Friday, January 31, 2020

Italy | Venice | Ca’ Rezzonico

Wandered by the Ca’ Rezzonico on the Grand Canal. The palazzo dates back to the 1660s, although it did not achieve its present look until the 1750s. The original owner went bankrupt trying to complete it. After changing hands several times it was bought in the 1880s by Robert “Pen” Barrett Browning, son of Victorian poets Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, with money from his American heiress wife Fannie Coddington, who was said to be enthralled by the elder Brownings, famous poets that they were, but by Pen not so much. He won her hand and dollars only after a fourteen-year courtship. Pen cut a somewhat ambiguous figure. According to one recent author, “Pen Browning was destined to spend his adult life watching people register the thought, ‘That’s what those two poetic geniuses produced?’ but his parents considered him a marvel of aesthetic discernment and religious piety.” The American author and Venetomaniac Henry James, who knew Pen and his father personally and attended poetry reading at the palazzo, weighted in with this:
[The palazzo is] altogether royal and imperial—but ‘Pen’ isn’t kingly and the train de vie remains to be seen. Gondoliers ushering in friends from pensions won’t fill it out . . . There seems but one way to be sane in this queer world—but there are so many ways of being mad. And a Palazzo-madness is almost as alarming—or as convulsive—as an earthquake—which indeed it essentially resembles.”
Pen’s famous father died here on December 12, 1889. Later Pen was accused of having an affair with a blonde Italian bombshell by the name of Minerva who he had introduced into the household as a housekeeper-cum-model (he dabbled in painting and sculpture). He also installed a menagerie of birds, snakes, and other wildlife. The palazzo had turned into a zoo, both literally and figuratively. Fanny finally got fed up and fled with her dollars, but the two never divorced. Pen sold the Ca’ Rezzonico in 1206 and retired to Asolo, the famous hill town on the mainland, where he died on July 8, 1912. 

The new owners let out the palazzo to, among others, the American composer and entertainer Cole Porter, who rented it in the mid-1920s for $4000 a month, $58,500 a month in today’s money. It was here that he held his notorious bacchanalias that shocked locals and bedazzled the ex-pat community. One frequent guest at his parties was Ada Beatrice Queen Victoria Louise Virginia Smith, a.k.a “Bricktop”(due to her red hair), a half-black-half-Irish jazz singer, dancer, and nightclub owner born in a small town in West Virginia who had washed up in Paris, where Porter met her in a nightclub and invited her to the Ca’ Rezzonico to teach his other guests the Charleston, the latest dance craze from them States.  The palazzo is now a museum and the visitants are much more sedate.
Ca’ Rezzonico (click on photos for enlargements)
Plaque commemorating Robert Browning’s death at Ca’ Rezzonico. It includes the famous line from one of his poems: Open my heart and you will see graved inside of it ‘Italy’.
Ca’ Rezzonico
The Grand Canal from the front of Ca’ Rezzonico
On the top floor of the palazzo is a gallery full of titillating paintings by Venetian artists. No museum in Venice can match it for the sheer amount of mammaries on display. This is just a sampling:

Nightmare date?
The word “louche” springs to mind
What’s going on with the asp?
Some guys have all the luck . . .
You can’t help but envy the little fella
Redheads. What can you say?
Call SVU!
Nice bellybutton!
The guy on the right is obviously a satyr, but what’s with the little cherub on the left?
Aphrodite (a.k.a. Venus) emerging from her clam shell. I was especially intrigued by this painting, since I have visited Aphrodite’s birthplace on Cyprus Island.

Friday, January 24, 2020

Italy | Venice | Palazzo Mocenigo

Wandered by the Museum of Palazzo Mocenigo, just behind the Church of San Stae on the Grand Canal. The museum also hosts the Study Centre of the History of Textiles, Costumes and Perfume. The museum and study center is housed in the former palazzo of the Mocenigos, one of the most prominent families in Venice for a period of several hundred years. Seven Mocenigos became doges: Tommaso (1414–23), Pietro (1474–76), Giovanni (1478–85), Alvise I (1570–77, Alvise II (1700-1709), Alvise III (1722-32), and Alvise IV (1763). There were two branches of family, one located here at San Stae and another further on down the Grand Canal at San Samuele. A member of the San Samuele branch, Giovanni Mocenigo, was notorious for denouncing irrepressibly hard-core pantheist and unapologetic Hermetic occultist Giordano Bruno to the Catholic Inquisition, which resulted in Bruno being burned at the stake in Paris on Ash Wednesday, February 17th, 1600.
Church of San Stae
Entrance to Palazzo Mocenigo
Costume Exhibit (click on photos for enlargements)
Costume Exhibit
Costume Exhibit

Costume Exhibit
Costume Exhibit
Book of perfume recipes plus raw ingredients for making Perfume. I was of course in Seventh Heaven here. 

Sunday, January 12, 2020

Italy | Venice | Early Life of Enrico Dandolo #2


In the first decade of the twelfth century, probably in 1107, although this date is disputed, a son was born to Vitali Dandolo, brother of Pietro, Bono, and Uncle Enrico. The boy was named Enrico, like his uncle. At the time the entire clan, including Vitale and his three sons, were living in the family compounds clustered around the Parish Church of San Luca. Given that this Enrico Dandolo eventually became a doge, played a leading role in the Fourth Crusade and expulsion of the Byzantines from Constantinople, and, with the possible exception of Marco Polo, was the best-known Venetian of the Middle Ages, it is surprising that almost nothing is known about his life prior to 1171, when he was sixty-four years old. In June of 1164 his signature was affixed to a loan agreement but other than that his name is entirely absent from the historical record until seven years later. We do know he married a woman named Contessa (née Minotto?) and had children, one of whom, Ranieri, would serve as vice-doge while his father was accompanying the Fourth Crusade. A second wife named Felicita, daughter of Pietro Bembo, a procurator of San Marco in 1143, is mentioned, but only in a dubious genealogy which most modern historians have discounted. 

Lacking any real evidence about Enrico’s life prior to 1171, the assumption has been made that he spent the early decades of his life engaged in commercial ventures overseas, perhaps working with his brother Giovanni in Constantinople, Acre, Alexandria and elsewhere in the East, and thus was absent from the historical record in Venice. Trade, however, produces a prodigious paper trail, and no documentary evidence of Enrico’s early commercial activities—if there were any—has survived. Enrico’s absent from the historical record prior to 1171 may be attributed to the fact that his formidable father Vitale did not die until 1174, when Enrico was sixty-seven years old. According the Venetian law a father could emancipate his children by giving them their share of the patrimonial inheritance before he died. This severed the legal relationship between father and son, leaving the son free to act entirely on his own, as a separate legal entity as it were. Vitale Dandolo emancipated none of his sons, meaning that they lived very much in his shadow until near the end of his life. Three years before Vitale’s death in 1174 Enrico Dandolo does enter the historical record as an advisor to Doge Michele on an ill-fated military campaign against the Byzantines and a year later in 1172 he was sent to Constantinople as an envoy to the court of the Byzantine emperor Manuel I Komnenos. 

Venetian relations with the Byzantine Empire had been deteriorating over the years and had reached their nadir by 1172. Back on December 10, 1167 Byzantine envoys arrived in Venice to seek the aid of the Venetians in a military campaign against the Normans, who from their base in Sicily sought to control the southern Italian Peninsula and Dalmatia, east of the the Adriatic Sea (the coastline of modern-day Croatia). Emperor Manuel I Komnenos cherished the dream of reasserting Byzantine control over these areas and he hoped the Venetians would offer their support. After all, Venice had sided with the Byzantines against the Normans before, most notably in 1081, when a Venetian fleet attacked and nearly destroyed an armada of Norman ships led by Robert Guiscard (“the Crafty”) in the southern Adriatic, off the coast from Durazzo (current-day Durrës, in Albania). A century later, however, the political landscape had changed. Venice had entered into a peace treaty with Norman King William II and it was not willing to abrogate this agreement and wage war against the Normans just to accommodate the Byzantines. Doge Doge Michele had to advise the Byzantine envoys that Venetian aid in any planned war against the Normans would not be forthcoming. 

Emperor Manuel I Komnenos was furious that his ambitions had been thwarted by the perfidous—in his eyes—Venetians. Such was his wrath that Doge Michele advised Venetian merchants to avoid Byzantine ports least they suffer from retaliation at the hands of Byzantine authorities. Venetian envoys were eventually dispatched to Constantinople in an effort to smooth over Manuel’s ruffled feathers, and by 1170 business relations were pretty much back to normal. However, that same year Manuel allowed Pisan and Genoese merchants back in the city. Eight years earlier Manuel had ejected them from the city for internecine brawling and disturbing the peace. Venetians in their own quarter had enjoyed a near monopoly on all west-bound trade in the city since the expulsion of the Pisans and Genoese and were now disgruntled by the competition.

Having established themselves in their own quarter, Venetians, never lacking in a sense of their own importance, had managed to antagonize a good portion of the Constantinople populace, especially those who did not directly profit from trade with them. The Venetian Quarter had become a virtual mini-state where they could do pretty much whatever they pleased. We have already seen how Bono Dandolo and his brother Pietro, while living the Quarter, had translated (stolen) the purported relics of St. Stephen and placed them in a church within the Venetian Quarter, where Byzantine authorities apparently had no legal authority to take them back, and how, despite the stern objections of the Byzantines, the relics were eventually taken back to Venice, probably on a Dandolo-owned ship. Theft of precious relics, although justified by the Venetians on the grounds of furta sacra, (sacred theft), would not have been forgotten or forgiven in a city obsessed with such sacred remains. Also, many Venetians in Constantinople had become very wealthy and they did not hesitate to flaunt their wealth and self-proclaimed superiority before the native inhabitants of the city, who in turn viewed the Venetians as boorish, arrogant, and condescending.

Byzantine court official and historian Nicetas Choniates (c.1155–1217), in his monumental history O City of Byzantium, Annals of Niketas Choniates, presents what may have been the viewpoint of the Byzantine elite. Condescending in tone, his description of the Venetians makes it sound as if they were some obscure tribe from the fringes of the Byzantine Empire that had somehow managed to insinuate itself into Constantinople and then proceeded to commit mischief:
Having reached this point in my history, I shall include the following. There is a gulf in the western sea called the Adriatic which recedes from the Sicilian sea and, separating itself as an effluence of the Ionian, flows a long way in the direction of the north wind. The northernmost recesses are inhabited by the Enetoi, who, in their own dialect, call themselves Venetikoi; nourished by the sea, they are vagabonds like the Phoenicians and cunning of mind. Adopted by the Romans [Byzantines] when there had been need for naval forces, they had left their homeland for Constantinople in swarms and by clans. From there they dispersed throughout the Roman [Byzantine] empire; retaining only their family names and looked upon as natives and genuine Romans, they increased and flocked together. They amassed great wealth and became so arrogant and impudent that not only did they behave belligerently to the Romans but they also ignored imperial threats and commands.
Emperor Manuel I Komnenos could not have been pleased by the increasingly impudent behavior of the Venetians. Also, the recent refusal of the Venetians to ally themselves with him against the Normans must have still rankled. Then there was the curious incident back in 1148 when the Venetians and the Byzantines were ostensibly allied against the Normans, who had seized the island of Corfu. As we have seen, the brother and son of the recently deceased Doge Pietro Polani were in charge of the Venetian fleet sent to aid the Byzantines in dislodging the Normans from the island. But there was considerable ill-will among the nominal allies and at times they even attacked each other. At one point, according to one historian:
They ([the Venetians] captured the Imperial [Byzantine] galley, dressed a negro slave in the Imperial ensigns, placed him under a canopy, and paraded him before the Greek [Byzantine] camp at Corfu, making mock obeisance to him in scorn and insult . . . Emperor Manuel did not forget the insult he had received in the person of the negro slave, nor did he lay aside his hostility. . . He was presently enabled to satisfy his desire for revenge . . .
All of the Emperor’s various grudges against the Venetians were no doubt festering in his mind when Venetians supposedly attacked the Genoese Quarter in Constantinople, even after he had given stern warning to all the various foreign trading quarters to refrain from in-fighting and maintain peace among themselves.  It has been suggested that the attack was the work of agents provocateur in the pay of the Byzantines themselves; in any case, the blame fell squarely on the Venetians. The time had come to rein in the obstreperous people from the Lagoon. Nicetas Choniates continues:
Buffeted by a series of villainies, one worse than the other, the emperor now recalled their offensive behavior . . . and turned the scales against them, spewing forth his anger like the tempestuous and stormy spray blown up by a northeaster or north wind. The misdeeds of the Venetians were deemed to be excessive, and letters were dispatched to every Roman province ordering their arrest, together with the confiscation of their communal properties, and designating the day this was to take place.
On March 12, 1171 every Venetian man, woman, and child on Byzantine territory was arrested and imprisoned and all their property confiscated. Over 10,000 Venetians in Constantinople alone were thrown into prison, and when the prisons overflowed monasteries were turned to temporary jails. Another 10,000 or more were arrested and imprisoned in other cities of the empire. 

As John Julius Norwich points out, the mass arrests all over the empire would  have called for considerable planning and coordination and thus must have been contemplated long before the attack by the Venetians on the Genoese traders in Constantinople, the ostensible reason for the emperor’s actions. Indeed, rumors of possible repercussions against Venetian traders had been afloat for the past several years. Reacting to these rumors, in 1169 or 1170 Doge Michele had seen fit to send two envoys, Sebastiano Ziani and Orio Mastropiero (both of them future doges) to Constantinople to seek assurances that Venetians in the Byzantine Empire were in fact safe and free to carry on business. The emperor not only gave his assurances that Venetians were under no threat but also encouraged more Venetian traders to enter his empire. Following the crackdown of March 12, 1172, the insinuation was made that the emperor had purposely lured additional Venetians into his empire just so he could seize them and their property. In the eyes of the Venetians this was just more more indication of Byzantine perfidy. 

Meanwhile, news of the disastrous events in Constantinople filtered back to Venice via traders and ship captains who had managed to escape the general dragnet and sail back home. As word spread outraged Venetians, many of whom had relatives and business interests in the Byzantine Empire, assembled in front of the Ducal Palace to demand that the government take military action to free their countrymen from Byzantine prisons and restore Venetian property that had been confiscated. This throng qualified as an arengo, or assembly of the general populace, which at least theoretically was still the ultimate political authority in Venice. Now the people were baying for Byzantine blood.

Doge Michele, it would appear from the historical record, favored diplomatic overtures to the Byzantines. Surely they would see the benefits of restoring favorable relations with Venice and the entire affair could be resolved without bloodshed. Business was the business of Venice, he believed, and the most important concern was to secure the release of the prisoners, seek compensation for Venetian financial loses, and resume commercial relations without resorting to warfare. He suggested that envoys be send immediately to Constantinople to begin negotiations with the Byzantines. Apparently his three chief advisors, Orio Mastropiero, Sebastiano Ziani, and Vitale Dandolo, father of the future Doge Enrico Dandolo, felt the same way.

At these juncture ships arrived in Venice with still more tales of outrages inflicted on Venetians by the Byzantines. The arengo, or assembly of the populace, simmering since the first news from Constantinople had arrived, now broke into a boil. Its representatives ordered that a fleet of 120 to 130 vessels be constructed and sent to smite the nefarious Byzantines who had so cruelly abused their fellow Venetians. They also ordered that the Doge Michele personally take command of the fleet. Faced with the will of the people, as demonstrated by the arengo, the doge had no choice but comply. Venice’s famously efficient shipyards constructed an entire fleet of 120 new ships in 100 days. To pay for the campaign against the Byzantines the financial wizards of Venice came up with the novel idea of forcing the populace to buy bonds which paid four percent per year interest. “The bonds could be bequeathed, mortgaged, or sold,” says one historian, “and so we find in this forced loan the earliest instance of government stock, certainly in the history of Venice, perhaps in the history of Europe.”

In September of 1171 fleet sailed down the Adriatic under the command of Doge Michele. On the same ship as the doge, and apparently acting as one of his advisors, was our hero, Enrico Dandolo, the future doge. After leaving the Adriatic the fleet rounded the Peloponnese and entered the Aegean Sea, soon reaching the island of Negroponte (modern-day Euboea), off the eastern coast of Greece, where they invested Chalkis, the capital of the island. The Byzantine governor of Negroponte, anxious to avoid hostilities with the Venetians, suggested sending sending his own envoy to Constantinople in hopes of opening negotiations with Emperor Manuel I Komnenos. Accompanying the governor’s envoy were two Venetians, Manasse Badoer and Bishop Pasqualo of Jesolo.

Under the impression that war had been avoided for the moment, Doge Michele ordered the fleet to proceed to the island of Chios, ninety miles east of Negroponte and 235 miles southwest of Constantinople, where it would hole up for the winter. Here news reached Doge Michele that the emperor Manuel refused to negotiate with the Venetians as long as their fleet remained in Byzantine waters. The emperor did however send an envoy to Chios. This envoy claimed that the emperor might be amenable to negotiations if the Doge dispatched another envoy to Constantinople. The envoy to Chios was probably just a spy sent to sound out the Venetian fleet and the promise of negotiations nothing more than a delaying tactic while the Byzantines explored their options. Nevertheless, the doge, ever optimistic that a diplomatic solution could be reached, sent yet another embassy to Constantinople.

Meanwhile, all was not well with the fleet at Chios. “There, in idleness, discipline became relaxed; the crowded ships grew filthy and unhealthy; plague broke out, more probably the result of dirt than of poison; thousands died,” we are told. (The mention of poison refers to the rumor which spread throughout the fleet that the Byzantines had poisoned the wells used by the Venetians.) Hoping to escape the epidemic, the fleet sailed for the nearby island of Panagia. Here news reached the doge that the second embassy he had sent to Constantinople had been turned away by the emperor. But the returning envoys said, amazingly enough, that if a third delegation was sent the emperor might possibly meet with it. Clearly Emperor Manuel I Komnenos was stalling for still more time. Yet the doge had little choice but to make one last attempt at a negotiated settlement. The plague still raged through his fleet and the ability of the Venetians to actually wage war was lessening by the day.

The third delegation to the court of the Byzantines consisted of Enrico Dandolo and Filippo Greco. Enrico Dandolo was as we have seen on the doge’s ship and acting as one of his advisors. Almost certainly the influence of Enrico’s formidable father Vitale had something to do with Enrico being appointed as an advisor to the Doge on this expedition, but Enrico must also have had some experience in diplomatic matters that led the Doge to believe he was the right man for this last ditch effort at a negotiated peace with the Byzantines. What this experience might have been, however, it is impossible to say, because as noted we know almost nothing about his life up until this point. In any case, his first recorded foray into diplomacy was not a success. He and his fellow envoy were never granted an audience with the emperor and all their other entreaties came to nought. 

While Enrico was in Constantinople the plague continued to ravage the Venetian fleet. In a futile attempt to escape the disease the fleet sailed to the island of Lesbos and later to Skyros, but the sailors continued to die off. “At length the Venetians could endure no more,” intones one historian, who continues:
The crews mutinied, and set sail for Venice. So complete was the collapse of the Venetian armament, so sweeping the mortality, that, as legend declares, the whole Giustiniani family, with one exception, perished . . . The disaster was complete. The shattered remnants of this splendid Venetian armament, created by generous sacrifices and bearing the hopes of the Republic, returned to the Lido in the spring of 1172. Instead of booty, it brought the plague; in place of victory, death.
Meanwhile the 20,000 or more Venetians arrested in Constantinople and elsewhere in Byzantine territory languished in prisons. The Venetians had suffered an ignominious defeat and someone’s head had to roll as a consequence. Doge Michele, although he had opposed the military expedition from the beginning, was held responsible for the disaster and would end up paying the ultimate price.

Although Enrico Dandolo’s first appearance on the historical stage ended in failure, he no doubt learned a lot about the Byzantines and their preferred methods of dealing with outside threats. Manuel I Komnenos probably never intended to engage the Venetians in actual combat, nor was he amenable to a negotiated settlement that included any concessions to them. He had sent his first envoy to Chios ostensibly to negotiate a settlement but more likely he was there to assess the strength of the Venetian fleet (there is no proof Manuel had the wells of the island poisoned). The Byzantines soon learned that the plague out broken out among the Venetians forces wintered at Chios. They probably figured that if they could stall long enough the plague would defeat the Venetians for them. The two additional peace overtures had been a ruse to buy time The Venetians had been misled and manipulated by the duplicitous Byzantines and the result was a disaster. Enrico Dandolo experienced this humiliating defeat first hand. Thirty-two years later, upon his return to Constantinople, he would be given ample opportunities to exact his revenge against the Byzantines.

The badly battered Venetian Fleet limped back into Venice in late May of 1172. The people of Venice had given Doge Michele a mandate to smite the Byzantines and had provided him with a fleet to do so, but he had never even engaged the enemy in combat. The fleet, paid for by bonds extracted from the populace, had been decimated and still more than 20,000 Venetians remained in Byzantine prisons, their property expropriated. The survivors who had sailed back with the fleet let known their opinion: “‘We were poorly led, and if we had not been betrayed by the doge dragging out matters with legates, then all of these troubles would not have overtaken us!’” The citizens of Venice were likewise outraged: 
There was a considerable section of the community, probably bereaved and disconsolate families, which openly and loudly accused the Doge of being the author of their misfortunes . . . The animadversions of this party were bold, violent, and bitter. They soon wore a really formidable aspect. Their clamours and maledictions gradually arrested the public attention. The subject which formed their ground of complaint became the leading theme of conversation. It was canvassed on the Rialto. It was agitated in the parliament, where it gave rise to frequent and angry controversies, in which the speakers freely vituperated each other. The sitting of the 27th May was stormy and tumultuous beyond precedent. The debate turned on the affairs of the Republic and on the causes and consequences of the recent catastrophe; all sides spoke with great warmth and emotion: and high words were exchanged.
As one of the his most trusted advisors, Vitale Dandalo was in the presence of Doge Michele right up until the moment it became obvious that the assembled populace outside and its representatives within the palace were now baying for the Doge’s blood. Vitale and Michele’s other advisors then slipped away, leaving the Doge to his fate. Attempting to escape on foot from the Ducal Palace to the sanctuary of the Zaccaria Convent, 800 feet away, he crossed the Ponte della Paglia—the bridge now famous for its view of the Bridge of Sighs—and then turned left on Calle delle Rassa  where he was overtaken by an enraged mob, one of whom stabbed him repeatedly with a knife. 
Ponte della Paglia, with the current version of the Ducal Palace on the left (click on photos for enlargements)
Entrance to the Calle delle Rasse
Calle delle Rasse. The dwelling of Marco Casiolo, the assassin of Doge Michele, would have been on the left. The site is now occupied by the Danieli Royal Excelsior Hotel.
He managed to stagger to the gate of the convent compound, where he died in the arms of a priest. The assassin, one Marco Casiolo, was quickly identified and arrested. Found guilty, he was decapitated on front of his own dwelling on the Calle delle Rasse. The dwelling was then razed and the order given that no stone building should ever again stand on the site. This edict remained in effect for 776  years. Not until 1948 was the Danieli Royal Excelsior Hotel erected on the site of Marco Casiolo’s old dwelling. 
The entrance to the Zaccaria Convent, where Doge Michele died.
The Danieli Excelcior Hotel now stands of the site of the dwelling of Marco Casiolo. the assassin of Doge Michele.

Thursday, January 9, 2020

Italy | Venice | Palazzo Rizzi


Spent the 2019 Winter Solstice in Skopje, Macedonia. Two weeks later I winged to Istanbul and hopped on a connecting flight to Venice. I am back in my usual digs in Venice, an old nunnery which has been converted into a hotel. The building, once the Palazzo Rizzi, is located on the Fondamenta Rizzi, about a five minute walk from the Piazzale Roma, where all buses from the mainland terminate. The hotel is still owned and operated by St. Joseph’s Daughters of Caburlotto, the religious order that occupied the nunnery. As befitting an old nunnery, the rooms are tiny and spartan, to say the least. My bed is about three feet wide—all that was needed by a nun—and my ankles hang over the end, but the room does have a desk and enough electrical outlets to keep all my devices topped up. What else does one need in a room? There is also a midnight to 6:00 a.m. curfew. You cannot enter or leave the building during those hours. This is of no importance to me. Venice is not a night-life city by any stretch of imagination, and I myself would never have any reason to stay out past midnight. The Fondamenta Rizzi, the walkway on which the hotel is located, does not even have a convenience store and is as quiet as a tomb after nine p.m. 
Fondamenta Rizzi on the right (click on photos for enlargements)
The old Palazzo Rizzi, later a nunnery and now a hotel
Venice
Venice. The leaning bell tower is not a photographic distortion. It actually does lean that way.
Canal of San Luca
The Piazzetta in Venice
The Piazzetta in Venice
Piazza and Church of San Marco
Grand Canal from the Rialto Bridge

Saturday, January 4, 2020

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 founded 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.