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#1 Yervant1


    The True North!

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Posted 30 December 2014 - 11:27 AM


Jakarta Globe, Indonesia
Dec 29 2014

By Wahyuni Kamah

Having spent a few days in Iran, a republic that implements shariah
law, I began to wonder if the country had any churches.

My curiosity was answered when I stayed in Isfahan, 340 kilometers
south of Tehran. Although the cities that I visited in Iran are all
uniquely stunning, I must say that Isfahan is the most beautiful,
with splendid mosques, amazing palaces, wide boulevards, artistic
bridges and minarets.

The beauty of Isfahan can be traced back in its history. When Persia
was ruled by the Safavid Dynasty (1502-1736), its Emperor Shah Abbas
the Great (or Shah Abbas I), reigning from 1588 to 1629, moved the
capital from Qazvin to Isfahan. He transformed Isfahan into a beautiful
center for the arts.

During his reign, Shah Abbas I made significant changes to the
military, politics as well as the empire's economy. The Persians were
then at war with the Ottoman Empire. Both struggled to capture, among
others, Nakhichevan, a region that consists of what is now Azerbaijan
and parts of Armenia.

In 1603 the two empires agreed to split Nakhivhevan, with its
north-western frontier allocated to the Persians. Fearing that
his enemy will once again attempt to seize the region, Shah Abbas
implemented the "scorched earth" strategy of destroying any resources
-- buildings, farms, crops -- that may be of use to invading forces.

The policy forced residents (Armenians) to move from their home
city of Julfa and resettle in Isfahan, where a district located on
the south of the Zayandeh River was renamed New Julfa (Nor Jugha)
to accommodate them.

Though he was a Shiite Muslim, the emperor allowed the newcomers to
continue practicing their Apostolic Christian faith. The Armenians
were also given the right to elect their own mayor and hold their
own courts.

They were encouraged to produce wine and no Islamic restrictions were
imposed on them. However, Muslims could not live in New Julfa.

When the Armenians first came to the district, their duty was to
construct churches and monastery for their priests. Out of the 24
churches built during that era, only 13 now remain standing, including
the Surp Amenaprgitch Vank (Armenian Cathedral of Holy Savior).

To encourage financial independence, Shah Abbas I granted Armenian
merchants a monopoly on the silk trade. They also received interest
free loans for establishing businesses. This allowed them to expand
their network and trade with other countries, from Sweden in the north,
to Indonesia in the east.

The district not only prospered, it transformed the Persian Gulf into
a critical center for trade and culture. The quality of its schools
attracted students from across the region.

My friend Shirin took me to New Julfa. As soon as I entered the
district, I sensed a different atmosphere, not only from its buildings
but also the layout of the district. It is a neat complex and is
different from the other parts of Isfahan I had seen. It looks like
an enclosed settlement with smooth, cobblestoned roads connecting
parts of the quarter.

The roads are clean and the area looks well-maintained. The buildings
are mostly made of light yellow bricks. With the exception of the
Julfa Hotel and the district's churches, all other buildings are only
two floors high.

Houses by the road have inner courtyards protected by high walls.

Despite being an Armenian quarter, all buildings bear Safavid
architectural influences as in the ayvans, wooden doors and pillars.

Even from a distance, I could easily spot the crosses perched on
top of the structure were searching for. After a 10-minute walk,
we turned left and I spotted a tower clock rising from behind a long
wall. A large group of tourists had already gathered in front of a
large gate that lead to the tower.

"Unfortunately, today is a holiday and the church is closed to the
public," Shirin told me.

Along the wall, a number of small shops were open, selling souvenirs
to visitors who did not want to leave without a keepsake. Signs and
labels were all written in Farsi.

On a small pond, I saw a bronze statue of archbishop Khachatour
Kesaratsi in his long cloak. The archbishop set up the Middle East's
first publishing house 1636. The first book ever to be printed in
Persia was a translation of the Book of Psalms into Armenian. The
first book printed in Farsi was published 192 years later.

The Surp Amenaprgitch Vank, popularly known as the Vank Cathedral (vank
means "monastery" in Armenian), is considered Iran's most historically
significant church. Originally built in 1606 during Shah Abbas I's
reign, its entire architecture reflects a striking mix of European,
Safavid and Armenian influences.

The cathedral is now on the entry list for a United Nations
Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (Unesco)World
Heritage Site status.

Shirin and I continued to stroll down the paved walkway. We passed
some small cafes boasting a modern decor and playing Western music.

For a moment, I felt as if I was somewhere else -- certainly not
in Iran.

We reached Julfa Square, an elegant shopping district surrounded by
a lovely colonnade. With a small fountain and chairs scattered across
the square, the place looked ancient yet stylish.

I then spotted several women wearing Islamic hijabs.

"They are Armenians," Shirin told me, explaining that though they are
still free to practice their religion, the women must now adhere to
Iran's Islamic dress code of wearing headscarves.

Some 120,000 Armenians currently call Iran their home; a quarter of
them live in Isfahan.


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