The history of the presence and the settlement of Armenians in the modern-day borders of Iran dates back to a long time ago. Persian Armenia, also consisting what today is known as the Armenian Republic, was a part of Iran during Qajar era up to 1828 and until the beginning of the 20th century, Iran had one of the largest populations of Armenians along with the Ottoman Empire.
Originally, Armenians are considered to be amongst the native ethnic groups of northwestern Iran and accordingly, today, many historical monuments such as churches and Armenian chapels can be found in this region of Iran.
However, the cultural links between the Iranian people and Armenians have deeper roots in Zoroastrian times and they have always shared many different cultural and religious aspects.
The influence of the Armenians in the Iranian culture, specifically during the modernization of the country is truly undeniable. Even today, these two neighboring countries have so many characteristics in common, both historically and culturally, due to the thousand years of relationship.
Armenians in Iran
In 1606, more than thousands of Armenians fled from their homelands due to the Ottoman Empire’s torment and persecution.
During this period, Shah Abbas I from the Safavid dynasty was the King governing Iran and under his leadership, various opportunities of cultural integration were created. Welcoming Armenians and resettling them around Isfahan– which was the kingdom’s capital at that time- was a part of his attempts in the hopes that their rich culture, expertise, talent and great experience in the silk trade would be advantageous and yield benefits for the country.
Many Armenians family who were originally from the older city of Jolfa in Nakhchivan- which is also known as Jugha or Juła- resided in a district located along the southern bank of Zayandeh-Roud river in Isfahan.
This new Armenian quarter with all the enclosing villages was named New Jolfa after this city to form one of the oldest and greatest districts of Armenians in the world.
As mentioned before, the influences Armenians have had on the configuration of the culture and the economic conditions of the Iranian society during the 20th-century is very remarkable and cannot be ignored. They are considered as the pioneers of art in Iran in different industries such as photography, theater and cinema.
It is interesting to know that an Armenian, Alex Sagīnīān (Sahinyan), constructed the first movie theater in Iran in 1916 in which different Russian and European films were exhibited. They have also presented Western music and dance to Iranian people. Armenians have been impacted by Iranian culture as well while preserving their unique cultural characteristics, cuisine and language as a nation. For instance, they have originally introduced modern fast-food and sandwiches for the first time in the Muslim society of Iran many decades ago. In addition, Armenian athletes have a long reputation in different international competitions such as boxing, weightlifting, soccer and volleyball in the history of sport in Iran.
Armenians have constructed many churches, schools, sports clubs and cultural centers in Iran in order to promote and flourish their society. In New Jolfa, for example, many monuments and historical buildings exist today which are among the most important touristic attractions of Isfahan. The ‘Holy Savior Cathedral’ or the ‘Church of the Saintly Sisters’ is one of them which is generally called Vank meaning “monastery” or “convent” in the Armenian language.
Vank Cathedral is considered as one of the oldest Iran’s Armenian churches which was constructed during the Safavid Empire in the 17th century and is especially distinguished due to its artistic architecture combining Armenian Christian and Iranian Islamic elements and components.
Beside the rich, artistic tile work and paintings of the interior and the central dome of the church, the museum of this cathedral, showcasing many distinctive artifacts from the history of the cathedral and the Armenian community in Isfahan such as European paintings, embroidery, and other treasures remaining from the community’s legacy, as well as a writing on the hair done with diamond displaying a religious text, attracts many tourists to this place to explore and enjoy its beauties.
Nowadays, New Jolfa has become a part of Isfahan city and is still one of the most popular Armenians districts in Iran with 16 churches and a school. Despite the modernizing trend of the city, this quarter has maintained some of its fabulous charms and is very popular among the younger generation of Isfahan. Every day, numerous cafes and restaurants of this quarter host many young students and tourists who choose New Jolfa for spending a tranquil evening in the delightful atmosphere of the district.