Vank Cathedral in Isfahan stands as the largest and most beautiful church in Iran. This cathedral is renowned among the Armenian community in Isfahan for its simple architecture, exquisite paintings, and various sections. Vank Cathedral has a tumultuous history, evolving over the years into the structure we see today. Recognized globally, this cathedral is a significant tourist attraction in Isfahan, frequently visited by travelers.
Vank Cathedral is among the historical Armenian churches in Isfahan, recognized as a valuable historical monument in the city. This cathedral was nationally registered on December 6, 1931. Its name derives from the St. Amenaprkich Vank Cathedral in Nakhchivan. Vank Cathedral is also known as the Holy Savior Cathedral.
Constructed during the reign of Shah Abbas II, the cathedral was built with the efforts of the Armenians of Jolfa. Dating back to 1906, Vank Cathedral has now stood for over a century. Interestingly, Vank was initially a small building located in the southwest of today’s structure, known as St. Hakob Church. The construction of the current Vank Cathedral began around 1655 and was completed in 1664.
Location of Vank Cathedral
Vank Cathedral is situated in the heart of Isfahan, in the Jolfa neighborhood, easily accessible without leaving the city. To visit this historical site from anywhere in Isfahan, head towards Post Office Street and enter Hakim Nezami Street. After passing the first intersection, just before Mehrdad Street, turn into Church Alley, and the cathedral will be on your left. After about 200 meters, you’ll arrive at Vank Cathedral.
The cathedral is on your left, and on your right, there’s a parking area for those visiting this amazing site by personal vehicle. You can park comfortably and enjoy strolling around the Jolfa neighborhood and Vank Cathedral.
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Visiting Hours and Tourist Information
Vank Cathedral is open to the public every day, from 8:30 AM to 1:30 PM and then from 4:00 PM to 6:30 PM. To visit, you need to purchase a ticket from the ticket office at the cathedral entrance.
These timings are subject to change in the future. Fortunately, there’s no time limit for visiting; you can stay as long as the cathedral is open and enjoy its attractions.
Before visiting Vank Cathedral, note that it’s closed on public holidays, the first day of Nowruz, and significant Armenian occasions. To ensure your visit, it’s recommended to call 03136243471 or check the official website of Vank Cathedral at www.vank.ir for the latest information regarding opening status and ticket prices.
Paintings and Stone Sculptures in Vank Cathedral
Vank Cathedral captivates visitors with its stunning paintings; as soon as one enters, they are enveloped in a world of color and artistry. The entire cathedral, including walls, arches, the dome’s interior, and various angles, is adorned with a plethora of paintings, some on walls, others on canvas, cloth, wood, and even on stones.
The first category of paintings in the cathedral, the cloth-based ones, are installed in the altar and other parts of the cathedral. The second category, the wall paintings, are spread throughout the cathedral.
Most of these paintings depict themes from the Holy Bible, illustrating events from the birth to the Ascension of Jesus Christ. Some walls depict Judgment Day, heaven and hell, and the Last Judgment.
In the chorister’s area, four paintings surrounded by floral motifs represent the torture of the saints.
Additionally, a continuous painting in the cathedral starts from a special room for church items. This painting narratively depicts various events, starting with the Angel’s Annunciation to the Virgin Mary.
This painting envelops the cathedral and displays scenes like the Nativity of Christ, the Adoration of the Magi, Christ’s temptation by the Devil, the Last Supper, the Crucifixion, the Burial of Jesus, the Ascension, and more.
On the cathedral’s north wall, there are paintings depicting the Resurrection, with heaven and the entrance for the righteous above, and hell with flames, multi-headed dragons, and angels suspending sinners into a pit below. In the large dome above the altar, you can see paintings narrating the creation of Adam and Eve up to the death of Abel.
Apart from the paintings, the cathedral also houses eye-catching stone sculptures. These half-length busts are of Armenian luminaries. The sculptures are placed in various parts of the cathedral, including a bust of Mesrop Mashtots, the creator of the Armenian alphabet, and Khachatur Kesaratsi, the Armenian Archbishop, near the museum entrance. Busts of renowned Armenian poets are on either side of the library entrance, and a large statue of Khachatur Kesaratsi, who served as the Archbishop from 1620 to 1646, is in the square facing Vank Cathedral.
Bell Towers and Entrance Inscriptions of Vank Cathedral
Vank Cathedral is adorned with several bell towers, each with its own unique history.
First Bell Tower or Clock Tower
Upon entering the cathedral, to the right, stands a towering bell tower, known as the first bell tower or the clock tower. This three-story tower is situated above the monastery’s entrance. Atop the tower, just below the third floor, sits a massive clock weighing around 300 kilograms, displaying the passage of time. Interestingly, this bell tower wasn’t built at the cathedral’s inception but was constructed 38 years later by Mardis Hovnanian.
Second Bell Tower
On the cathedral’s roof, right above the main entrance and between the western wall and the small dome, there’s a square space housing the second bell tower. This area measures approximately 8 square meters, with each side being about 2.75 meters long. At the intersection of each side stands a brick column, each 3 meters high.
To ensure greater stability, these columns are connected at a height of 2.5 meters by a wooden beam. Additionally, each column is topped with an arch, and the space between them is filled with bricks.
Inscriptions in Vank Cathedral
Vank Cathedral houses four inscriptions, each located in a different part of the cathedral, with three of them containing text.
The first inscription is placed over the cathedral’s main entrance. This inscription narrates the history of the cathedral and reads:
“Vank Amenaprkich and the residence of the Armenian Archbishop, 1606 AD.”
Another inscription in Vank Cathedral is observed at the western entrance. Made of tile and in lapis lazuli color, the inscription is written in gold script and states:
“The Vank Amenaprkich Cathedral was started in 1655 AD during the reign of Shah Abbas II and the Catholicos (Philippos), with the leadership of Khalifa David and the aid of the benevolent people of Jolfa, and was completed in 1664 AD. The reward of the worships performed in this cathedral befalls those who are alive or have passed away.”
The third inscription is located at the entrance of the bell tower. Made of marble, it provides information about the bell tower or the clock tower of Vank Cathedral. The inscription reads:
“This tower and its clock were built and donated by Mardiros Gorg Hovnanian in 1931 AD in memory of his brother who passed away in 1924 AD.”
The fourth inscription, in blue, is situated to the right of the bell tower. It is covered with cross stones, known in Armenian as ‘Khach Klim’. Interestingly, these stones have been brought to Vank Cathedral from other churches in the Jolfa region.
Domes of Vank Cathedral
Vank Cathedral features two domes: a large and a small one. The large dome is located above the altar, while the small one is built over the congregation hall of the cathedral. The architectural style of the large dome is similar to the domes of mosques, which is unusual considering traditional church domes are typically conical. Given the cathedral’s construction during the Safavid era, incorporating mosque-style architecture is not surprising. The exterior of the large dome is made of brick and painted in lapis lazuli on the inside. Around the dome, eight windows are installed, each adorned with paintings narrating the creation of Adam and Eve up to the murder of Abel.
To view the cathedral’s domes, one must visit the western part, where square columns with tall arches support the domes.
Museum of Vank Cathedral
As you might know, the historical function of churches extended beyond worship and religious matters. Preserving and transmitting Armenian culture to future generations was among the most important duties of the churches. Therefore, museums are commonly found within churches, housing ancient and valuable artifacts. Vank Cathedral is no exception, encompassing a large and comprehensive museum established by Thaddeus Honanian in the cathedral’s northern wing.
The museum in Vank Cathedral houses precious items such as prominent historical paintings, valuable handwritten books, and other ancient artifacts, which were previously stored in the church’s abandoned storeroom.
Inscription on the Human Hair at Vank Cathedral
Let’s first talk a bit about the famous human hair in Vank Cathedral, and then about the inscription on it.
The renowned human hair in Vank Cathedral, famous for its uniqueness, is one of the most notable items in the museum. This hair, belonging to an 18-year-old girl, is famous for the sentence inscribed within it. The creator of this extraordinary piece, an Armenian artist named Vahram Hakobian, used a diamond pen in 1974 to create this masterpiece. Vahram Hakobian donated his unique work to the cathedral a year later, in 1975. The hair of the 18-year-old girl contains a sentence from the Torah, inscribed as follows:
” To know wisdom and instruction, to understand words of insight “
As you might expect, the inscription is exceedingly fine and invisible to the naked eye, requiring a microscope for viewing. Fortunately, the cathedral authorities have thoughtfully provided a microscope so visitors can closely observe both the inscription and the hair.
The Story of the Standing Man Statue
The statue of the standing man in front of Vank Cathedral commemorates Khachatur Kesaratsi, the pioneer who established the first printing press in Iran. There’s a more imaginative story associated with this statue, penned in verse by an Armenian poet named Zadour Oklian. The story unfolds as follows:
One morning, the shopkeepers near the entrance of Vank Cathedral encounter a statue of a clergyman as if it had suddenly descended from the sky overnight! They gather around the statue, each speculating who this man could be and what the object he holds towards the sky between his fingers is. Their verbal disputes escalate into a physical altercation until an elder mediates, prompting the statue to speak. It declares itself as Khachatur Kesaratsi, who has returned from the afterlife to visit Jolfa and see if its former glory still exists. He questions whether the 24 churches of the city are still operational, if the palaces of the Khwajas of Jolfa still stand, and whether the Jolfa merchants still trade with India and Singapore. He inquires if they still traverse the Silk Road and pay tributes to the Tsar of Russia for the freedom to trade in his empire.
His questions continue up to this point, and then the story of the statue abruptly ends, leaving an unfinished air to the tale!
Prayer Hall of Vank Cathedral
The prayer hall of Vank Cathedral is designed as a parallelogram and consists of two parts: the nave for congregation and a section for performing religious ceremonies on special occasions. The walls of the prayer hall are adorned with colorful tiles, enhancing its beauty.
Additionally, paintings from the Holy Book embellish the area from the walls to the inside of the dome, captivating every viewer.
The prayer hall is located opposite the library, and to visit it, you need to head to the northern part of the cathedral.
Armenian Genocide Memorial
The Armenian Genocide Memorial was erected in the northwest of the cathedral to cultivate awareness for future generations of Armenian immigrants and to commemorate the victims. This square memorial has four columns that meet at the top. It was designed and implemented in 1975 by Albert Ajemian, an engineer of that time, marking the 60th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide by the Ottomans.
Every year on April 24th, a memorial service is held at this site to remember those who were killed in the Armenian Genocide, attended by the Armenian community of Isfahan.
The administrative building of the cathedral serves as the primary administrative and social center for the Armenians of Isfahan. Located in the southern part of the cathedral, it was built during the reign of Naser al-Din Shah Qajar. This building handles all administrative matters related to marriage, death, birth, document preparation, and addressing legal complaints of the Armenian community. The services of this building are not limited to the Armenians of Isfahan but also extend to Armenians in southern regions of Iran.
Interestingly, in the past, the services of Vank Cathedral covered a broader area, even serving the Armenian community in India for their administrative needs.
In this article, we’ve tried to share as much as possible about Vank Cathedral. When you visit Iran and Isfahan, make sure to see this extraordinary historical site for yourself and witness its indescribable beauty up close. If you believe any part of the information provided is incomplete or incorrect, please share your thoughts with SURFIRAN and other readers of the magazine.