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Day 5: A Dive into the History of Iran's Many Houses of Worship

By Katherine Skura
Each experience on this trip is like a tile — exquisite on its own and part of a sublime whole. Yesterday’s experiences included a visit to Jameh Mosque, Chehel Sotun Palace, Vank Church,  and the Isfahan Music Museum. I will focus on the mosque and the church.

We entered the Masjed-e-Jameh (the Jameh Mosque) from an attached bazaar. Our tour guide Shahram furnished us with indispensable information about this mosque and about Persian mosque architecture in general. The largest, and one of the oldest mosques in Iran, the Jameh Mosque was built over a 900 year period and provides an excellent example of different phases and elements of Islamic architecture. Like all mosques, Jameh Mosque is centered around a courtyard, with four intricately decorated recessed vaults, or iwans, opening onto the four sides of the courtyard. The iwans may have Zoroastrian origins from the Parthian period. Persian Islamic architecture has contributed many critical innovations to the world, including the use of squinches, which permit the transition from a square space to a dome, and the pointed arch (which, when adapted in Gothic architecture, directs the weight of the ceiling vaults to the arch supports, creating the opportunity for heavy stone walls to be replaced with stained glass.) Spiritually, both Gothic and Islamic pointed arches direct the gaze of the pilgrim or worshipper toward God.

Next, we visited the Vank church and library complex in the Armenian neighborhood of Jolf. Enjoyed by many for its brightly colored restored frescoes, the small church is used for worship four times per year, on Christmas, New Year, Easter, and April 24, a day that commemorates the Armenian Genocide. We spoke for a moment with the guard. Armenian Iranian Christians are treated better than other minorities in Iran, he said. But, there is very little intermarriage between Armenian Iranian Christians and Iranian Muslims. Such couples might perhaps choose to remain together without ever marrying. When asked about trade sanctions, he volunteered that travel, beef, and iPhones are no longer affordable.
The library was particularly meaningful for me.  As a member of a Christian faith community, I have often chosen images to publish in our church newsletter—images that illustrate weekly bible readings. It is always thrilling to look at images created far away in space, time or culture from familiar Catholic and Protestant images, but which still illustrate the same story from the Bible or sometimes a similar story in the Koran. Armenian bibles are richly illuminated. The Vank library contains many manuscripts, spanning the 10th through the 20th century. Some of these were created in Jolf, in Armenia, and some were created in Isfahan.

Armenians arrived in Iran during the period from 1655-1654, and later, during the Turkish genocide in 1915, in which 600,000 — 1.5 million Armenians died. 5,000 Armenian Iranians live in Isfahan today.

Finally, we returned for a farewell dinner for two of our four guides. Our trip is winding down, and they must leave to welcome another tour. We will miss them and remember them. Thank you, Farid and Reza, for sharing your beautiful country and culture with us.

Now, on a new day, as we sail along toward Pasargarde, the silhouettes of mountains against the dome of the sky dip and rise like a line of calligraphy adorning an iwan.