, I leave the building and return to the Grand Square where the tension of the Book, that is, Islam’s Koran, and of the streets and bazaar persist to this day. As everywhere, people here drift between the relics and edifices designed to inspire, return to the stalls and shops to perspire and eventually are compelled by age to simply retire and await the fate shared by us all, whether Christian, Muslim, Jew, Buddhist, Hindu, Atheist or just a Pilgrim.
Entering the Grand Bazaar for the last time, one of the many similar beating hearts of trade in Iran, I am immersed again in a swirl of buyers and sellers, of families shopping or just relaxing, of tourists like me gawking and feeling leg weary. The sun has set, a sickle moon is beginning to drift across the Grand Square, children frolic beside the massive fountains, and electric lights come on to illuminate halls and walls that have stood for centuries, even millennia.
On right: Sobek guide Hadi, a fountain of knowledge and sensibility
The Sickle Moon
Weapons of war backed into the shadows are silent and ignored; and since it is Muharram men under a mobile tent dispense drinks to men and women gathered in clumps beneath a sign declaring “Down with America.” And then a stranger approached me — a hawker of Persian carpets — and asked whether I would like a free cup of coffee.
[ Note: This is the conclusion of a report on my 2-week journey to Iran in September 2017, along with Richard Bangs and other companions. I appreciate anyone who took time to view at least a few of the images I presented or read some of my commentary. I hope I offered you a relatively unbiased introduction to modern and ancient Persia, or Iran. For Americans especially, this is an introduction. Iran/ Persia is a big subject and will remain so, I predict, in the news and on the world stage over the next decade and more.
I stress that in my travels I studiously try to elevate the extraordinary, the good and the beautiful. Plato posited essentially that Beauty is the easiest place to start down the road toward Knowledge.
However, I am well aware that every place has pitfalls and all the world’s citizens share faults and inadequacies that can “take the bloom off the rose,” so to speak. Iran is no exception. When traveling, while one of my eyes is peering curiously through the viewfinder of a camera, my other eye is looking carefully at the ground.]