Friday, November 30, 2018

USA | Pennsylvania | Allegheny Mountains | Deer Season

Just checked out the on-line version of the local newspaper in the area where I was born and grew up. Seems that deer season has just began and the paper was engaging in one of its most hallowed traditions: posting photos of successful hunters and their deer. Deer hunting is a huge deal in this area. They don’t even have school on the first two days of deer season because if they did no one would show up. Looking at the photos one thing struck me as unusual. When I lived in the area I did not know any girls or women who hunted deer. Now apparently female hunters are quite common. I can just hear the girls now: “If boys can hunt deer why can’t we?” Here is a sampling of the photos:
Grace Leiford, age 16 (click on photos for enlargements)
Emma Carter, age 15, from Shanksville. Yes, that’s the Shanksville of 9/11 notoriety.
Another unusual thing: when I lived in Pennsylvania you had to be at least 12 years old to hunt legally. No more, apparently: witness Lily Ream, age 11.
Lily Ream, age 11
(Addendum: I received this update from a local informant: “Pennsylvania has a Youth Mentor hunting program, if a child is accompanied by an adult license holder, there is virtually no age minimum. It's a Game Commission initiative to help encourage the next generation off their phones and tablets and become the next generation of license buyers . . . We need all the hunters we can get, there are more and more expensive deer vs. vehicle accidents.”

This is the most amazing photo, however. Six-year-old girls are now hunting deer? What kind of rifle was she using? The recoil of your average deer rifle would knock most six-year-olds flat on their behinds. Must be one tough little six year old. No one is going to mess with her when she get older! 
Libbie Boozer, age 6
Oh how I wish I was growing up in this area right now. What could be more romantic than to ask a girl out to go deer hunting together on the first day of deer season? Bonding over a freshly killed buck! Much, much better than the stupid Prom!

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Macedonia | Tikves Wine District | Demir Kapiya | Popova Kula Winery | Stanushina


I Mentioned Earlier that I drink only wines indigenous to the place I happen to be at the time. At the moment I am staying at the Popova Kula Winery in the Tikves Wine District of Macedonia. In addition to making wine from the more famous varieties of grapes—Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Pinot Noir, Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, etc, all of which originated outside the Balkan Peninsula and have been replanted here—the winery also features several wines indigenous to the Balkans. It also features one wine indigenous to Macedonia itself. This wine, known as Stanushina, is made from a variety of grapes which originated in the Tikves Wine Region of Macedonia and to this day is grown nowhere else. The Popova Kula Winery claims to be the only winery in Macedonia—and thus the world—to make wine from this grape. This is a truly indigenous wine, and sampling it is the main reason I have come to Demir Kapiya. 
Stanushina (click on photos for enlargements)
A bottle of regular Stanushina (there is also an aged-in-oak-barrels version) cost $4.43 at the winery store. Although the weather is cool—in the 50ºF—and rainy, with surprisingly strong gusts of wind sweeping down the Vardar Valley, I retire to my balcony with the wine and an assortment of walnuts, figs, and dried apricots that I bought at the Old Bazaar in Skopje. I am perfectly comfortable in a Mongolian Cashmere sweater. The wine is light scarlet in color, fruity and flowery, with a mouthful of cherries and hints of strawberry and raspberry. As often happens when I drink wine—especially light, fruity wine, my thoughts turn to Omar Khayyam (1048 a.d. – 1131 a.d.). Most famous in the Occident as a poet—he is the “A loaf of bread, a jug of wine, and thou” guy—in Persia itself he is best known as a Mathematician and astronomer. 

As I started on my second glass of Stanushina I began to recall quotes and poetry by Omar Khayyam:

Drink wine. This is life eternal. This is all that youth will give you. It is the season for wine and roses. Be happy for this moment. This moment is your life.
So much wine I will have drunk that its perfume
Shall stream from my tomb once I am laid to rest.
And when a true believer passes by
The aroma shall overwhelm him with drunkenness.
 A glass of wine is worth more than the entire kingdom of China.
Before death springs upon you unannounced 
Make sure to ask for the finest of vintages.
Something in my third glass of Stanushina triggered thoughts about the legend involving Omar Khayyam, Nizam al-Mulk, who was the vizier of the Seljuq Empire from 1064 a.d. to 1092 a.d., and Hassan-i Sabbah (1050 to 1124), the Nizari Ismaili who founded the notorious sect of the Assassins. According to the legend—admittedly the historicity of this tale has been questioned—the three men while still young swore a pact of eternal friendship, vowing that if one of them rose to prominence he would help the other two in whatever way he could.  Nizam al-Mulk achieved achieved power first by becoming vizier of the Seljuq Empire. He then offered both his friends important positions in the Seljuq government. Hassan-i Sabbah accepted a government post but Omar Khayyam declined, preferring instead to stick to his study of mathematics and astronomy and to his devotion to women, poetry, and wine. Nizam al-Mulk eventually decided that Hassan-i Sabbah had become too powerful and was threatening his own position in the Seljuk court. He then engineered a plot to have Hassan-i Sabbah removed from office and disgraced. Hassan-i Sabbah never forgave Nizam al-Mulk for this betrayal. Years later, after he had organized the Assassin sect at Alamut in Iran, Nizam al-Mulk was the very first victim of Hassan-i Sabbah’s trained assassins. When I was in Iran I visited Alamut and also the tomb of Nizam al-Mulk in Esfahan. Unfortunately I was unable to visit the tomb of Omar Khayyam in Nishapur. I was still ruing this omission when I finished the bottle of Stanushina.
Entrance to the tomb of Nizam al-Mulk in Esfahan, Iran

Macedonia | Demir Kapiya | Popova Kula Winery


I only indulge in two kinds of alcoholic drinks—airag (fermented mares’ milk) and wine (please don’t get me started on Low-Life Beer Drinkers). Airag is found throughout Inner Asia but is perhaps most common in Mongolia, with Övörkhangai Aimag arguably the Airag Capital of the World. As for wine, I drink only wine indigenous to the place I happen to be at the time. 

During my last three months in Mongolia I had not been to the countryside, where the best airag is found, even once, and none of my usual sources brought any airag to my Hovel in Zaisan Tolgoi, so I had not been able to partake of this stimulating and healthy (it is jam-packed with vitamins and minerals) beverage. And there is no wine indigenous to Mongolia (I am not counting the dubious Mongolian-produced wine made from unidentifiable “fruits”), so basically I was on the wagon for three months. 

I am now in Macedonia, however, which boasts of a number of indigenous wines. “Indigenous” can mean a number of things. It can simply mean locally grown wine, regardless of the variety of grapes used to make it. Macedonia produces all the usual suspects where wine is concerned—Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Pinot Noir, Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, etc., but all of these varieties of grapes originated outside of the Balkans and have been replanted here. I am not concerned with these. Macedonia also produces wine made from grapes indigenous to the Balkan Peninsula, of which Macedonia is a part, including Vranac, Žilavka, Temjanika, etc. Not being a stickler in these matters, I am willing to drink wine made from grapes indigenous to the Balkan Peninsula, if not necessarily Macedonia. However, Macedonia also has at least one wine made from a variety of grapes which originated within the current boundaries of the country and is reportedly grown nowhere else. This is truly an indigenous wine and one of the most interest to me. 

Eager as I am to further explore the city of Skopje, I decide I first better visit one of Macedonia’s famous wine districts and continue my research on indigenous wines. My attention focuses on the Tikves Wine District south of Skopje and more particularly the town of Demir Kapiya at the southern end of the district, not far from the  Macedonia-Greek border. The Popova Kula Winery in  Demir Kapiya produces a number of wines indigenous to the Balkans and at least one indigenous to Macedonia and also has an on-site hotel and restaurant. I had been here before in the summertime but was eager to visit again in late fall when I hoped it would be less crowded and I could concentrate more fully on my researches. I book a room for five nights, thinking to this will be enough time to complete my studies and effect a wine cure. 

The bus for Demir Kapisa leaves the Skopje bus station at 11:00 a.m. The four-lane turnpike south travels along the Vardar River, first passing through a scenic Veles canyon before emerging out into the rolling hills of the Tikves Wine District, which covers about 2000 square miles and is on roughly the same latitude as the Bordeaux region in France, the Tuscany region in Italy, and the Napa Valley region in California; in short ideal wine country. About forty-seven square miles of the area is actually covered with vineyards, which are maintained by thirty-seven different wineries.

Vardar River and the Veles Canyon south of Skopje (click on photo for enlargement. Photo by Корисник:Македонец.
Tikves Wine District shaded in red
Vineyard-covered rolling hills of the Tikves Wine Region in summertime
After stops at bus stations in the small cities in Veles and one other town whose name escapes me at the moment we finally arrive at the outskirts of Demir Kapiya, a sleepy little town of 3,725 inhabitants, where I am unceremoniously dumped off at a parking lot. I hike into town and track down a taxi to take me to the winery, about a mile and half away. 
Demir Kapiya. Photo by Rašo.
We don’t need your passport,” the receptionist at the winery inn tells me. “We still have your ID information from your last stay.” When I was here the last time, in the month of August, the place was packed—I wanted to stay a day or two longer but was unable to extend my reservation—but now I am the only guest. My spacious room has hardwood floors, a sitting area with a table and chairs, a balcony with a great view of the vineyards in the foreground and the mountains to the south, and, most importantly, a large desk with adequate lights. I settle in and begin my researches. 
Popova Kula Winery Inn and Restaurant
View from my balcony in summertime
Vineyards in summertime
Grapes in summertime

Sunday, November 25, 2018

Macedonia | Skopje

When residing in Mongolia I usually do not break out my winter coat until temperatures fall to –10ºF or colder. Until then a down jacket is usually sufficient. A few days ago the temperature dropped to –16ºF. As I was digging out my winter coat a thought hit me. Instead of breaking out the winter coat why not just head for warmer climes? I checked the weather in various cities and discovered that it was a relatively balmy 62ºF in Skopje, Macedonia, a city that I had visited before and found quite appealing. I immediately booked a Flight On Turkish Airlines to Skopje. The plane left Ulaanbaatar at six o’clock the next morning. After an eleven hour flight (including a one hour layover in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan) I arrived in Istanbul, where I spent the night in a hotel near the airport, and  early the next morning caught the one hour and fifteen minute flight to Skopje. From the airport I took a taxi to my hotel in the Stara Charshiya, the old bazaar quarter of Skopje. 
Macedonia, in the middle of the Balkan Peninsula (click on photos for enlargements)

Macedonia, a former province of Yugoslavia and now an independent country, is officially named the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, an unwieldy name that pleases nobody. Attempts to change the name are now underway (more on this extremely contentious issue later). Located in the heart of the Balkans, Macedonia—most people use the shorthand name—is surrounded  by the countries of Kosovo, Serbia, Bulgaria, Albania and Greece and covers 9,928 square miles, making it slightly bigger than Vermont and slightly smaller than Massachusetts. Put another way, sixty-six Macedonias would fit inside the borders of the state of Alaska, and sixty-one within the borders of Mongolia. The population is roughly 2,100,000, with 507,000 living in Skopje. About 65% of Macedonians are Christians; 35% are Muslims. As of 2012, the country had 1,842 churches and 580 mosques. The vast majority of the Christians belong to the Macedonian Orthodox Church, which became autocephalous, or self-ruling, in 1967 and is not officially recognized by any of the other branches of Eastern Orthodoxy.
Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia—for the moment.
The city of Skopje is divided into two parts by the 241 mile-long Vardar River, which drains at least two-thirds of the country. The Vardar starts only about eighteen miles to the northwest of Skopje, near the Kosovo border, but loops far to the south before heading north to Skopje, picking up many tributaries along the way. It has already grown into a sizable stream by the time it flows through the city. The river continues on to the southeast and crosses the Greek border near the town of Axioupoli before flowing into the Aegean Sea west of the city of Thessaloniki in northern Greece. The name “Vardar” is probably based on an ancient Proto-Indo-European word meaning “Black Water”.
Center of Skopje. The Stone Bride can be seen in the middle.
The boisterous Varder River
The Stone Bridge connecting Macedonia Square, in the center of Skopje, to the Old Bazaar, where I am staying, is the oldest bridge in the city. The 702 foot-long, 20-foot wide bridge was built by order of Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II the Conqueror between 1451 and 1469 on foundations of an earlier bridge dating to the time of the Roman Empire.
The Stone Bridge
One of several pedestrian bridges across the Vardar
Statue in Macedonia Square, in the center of Skopje. It is generally thought to be a statue of Alexander the Great, although that is not its official name. More on this later . . . 

Saturday, November 24, 2018

Tibet | Takten Damcho Ling | Taranatha

I posted previously on The Great Stupa of Jonang and Dölpopa. A couple of miles down the side valley in which the stupa is located, fronting on the main valley of the Tsangpo River, is the monastery of Takten Damcho Ling, founded by the famous historian and Kalachakra practitioner Taranatha, the previous incarnation of Zanabazar, the First Bogd Gegeen of Mongolia. 
The lower section of the Takten Damcho Ling complex, with the Tsangpo River in the distance
Another view of the lower part of the complex. 

Taranatha (1575–1634) was, at least within the Jonang tradition, thought be an incarnation of Kunga Drölchok, who like Dölpopa had been born in what is now Nepal. Also like Dôlpopa,  Kunga Drölchok was first a follower of the Sakya sect. He eventually received the Jonang transmission of the Kalachakra Tantra and other Jonang teachings. Later he was asked to head the Jonang sect. After he died, Taranatha become leader of the Jonangpa. In the words of Cyrus Stearns, author of The Buddha from Dölpo: A Study of the Life and Thought of the Tibetan Master Dölpopa Sherab Gyaltsen:
In the history of the Jonang tradition, Taranatha is second in importance to Dölpopa himself. He is responsible for the short-lived Jonang renaissance in Tsang and Central Tibet during the late sixteenth and the early seventeenth centuries, and the widespread revitalization of the shentong theory in particular. 
He was one of the last great translators of Sanskrit tantric texts into Tibetan and was an incredibly prolific writer himself. His History of Buddhism in India and The Origin of Tara Tantra are still in print today. 

Takten Damcho Ling was established by Taranatha in 1615 with funds provided by the Tsang ruler Desi Puntsok Nyamgyal (the monastery is also known as Puntsok Ling). When it was finally completed in 1628 it was the largest Jonang monastery in Tibet, boasting of a large college, sixteen temples, and a printing press. Some 10,000 monks were said to live in the monastery and the surrounding area. According to monks there today many of the temples were destroyed during the Cultural Revolution. Currently eight of the temples are in use. The monastery also has a small guesthouse where I stayed when I visited. There are no other tourist facilities in the area.
Lower part of Takten Damcho Ling looking up toward the upper ruins
Ruins of upper part of Takten Damcho Ling
Upper part of Takten Damcho Ling
Upper part of Takten Damcho Ling

Wednesday, November 21, 2018

Iran | Sultaniyya | Mausoleum of Ilkhan Ölziit

Wandered by the town of Sultaniyya, site of the mausoleum of Öljeitü (Ölziit in Mongolian), the eighth Ilkhan. Ölziit was the great-grandson Khülegü Khan, founder of the Ilkhanate, and the great-great-great-grandson of Chingis Khan. It was Ölziit (r. 1305–1316) who had moved the capital of the Ilkhanate from Tabriz to Sultaniyya, 175 miles to the southeast. At the insistence of his mother Uruk Khatun, a Nestorian Christian, he had been baptized as a Christian and given the name Nicholas. When he was still in his teens, however, he married a Muslim girl, and apparently under her influence he converted to Islam. At first he was a Sunni Muslim, but he eventually became disillusioned by Nit-Picking Sunni Jurists and switched to Shiism. Perhaps to burnish his credentials as a Shiite he hatched a scheme to move the bodies of the two proto-martyrs of Shiism, Ali, the son-in-law of the Prophet Muhammad, and Ali’s son Husain, from their shrines in Iraq to Sultaniyya and house them in an enormous mausoleum of his own making. It is not quite clear if he also intended the building to be a mausoleum for himself.  The mausoleum was built, but the plan to move the remains of Ali and Husain to Sultaniyya came to naught.  The building ended up as the repository for Ölziit’s own remains. 
The structure is 161 feet high, with a dome eighty-four feet in diameter, reportedly the third largest brick dome in the world. Larger are the brick domes of the Cathedral of Florence in Italy (138 feet), and Hagia Sophia in Istanbul (103 feet). Apart from brick domes, the largest dome in the world is the steel dome of Cowboys Stadium in Texas, built by Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, the Khülegü of our age (click on photos for enlargements).
For comparison, here is the dome of Hagia Sophia
Mausoleum of Ölziit
Mausoleum of Ölziit
Mausoleum of Ölziit
Mausoleum of Ölziit
Mausoleum of Ölziit
Mausoleum of Ölziit
The vast interior of the mausoleum is undergoing renovation 
Interior of the mausoleum
The interior of the mausoleum was once covered with decoration. This eight-foot high panel is one of few surviving examples.
Catacomb under the mausoleum. This space may have been built for the remains of Ali and Husain.
The open walkway just below the dome
The open walkway just below the dome
Decoration of walkway
Decoration of walkway
Detail of decoration
View of Sultaniyya from open walkway.  Sultaniyya, once the capital of the Ilkhanate, is now a sleepy little town with a population of just over 5000. It is justly famous for its kebabs. 

Tuesday, November 20, 2018

Iran | Julfa | Church and Monastery of St. Stephanos

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. 
Map courtesy of Nationsonline (click on photos for enlargements)
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 near the Black Sea in the west and from Georgia in the north to the Mesopotamian plain in the south. 
Greater Armenia (© Sémhur / Wikimedia Commons)
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. The cliffs in the distance are in Azerbaijan.
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. 
Nakheirchi Church
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 Dynasty (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. 
Bagratuni Armenia (© Sémhur / Wikimedia Commons)
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 spend 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.