At ten I met Hamid and Masud in the lobby for our trip to the Church St. Stephanos. Although of course mainly concerned with the history of the Ilkhanate in Iran, I am also interested in monuments which pre-date the Mongol occupation and have managed to survive down to the present day. There are wildly differing opinions about how old St. Stephanos Church is, but it is possible that at least some parts of it were built before the Ilkhanate period.
An inch of fresh snow has fallen overnight, but the roads are bare by the time we start out. Just beyond our hotel we pass by a large parking lot where an Ashura ceremony is taking place. In front of a flat-bed truck with loudspeakers a group of actors in notionally seventh century costumes play out the deaths of Muhammad’s grandson Husain and his family and supporters at the hands of the Umayyads. The Umayyad villains are dressed in red. In a ring around the actors are several hundred spectators, almost all the women dressed in black chadors. Hamid does not offer to stop, and I do not ask to. I get the feeling this ceremony is not intended as a spectator event for non-Muslim foreigners. I read to him Evliya’s account of Ashura from 1640s, and he points outs the ritual blood-letting described by Evliya was outlawed by Grand Ayatollah Ali Hosseini Khamenei, the president of Iran from 1981 to 1989, although it is still practiced in some other countries.
The city of Tabriz sits in a bowl surrounded by rust-covered hills, now lightly dusted with snow. North of the city we emerge out onto rolling steppe broken up by outcroppings and ridges of red rock. When the Mongols first arrived in this region in 1220 the expansive steppe had immediately caught their attention, since it provided adequate grazing for their horses, something not always available in other parts of Persia. Also, the terrain was very similar to some areas of Mongolia, which may have helped assuage any homesickness they were experiencing on a long campaign far from their homeland.
After passing through several small towns we arrive at the small city of Julfa, on south bank of the Aras River, about seventy miles northwest of Tabriz. The river here is the border between Iran and Azerbaijan, or, more precisely, the Nakhchivan Autonomous Republic, an exclave separated from the rest of Azerbaijan by a southern extension of Armenia, which joins with the Iranian border about twenty-seven miles east of here. Although considered a part of the Republic of Azerbaijan, Nakhchivan, covering 2120 square miles—almost twice the size of Rhode Island—and with a population of 410,000, has been an autonomous region since 1990 and is governed by its own elected legislature. On the north side of the Aras River is the Azerbaijan (Nakhchivan) city of Julfa. This Julfa made international headlines back in the 1990s when the nearby Armenian Christian cemetery containing thousands of elaborately carved tombstones, many considered historical monuments, were reportedly destroyed by Azerbaijanis, despite the protests of UNESCO and other international bodies.
According to legend, the Julfa on the north side of the Aras was found by Tigranes I, King of Armenia from 115 b.c. to 95 b.c. It would have been part of the Kingdom of Greater Armenia, which lasted from 321 b.c to 428 a.d., and at its height stretched from the the Caspian Sea in the east to the Black Sea in the west and from Georgia in the north to the Mesopotamian plain in the south. By the time the Mongols arrived in the thirteenth century it was a sizable city populated almost entirely by Armenians. In the following centuries it became a major trade entrepôt linking the Iranian Plateau, Inner Asia, and India with Russia, the Black Sea, and the Mediterranean Basin. In the late sixteenth century is was captured by the expansionist Ottoman Turks. In 1603 the Safavid ruler Abbas Shah retook the city, but he soon realized he could not hold it against the continuing onslaughts of the Ottomans. In 1605 he deported the citizens of the city—over three thousand families —deep into Safavid territory, most of them eventually taking up resident near Esfahan, and burned the city to the ground rather than let it slip into Ottoman hands. Later a village grew up amidst the ruins and a larger settlement was established adjacent to it. The Persians eventually retook the area, and this new settlement became part of the Nakhchivan Khanate, a Persian vassal state. Following the Russo-Persian War of 1826–1828 the Khanate was ceded to Russia, and Sulfa became an official border crossing point between Persia and the Russian Empire. In time the Iranian city of Sulja grew up on the south side the Aras River. The two Julfas are currently linked by a road bridge and a railway bridge.
Iranian Julfa is now the center of the Aras Free Trade Zone (AFTZ), established by the Iranian government in 2003. The thirty-seven square-mile free trade zone, which borders on the Nakhchivan Autonomous Republic, Armenia, and the Republic of Azerbaijan, serves as a conduit for goods to and from Turkey, Armenia, Georgia, Iraq, Kyrgyzstan, Moldova, Uzbekistan, Germany, Russia, Ukraine, Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, the UAE, and Taiwan. Machinery parts, electrical appliances, helicopters, glassware, glue, tea, turmeric, various types of dried nuts, clothes, tires, and much else pass through the free trade zone, but perhaps the most important trade items, and certainly the most visible, are cars. The approaches to Julfa are lined with car dealers with hundred of cars lined up on their lots. Hamid, it turns out, is a car buff. His dream, he says, is to own the latest model BMW. He ogles the cars on the lots and at one point shouts, “Look at that! An American muscle-car!” (I didn’t catch the make, and I forgot to ask what a “muscle car” actually is). He asks if on our return from Church of St. Stephanos he can make a couple of quick stops at car dealers to check prices. Expensive cars, like Mercedes-Benzes and BMWs, he claims, are five to ten thousand dollars cheaper here than in Tehran, where he lives.
In Julfa itself we drive by another Ashura ceremony much like the one we saw in Tabriz. In front of a flatbed truck with loudspeakers a group of costumed actors, the Umayyad villains in red, play out the solemn drama of the deaths of Muhammad’s grandson Husain and his family and supporters. Several hundred spectators surround the actors. Just past the Ashura ceremony our driver spots a crowd of men in front of a one-story shopping center. Many are holding plastic clamshell containers in their hands and shoveling what looks like rice into their mouths with their fingers. Apparently part of the Ashura ceremony involves dispensing free food to the public. Evliya Celebi commented on this practice in Tabriz in the 1640s:
Another marvelous and noteworthy spectacle is the Ashura ceremony held every year on the tenth day of Muharram. All the notables and citizens, young and old, come out to [the] polo grounds where they pitch their tents and stay for three days and three nights. They boil innumerable cauldrons of Ashura pudding, in remembrance of the martyrs in the plain of Karbala, and distribute it among rich and poor alike, devoting the religious merit accrued thereby to those martyrs’ spirits.
“You should try the Ashura meal. It’s free!” says Hamid. In the vestibule of the shopping center four men are ladling a simple rice and mutton plov out of an enormous basin. The leader spots me, an obvious foreigner, and asks Hamid where I am from. Hamid says I am an American. “From America!” shouts the man, “Tell him if he accepts this food he must convert to Islam!” This was apparently meant as a jest, since many of the bystanders burst out laughing. He handed me my clamshell portion with a big smile on his face. Several men came forward to shake my hand. A couple guys insist I pose with them while their friends take photos with their cell phones. Another guy hurries up with spoons for the city guys and their foreign guest who of course cannot be expected to eat with their fingers. Masud has instant coffee, tea bags, a thermos of hot water, and a big box of Persian pastries in the trunk of our car. We stand around the open trunk and enjoy our impromptu lunch of rice and mutton. I am reminded of the rice with raisins often handed out during ceremonies at Buddhist temples in Mongolia.
About two miles west of Julfa, hard by the banks of the Aras River, we stop at the Khajeh Nasar Caravanserai. Usually, Hamid claims, it is possible to enter the interior of the caravanserai, but today the big entrance door is closed and locked, perhaps because of Ashura, and we must be content with viewing the outside of the structure. The caravanserai had been built by the Armenian trader Khajeh Nazar Armani. He was one of the Armenians deported, as mentioned earlier, to the Esfahan area by Shah Abbas back at the beginning of the seventeenth century. In Esfahan Khajeh Nazar Armani flourished as a trader, amassing a sizable fortune, and soon caught the attention of Shah Abbas himself. With Shah Abbas’s approval he returned to his homeland and built two caravanserais, the one here and another directly across the river. The caravanserai on the north side of the river apparently no longer exists. The remaining caravanserai, measuring about 130 feet by 200 feet, consists a courtyard lined on three sides by quarters for traveling merchants and storage rooms. A handsome structure of brick and cut stone, it no doubt rated the seventeenth century equivalent of five stars. In the seventeenth century the next stop south of the caravanserai was reportedly the town of Shoja, about six and half miles away. This may indicate the the Iranian town of Julfa, now three miles from the caravanserai, may not have existed at this time.
Khajeh Nasar Caravanserai (click on photos for enlargements)
Unable to enter the building I stroll to the bank of the Aras to take photos. About two hundred yards away two soldiers step out of a checkpoint guardhouse and stare in my direction. “We better go,” says Hamid, “Taking photos of the caravanserai is OK, but they may wonder why you are taking photos of Azerbaijan, across the river.”
Aras River, with the Nakhchivan Autonomous Republic on the other side
We drive on to checkpoint, where we are stopped, but Masud banters with the two young conscripts, who look to be teenagers, and they wave us on without asking to see our papers. Not far past the checkpoint, at the base of the cliffs on the left, a stone tower with a cone-shaped roof looms above high stone walls. This is the Nakheirchi Church. Hamid explains that in Azeri, the language of Azerbaijan which is spoken by most people in this area, nakheir means “herd of cattle”. A nakheirchi is a cattle herder. According to local legend a cattle herder built this church so that his fellow herders would have a place to pray while they were out tending their cattle. The gate to the high-walled compound is locked, whether for Ashura or not Hamid does not know, so we drive on.
The Aras River valley narrows here, flanked on either side by barren rust and mustard-tinted cliffs and ramparts. I would like to take photos, but Hamid points to the manned guard towers on the Azerbaijani side of the river and suggests that this is not a good idea. Another six miles west up the Aras valley a defile lined with trees leads into the soaring ramparts to our left. We turn off on a narrow lane and half a mile later come to the Church of St. Stephanos parking lot. It is deserted except for a guy with a broom sitting on a bench. He informs us that church grounds are open, but the church itself is closed for Ashura.
Lane leading to the church
A short walk up a tree-lined lane brings us to the substantial walls of of the church compound. Off to the right is a prodigious spring which debouches into pond where a small flock of ducks gambol. This spring is no doubt why the church was originally established on this site. Scattered among the trees are benches and picnic areas. Hamid, who had been here before, says that the lush oasis-like surroundings tucked in here amidst the otherwise sere and barren terrain attract day-trippers from as far away as Tabriz and beyond. On other holidays the place can get quite crowded. This is first time he has ever seen the place deserted. We check the large gates leading into the church compound, but they are indeed locked. I will have to be content with viewing the church from outside the compound.
Spring with wonderful water; no doubt why the church was found here.
Pond fed by the spring
Fortress-like walls of the Church compound
Church behind the fortress walls
Entrance to the church compound
Front of the church
Greater Armenia, which included the valley of the Aras River, became Christian in a.d. 301, making it the first country to adopt Christianity as its official religion. (The little known statelet of Osrhoene, in what is now southeastern Turkey, with its capital in Edessa (modern-day Sanliurfa), may have actually been the first officially Christian state, but it proved so ephemeral that most historians ignore it and credit Armenia). In the centuries following its adoption of Christianity Armenia would have been in the heartland of the Faith, not an outlier as it is today. The name of the church here in the Aras valley links it to the very earliest days of Christianity. Stephen (Greek = Stephanos), was one of the seven deacons appointed by the Twelve Apostles to distribute food to the poor and needy. According to the New Testament Acts of the Apostles, he was stoned to death after he made a speech which was deemed blasphemous by the local Jewish authorities. This won him the title of Protomartyr, the very first martyr of Christianity. Saul of Tarsus, later the Apostle Paul, witnessed the execution, and Stephen’s steadfast devotion to Christianity may have had something to do with his own eventual conversion to the faith.
According to legend, a church was founded on this spot in the first century a.d. by Saint Bartholomew, one of the original Twelve Apostles. This tale is no doubt apocryphal; in any case, no one is claiming that any of the current structures date from this era. According to a sign post on the grounds at least one part of the church does date back to at the seventh century. Other sources, most of them admittedly ephemeral (scholarly literature on the subject is scarce), make no mention of this seventh century edifice but instead claim that the complex was built sometime in the ninth, tenth, eleventh, or twelfth centuries.
It is tempting to think that the St. Stephanos complex was built during the rule of the Bagratuni Dynastry (884–1045) when Armenia freed itself from Baghdad-based Abbasid Caliphate and went on to enjoy more than a century and a half of independence. During this period Armenia experienced a cultural renaissance, especially in the field of architecture. The capital city of Ani (now in Turkey) became known as the city of “40 gates and 1001 churches.” Among the churches was a magnificent cathedral built in 998-1000 under the direction of the renowned architect Tiridates. There is, however, no direct evidence linking the Church of St. Stephanos to the Bagratid era.
In 1236 Armenia, then ruled by the Zakarian Dynasty, became a vassal state of the Mongols, who had arrived in the area as early as 1220. At first Christianity flourished under the Mongols. Sorqaqtani, the mother of the first Ilkhan, Khülegü, was a staunch Nestorian Christian, as was Khülegü’s wife, Dokuz Khatun, who like a true nomad maintained a movable church in her camp. Khülegü’s son, the second Ilkhan Abaqa, likewise encouraged Christianity, although he himself apparently leaned toward Buddhism. He did marry a Christian, the Byzantine princess Mary Palaiologina, the illegitimate daughter of Byzantine emperor Michael VIII. Christianity’s favored status in the Ilkhanate ended with the accession of the Ilkhan Ghazan in 1295. He converted to Islam the same year and almost immediately launched a campaign against other religions. Buddhists, not being “People of the Book”— followers of the Abrahamic religions who have a revealed scripture and recognize one and only one God—were ordered to convert to Islam or leave the territory of the Ilkhanate and their temples were destroyed. Christians and Jews lost the privileges they had enjoyed earlier and were forced to pay a special poll-tax. In effect, they became second class citizens. Apparently they were allowed to keep their churches and synagogues, so it is possible that the Church and Monastery of Stephanos survived the Mongol era intact.
One Armenian scholar goes on to claim, however, that over the centuries many of the original buildings in the complex, including those which survived the Ilkhanate, were destroyed by earthquakes and that most of the now remaining structures were built or rebuilt during the reign of the Safavid Shah Abbas the Second (1642–1666). Thus the history of this notable landmark—it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site—remains surprisingly speculative.
According to one modern source:
The beautiful murals on the dome and the relief works above and below it are crafted with a precision that must place this work among the few artistic marvels of the world. Not limited to the domes, the murals, and the ornamentation of the vaults and arches at the entry, this beautiful artistry extends to all the arches and vaults of the western walls, to the pillars, columns and capitals, and to the decorative work both in the interior and exterior of the building.
Unfortunately, none of this is visible from outside the compound walls. I climb the hill behind the complex in hopes of getting a view of the interior of the compound. I am rewarded with panoramic view of the church set against the background of the colorful cliffs on the other side of the Aras River, but few of the details of the church itself or the monastery buildings can be seen. I tell Hamid to go back to the car and wait for me while I sent an hour mediating on the thousand years or more of history encapsulated here. A kaleidoscopic array of images flit through my mind, but when I try to envision what will be here one thousand years hence my mind comes up blank.
View of church from above
Detail of church
Detail of church. Notice how the stones of the steeple seem to mimic the colors in the cliffs beyond.