Located in the heart of Isfahan, Vank Cathedral stands out as a shining gem with its simple yet captivating architecture, unique paintings, and rich history, distinguishing it from other churches in Iran. Over time, the cathedral has undergone the addition of various sections, enhancing its significance as both a religious and cultural landmark.
Renowned worldwide, Vank Cathedral holds a special place in the hearts of Isfahan’s Armenian community. Visitors to this historic site can spend hours admiring the beauty and intricacies of the cathedral’s various parts. To know more about this historical treasure, keep reading this article of Parsi Tours, Iranian travel agency.
About Vank Cathedral
Located in Isfahan’s Jolfa neighborhood, Vank Cathedral is a major historical and religious attraction. Initially built as a simple church for Armenian immigrants during Shah Abbas’s reign, it has evolved significantly from its original structure. Today, it’s not only a religious hub but also a beacon of historical and cultural importance.
Vank Cathedral, meaning ‘monastery’ in Armenian, is the largest and most famous church in Iran, attracting numerous visitors. It also serves as the central cathedral for Isfahan’s Armenians. Part of the Jolfa neighborhood’s 17th-century church cluster, Vank Cathedral has also been an administrative center and social event venue. It even housed the first printing press in Iran and the Middle East.
The cathedral’s artistic elements, including majestic architecture, statues, colorful patterns, and historical paintings, add immense value. In its courtyard lie the graves of notable Armenians.
The History of Vank Cathedral
Vank Cathedral’s roots trace back to 1606, initially just a small church in today’s larger complex. Its development over time mirrors the transformation of Jolfa neighborhood, once home to Armenian immigrants settled by Shah Abbas during his conflicts with the Ottomans. These immigrants built various facilities, including 24 churches by the 17th century’s end, though only 13 remain today.
The cathedral began as the Church of Hakob and gradually expanded into today’s grand structure. An inscription above its entrance details this evolution. The expansion project, starting in 1655 and completed in 1664, included various parts like the prayer hall, entrance tower, and administrative buildings. A tile inscription in blue and gold at the western entrance describes this history.
Vank Cathedral Visitor Information
Address: Isfahan, Jolfa neighborhood, East Nazar Street, Vank Church Alley
Visiting Hours: Daily from 8:30 AM to 1:30 PM and 4:00 PM to 6:30 PM
Ticket Prices: 30 cents for Iranian visitors, $1 for foreign visitors
Do not hesitate to bool our Isfahan city tour.
Architecture of Vank Cathedral
Spanning roughly 8700 square meters, Vank Cathedral’s compound includes a mix of building structures and green spaces. Unique for its brick construction, the cathedral stands out with its winged angel tiles. The main entrance features a large wooden gate leading to a stone-paved interior.
The entrance is adorned with a painting of a monastery’s interior, highlighted with lapis lazuli and gray tiles. The bell tower, or Clock Tower, built later by Hovhanes Jamal, contains a large donated clock and marble inscriptions commemorating its construction. Underneath the tower lie two tombs, and nearby, blue inscriptions covered with cross-shaped ‘Khachkars’ stones brought from other Jolfa churches add to the cathedral’s historical significance.
On both sides of the church’s entrance, there are two rooms that were previously used for hosting guests but have now been converted into a shop and a guard room. Another architectural feature of Vank Cathedral is its domes.
Domes of Vank Cathedral
Vank Cathedral has two domes, a smaller one above the congregation hall and a larger one over the church’s altar. Upon entering the church, visitors can see square columns with tall arches in the western part. The cathedral’s domes are built on these columns and arches.
The style of the large dome is quite similar to mosque domes, unlike the traditional conical shape of church domes. Considering the construction period during the Safavid era, this dome was influenced by mosque architecture of that time. The outer shell of the dome is made of brick, and the interior is painted in lapis lazuli color. Around this large, circular dome, there are eight windows. Between these windows, inside the dome, there are paintings and frescoes.
The paintings on the dome of Vank Cathedral are among its most beautiful attractions, offering tourists a delightful view. The lapis lazuli shell of the large dome features images of Adam and Eve’s creation, the story of eating the forbidden fruit, and the tale of Cain and Abel.
Other Bell Tower
On the church’s roof, near the small dome, there is another bell in a square area supported by three-meter-tall columns. These columns are connected at the top with wooden beams, and there are arched designs between them.
Paintings of Vank Cathedral
One of the most beautiful architectural parts of Vank Cathedral is its interior paintings. The church’s hall walls are covered with plaster and feature magnificent paintings. The interior architecture of Vank Cathedral is unique in its gold work, ornamentation, and wall paintings, making it not only renowned in Iran but also in the world.
The paintings of Vank Cathedral are divided into two categories. The first category includes paintings on canvas, fabric, and wood displayed in the altar and other places. The second category consists of wall paintings and painted stone pieces. One of the church’s paintings, depicting seven levels of heaven and hell, is among its most beautiful artworks.
Statues at Vank Cathedral
An interesting part of Vank Cathedral that captures visitors’ attention is the statues in its compound. These bust statues are made of famous Armenian figures. To the right of the museum entrance, there’s a statue of Mesrop Mashtots, the inventor of the Armenian alphabet, and to the left, a statue of Khachatur Kesaratsi, the Armenian Archbishop. Other famous statues in Vank Cathedral include those of prominent Armenian poets of the 20th century, located on both sides of the library entrance. One of these belongs to Barouir Sevag, a renowned Armenian poet. These statues and those at the museum entrance are works of the distinguished Armenian artist Zaven Aivazian, created before his migration to Italy and considered masterpieces. Numerous tombs of notable Armenians are also present in the church compound.
Near the cathedral square, there’s a full-sized statue with a cloak on its shoulder, one hand on several books, and the other holding a small tool. This statue represents Khachatur Kesaratsi, the Armenian Archbishop during 1620-1646, who was also the founder of the first printing press in Iran. He is considered one of the most powerful and influential Armenian leaders, providing significant services to Armenians worldwide.
Sections of Vank Cathedral
Over time, Vank Cathedral has significantly expanded, with many parts added to it. The evolution of its different sections is evident, and while some parts have been lost over time, many have been added, restored, and equipped. The cathedral comprises various sections like a museum, library, monastery, bell house, clock tower, printing press, and administrative offices. This part introduces the different areas within the Vank Cathedral compound.
Vank Cathedral Museum
In all the churches of Isfahan, a significant section is dedicated to preserving prominent historical artifacts. Historically, the churches’ function was not only religious but also involved preserving and promoting Armenian culture for future generations. Vank Cathedral houses one of the most prominent Armenian museums.
One of the most notable pieces in the Vank Cathedral Museum is a strand of hair from an 18-year-old girl with a Torah verse written on it. The museum of Vank Cathedral initially comprised just a few simple rooms built by Tadeos Honanian about a hundred years ago on the northern side of Vank Cathedral. However, today, it has transformed into a large and complete museum. It houses significant historical paintings, precious handwritten books, and valuable ancient artifacts that were previously stored in an abandoned storeroom in the church.
One of the museum’s most famous artifacts is a strand of hair from an 18-year-old girl, on which a Torah verse is written with a diamond pen. This artwork was created by Armenian artist Vahram Hakopian in 1974 and donated to the Vank Museum in 1975. Visitors can view the writing on the hair strand through a microscope. The text on the hair strand reads:
“For the learning of wisdom and justice, and to comprehend the words of insight”
The Vank Cathedral Museum is one of the most important cultural centers for Armenians in Iran and worldwide, attracting many tourists to its artifacts annually.
Vank Cathedral Library
A significant portion of the Armenian cultural heritage of Isfahan is preserved in the Vank Cathedral Library. Located in the northern part of Vank Cathedral, adjacent to the museum, this library houses historical documents and books dating back over 400 years, preserved in its archives section and not accessible to the general public. The Amenaprkich Library in the monastery is considered one of the most important cultural sites for Armenians in Isfahan and worldwide.
Besides Armenian historical and cultural books, the library also contains works in Persian, English, and other languages. The total collection exceeds 30,000 volumes. Armenians in Isfahan and other parts of Iran have suitable access to this library’s books, but non-Armenians need special conditions and a referral letter to use its facilities.
Vank Cathedral Printing Press
In 1630, Khachatur Kesaratsi, the Armenian bishop of Isfahan, decided to establish a modern printing press in Vank Cathedral. This decision was influenced by his trip to Poland and his exposure to the printing industry in that country. Eight years later, the first book was printed in the Vank Cathedral Printing Press, a copy of the Psalms. Printing this book took one year and five months, with all the church’s clergy involved in the process. This book is also considered the first printed book in Iran.
Prayer Hall of Vank Cathedral
Vank Cathedral features a building designated as a prayer hall, which is parallelogram-shaped and consists of two parts. The first part is the nave, and the second part, located under the dome, is used for conducting religious ceremonies on special occasions.
The entire walls of the prayer hall building are decorated with colorful tile work. Above the walls and into the dome, there are frescoes from the Bible, and the interior of the dome is covered with picture decorations and tile work. However, the exterior of the dome only shows a brick facade.
Armenian Genocide Memorial
In the Vank Cathedral compound, in the northwest part of the church, there’s a structure with unique architecture. This memorial was built in 1975, on the 60th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide by the Ottomans. It’s a square-shaped structure composed of four columns connected at the top. The architect, Albert Ajemian, created this monument with the purpose of cultural education for future generations of Armenian immigrants and to keep alive the memory of the genocide victims. Every year on April 24th, a commemoration ceremony is held at this site with the participation of Armenians in Isfahan.
To wrap up, Vank Cathedral in Iran is a remarkable blend of history, art, and spirituality. Its stunning architecture and intricate interior paintings tell stories from centuries past, making it a captivating destination for both history buffs and art lovers. This cathedral isn’t just a place of worship; it’s a symbol of the rich cultural diversity of Iran and a testament to the Armenian community’s resilience and artistic heritage. Whether you’re exploring its detailed frescoes or soaking in the peaceful ambiance, Vank Cathedral offers a unique and memorable experience, a must-see Iran visiting place.