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Thaddeus Monastery

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St. Thaddaeus Church & Tabriz & Jolfa, Esfahan

St. Thaddaeus Church
I - XVII Century - Orumiye, Azer. Region, Iran

THE CHURCH - The Church of St. Thaddaeus, known also as the Black Church (Ghara Kelisa), is probably Iran's most interesting and notable Christian monument. While not easy to reach, it warrants a detour. One of the 12 disciples, Thaddaeus (also Jude), was martyred while spreading the Gospel to this part of Iran in the 1st century. He's revered as an apostle of the Armenian Church. As legend has it, a church dedicated to him was first built on the present site in 68 AD. Nothing appears to remain of this original church, which was extensively rebuilt in the 13th century, but some parts around the altar may date from the 10th century. Most of the present structure dates from the 17th century and is of carved sandstone. The earliest parts are of black and white stone.

The church is protected within a thick wall, which also forms the outer ramparts of some abandoned monastery buildings. It only has one service a year, around 1 July (check the date at the Orumiye tourist office 0441 (20241)), attended by Armenian pilgrims from all over Iran. Ask for the key (kelid-e kelisa) in the Kurdish hamlet below the church. There are quite a few other more or less abandoned Armenian churches in the surrounding hills.

ORUMIYE - In the very Northwest corner and somewhat cut-off from the rest of Iran, lies the city of Urmia (Orumiye) with c. 400.000 population. Formerly Rezaiye, Orumiye lies west of the lake with the same name, and may date back to the mid-2nd millennium BC. It is one of many claimants to be Zoroaster's birthplace. ... It is of interest as the site of one of Iran's largest and longest established Christian communities. The main groups are Chaldeans, Nestorians, and Armenians, whose denominations predate even the church of Rome, but several others are also represented, including Eastern Orthodoxists, remnants of a White Russian influx in the 1920's. Orumiye's Christians only narrowly averted massacre by invading Turkish troops in 1918.

TRANSPORTATION - There are buses from Orumiye to Tabriz, a major city which take about 5 hours. (cars take 2.5 hours) Tabriz also has numerous Armenian Churches, including one mentioned by Marco Polo in his travels.

No public transport runs to the Church of St. Thaddaeus. To reach it you'll have to hire a taxi for the day from Orumiye or Maku, leaving early in the morning. Although Maku is only 23 km away, no direct road goes from it. As your driver probably won't know how to get here, make sure he follows the signs to Ghara Zeya-ed-Din, then takes the main road to Seyah Chesme 65 km west, turning right nine km before Seyah Cheshme at the T-junction marked 'Ghareh Kelisa'. The church is about 10 km on by a dirt track.


TABRIZ - Tabriz has numerous Armenian Churches, including one mentioned by Marco Polo in his travels. There are planes (one hour), buses (nine hours), and trains (12 hours) to Tehran, as well as transport to other cities in Iran. There are buses from Tabriz to Orumiye (if you are going to see St. Thaddaeus) which take about 5 hours. (cars take 2.5 hours)

Jolfa, Esfahan

Jolfa - In Esfahan, just south of the river by Sio Se Pol is Jolfa, the Armenian quarter. During his wars with the Turks, Shah Abbas I gained a large number of Armenian subjects. While the skills of these industrious Christians were coveted, it was preferred that they be kept in one area and away from the main Islamic centers. So in 1606 the shah founded this quarter just outside the city of Esfahan, granted land to the Armenians whom he resettled and encouraged them to carry on their religion and commerce here. Jolfa is still almost exclusively Christian and has for years been the seat of the Armenian Archbishop of Iran and India. [Raffi's note: to read more about the origin of the Armenian community in Isfahan, read about the extremely prosperous Armenian town of Jugha, in Nakhichevan, which Shah Abbas burned and destroyed to forcefully resettle the Armenians in Iran]

The most important building is the All Saviour's Cathedral (Kelisa-ye Vank), built between 1655 and 1664. The influence of Islam on architecture has been so strong since the Arab conquest that even Christian buildings incorporate many Islamic features, and this one, with its onion dome, pointed arches, and even a minaret-like spire, is no exception. A museum stands in the grounds, as well as a [genocide] memorial to the estimated 1.5 million Armenians massacred in Turkey in 1915. Jolfa has 12 churches, all dating from the 17th century; the most interesting one is Bethlehem Church (Kelisa-ye Beit-ol-Lahm), founded in 1628.

TRANSPORTATION - There are planes (one hour) buses (seven hours) and trains (10 hours) to Tehran, as well as busses to other cities.

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