Sacred Monuments: A Guide to Iran's 10 Oldest Churches

You know better thThroughout history, Iran has embraced various religions. The Armenians and Assyrian Christians are Iranians who have preserved and maintained their historical churches as monuments over the years. These churches today have a significant chronological age and are recognized as tourist attractions. Some of Iran's historical churches are also registered on the UNESCO World Heritage list and hold great cultural, religious, and historical values. About 600 churches in Iran, of which nearly 450 have been identified, and 90 have been nationally registered. As you move north and northwest in Iran, the number of churches increases. After East and West Azerbaijan, Tehran and Isfahan have the most churches.

What you will read in this article:

What is Qara Kelisa and why is it significant?

Qara Kelisa, also known as the Black Church, is one of the oldest and most famous Christian monuments in Iran. Located in West Azerbaijan, it is believed to be the burial site of Saint Thaddeus, one of the apostles of Jesus. The church is renowned for its distinctive black and white stone architecture and is a key pilgrimage site for Armenian Christians.

St. Stepanos Church, located near Jolfa in the East Azerbaijan province, is a UNESCO World Heritage site. This church is celebrated for its intricate architecture and beautiful frescoes, representing significant artistic and historical achievements.

Vank Cathedral, situated in the Armenian quarter of Isfahan known as New Julfa, is unique for its blend of Islamic and Christian architectural elements. The cathedral houses a museum, a library, and displays a rich collection of historical artifacts, making it a cultural hub for Armenian Iranians.

Yes, tourists can visit these churches, which are open to the public as both historical sites and places of worship. Visitors are advised to respect the sanctity of these sites by dressing modestly and avoiding photography during religious services.

These churches not only serve as places of worship but also as custodians of history and culture, preserving the rich heritage of Iran’s Christian communities. They offer insight into the diverse religious landscape of Iran and contribute to the cultural mosaic that characterizes the nation.

Visiting during major Christian holidays like Easter and Christmas can be particularly rewarding as tourists can experience unique rituals and celebrations that highlight the vibrant Christian community in Iran.

Frequently Asked Questions: Historical Churches of Iran

Qara Kelisa (The Black Church)

Also known as the Church of St. Thaddeus, Qara Kelisa is the world’s first Christian cathedral. Thaddeus was one of Christ’s apostles, executed by order of the Armenian king. His tomb is located in this church. The Church of St. Thaddeus is located 20 km northeast of Chaldoran in a village of the same name. The church was called Qara Kelisa (meaning “Black Church” in Turkish) because part of the structure was built with black stones. The church’s construction is attributed to the early Christian era, making it one of Armenians’ most significant pilgrimage sites. Over time, due to various wars, Mongol invasions, and earthquakes, the church suffered damage and was frequently reconstructed. Every year, Armenians in Iran gather in this church on the anniversary of St. Thaddeus’ martyrdom to perform specific religious ceremonies. Apart from that, the church welcomes tourists on other days.

St. Stepanos Church

The Church of St. Stepanos is Iran’s second most important church after Qara Kelisa. Built-in the 9th century AD, it is in the Jolfa district of East Azerbaijan. The church is named after St. Stephen, recognized as the first Christian martyr. There are several churches worldwide with this name. Due to its dilapidated state, it’s also known as the Ruined Church. This church consists of the main prayer hall, a bell tower, and the shrine of Daniel. Interestingly, during renovation works, the remains of apostles and Christian saints were discovered between the church arches, which the Supreme Archbishop and the Caliph of the Armenians of Tehran and northern Iran believe belong to John, the son of Zechariah.

Zorzor Church of Holy Mary

The Zorzor Church of Holy Mary is located northwest of Qara Kelisa. This church is in the village of Baron in West Azerbaijan. The exact age of the Zorzor Church is unapparent, but its construction is attributed to 1315 to 1342 AD. It is said that this church was built as a school for religious, cultural, and literary teachings by the Supreme Archbishop of Qara Kelisa. The architecture of this church is quite simple, resembling a cross.

Vank Cathedral

The Vank Cathedral, also known as the Holy Savior Cathedral, was built during the reign of Shah Abbas II in Isfahan. This cathedral was established in 1655 AD by Armenian immigrants whom Shah Abbas had brought to Jolfa, Isfahan. Every corner of Vank Cathedral in Isfahan, from its walls to its arches and dome, is painted with oil paints depicting the story from the birth to the ascension of Christ. These paintings are now one of the main attractions of the cathedral and are very popular among tourists. The printing house, library, and museum are among the main parts of this cathedral.

Chupan Church

The Chupan Church, also known as the Holy Church of Saint Thaddeus, was built in the 16th century AD in the pasture of the Dareh Sham region in East Azerbaijan province. This church was a place of worship for the Armenian shepherds of the area and is said to have been built by two shepherd brothers, hence its fame as the Chupan Church. Locally, this church is called “Nakhirchi.” The church is small and has a cross-shaped design inside. It is registered on the list of Iran’s national heritage and UNESCO’s World Heritage as one of Iran’s historic churches.

Kantor Church

The Kantor Church, also known as the Russian Church, was built by a Russian company in Qazvin during the Qajar era. This church was the place of worship for the employees of the Russian company in Qazvin. “Kantor” in Russian means “office”. This church is also famous for its bell tower. The church is Orthodox, currently used for religious purposes, and is open to tourists on certain days of the week. The architecture of this church is irregularly polygonal and has a bell tower, prayer hall, and altar. It is known as the smallest Orthodox church in Iran.

Sorkhabad Church

The Sorkhabad Church is located in Mazandaran province and was built by Italian engineers during the Pahlavi era (1925-1979) in a village of the same name. The Italian engineers who came to the area to build the railway constructed it for their religious practices. This church is tiny and sometimes called the smallest church in the world. The Sorkhabad Church is registered on the list of Iran’s national heritage.

St. Sarkis Cathedral

The St. Sarkis Cathedral, the largest church in Tehran, is located on Nejatollahi Street. The cathedral was built in 1970 AD with the personal funds of the Armenians of Tehran. Sarkis is the name of one of the saints of the Armenian Apostolic Church who was executed by the order of Shapur II. The architecture of this large church is inspired by the medieval and modern periods of Armenia and is cross-shaped.

St. Mary's Church

The history of St. Mary’s Church in Tabriz goes back 500 years. It’s the most prominent and oldest church in Tabriz, where the residing Armenians hold their religious ceremonies. It seems that the church was founded between 1500 and 1600 AD, but based on its arch architecture, its construction dates back to between 1200 and 1300 AD. St. Mary’s Church in Tabriz is registered on the list of national monuments in Iran.

Saint Garapet Church

The St. Garapet Church, also known as Surp Garapet , is considered one of Iran’s historic churches, established during the Pahlavi era in Abadan. This church has been the largest hall for Armenian community events in Abadan and was built in 1958 AD. Although the church was damaged during the eight-year Iran-Iraq war, it was restored and renovated. The church shares a wall with the Imam Sadeq Mosque, which is seen as a symbol of respect between different religions.

Final Words

Iran has been a host to various religions since ancient times. Christianity is among the accepted religions in Iran. Throughout the centuries, various churches have been constructed in different cities and villages in Iran, each established for specific religious teachings and ceremonies of Christianity. Currently, these churches are recognized as tourist attractions in Iran, and many of them still hold religious significance.

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