Isfahan: A model for the coexistence of different religions' followers
Followers of different religions in Isfahan have lived in peace and safety for years. Christians, Jews, Zoroastrians, and Sunnis live peacefully alongside Shiite. Religious prophets have a special position in Islamic culture and in popular beliefs.
Among the cities of Iran, Isfahan has always been the home and a settlement for different religions' expatriates.
Religions in Isfahan
When Shah Abbas I chose Esfahan to be his capital, the people residing under the Ottoman rule in Armenia, Caucasus and Georgia, who were eager to rejoin Persia, sent high-ranking representatives to Esfahan. Shah Abbas accepted their request to liberate them and in 1604. set out for Tabriz with a small army. There he fitted out his army and attacked the Ottoman overlords. After conquering them, he organized an obligatory migration of the Armenians to Esfahan and Mazandaran. Some settled in Azerbaijan. It is documented that some thirty or forty thousand Armenians migrated to Esfahan in 1607. Some settled in Fereydan and its surrounding villages and others on the southern bank of the river in Esfahan soon establishing their own little town named New Jolfa (After the city of Jolfa in Azerbaijan). They even received some independence and religious freedom from the Safavid king.
The Armenians built 25 churches and prayer halls, of which 13 survive. Amongst all Jolfa Churches, Bethlehem (1628) and Vank (1655) are the most famous, although the Hakup is the eldest. Other churches worth mentioning are Geverg, Saint Mary, Estepanus, Yuhanna, Katarina. Nikoghayus, Gregur, Minas, Serkis, and Nerses.
The Armenians are mostly Gregorian Christians but, of course, there are also churches for the Catholics and Protestants in the Sangtarashan and Hakupjan Quarters. Their population in Esfahan and Shahin Shahr is more than 8,000 and almost 7,000 of them live in the villages of Fereydan and Fereydun Shahr in the west of Esfahan Province.
Chevalier Jean Chardin the French traveller in the Safavid period wrote this after his trip to Jolfa: "I have not seen such a splendid and beautiful town in any other part of the world. In Jolfa alone, I could spot 140 houses the equal of royal palaces in regard to their beauty and grandeur". Nowadays, Sukias and David Houses, from the Safavid period, have been converted into art schools.
From the 17th century, when foreigners first started coming to Esfahan until today, nearly 200 of them have died here: 36 French, 33 British. 15 Germans, 11 Dutch, 9 Polish, 4 Australians, and 2 Americans. Amongst them, Jacob Rousseau (Jean Jacques Rousseau's uncle) and the American, Arthur Upham Pope are the most famous, the former is buried in the Armenian Cemetery and the latter with his wife near Khaju Bridge.
This church is located in Kelisa Alley - Nazar-e Sharghi Street. It was originally built as a prayer hall (Amenapergich) in 1606 and then renovated and extended to its current appearance with its high double-layer dome. It received the name of Vank Church in 1655. Underneath the 38-meter high dome is the prayer hall that holds a unique collection of beautiful frescos depicting stories from the Old and New Testaments. The influence of Italian and Dutch painting is quite obvious. In addition to these wall paintings, there are also floral ornamentations and exquisite tile work with gild decorations.
In the northern part of the church's courtyard, there are other important memorials, namely a library (with more than 10,000 books), a monument to the Armenian martyrs killed in the 1915 genocide by the Ottoman Turks and a museum. The museum houses some of the earliest books ever printed in Esfahan, royal decrees of Safavid and Qajarid monarchs and other interesting valuable items. The Armenian ecclesiastic centre for Esfahan and southern Iran is located in the eastern part of the church. There are 64 gravestones in the church belonging to archbishops, priests, Russian and British consuls, politicians and doctors.
Hakup and Saint Mary Churches,
the Hakup Church, dating back to 1604 was the first church built in Jolfa. It is located in Jolfa Square inside the courtyard of Saint Mary's Church. The church of Saint Mary (also known as Khajeh Abed) is one of the most beautiful churches in the city. It was built in 1613 at Khajeh Odvik's expense and he himself is buried in the church which is decorated with mural paintings and haft-rang tiles. Bethlehem Church is located in the Nazar-e Sharghi Street. It was built in 1628 at the expense of Khajeh Petros, an Armenian merchant. The prayer hall is fully decorated, depicting stories from the Old and New Testaments. There is a high double-layer dome with floral gilded designs. Geverg Church is located in Hakim Nezami Street. The immigrant Armenians had brought sacred memorial stones from their own holy church ruined by the Ottomans and placed them in this very church. It was built in 1611 and the interior decoration is of the plain plasterwork type.
Jews and their synagogues in Esfahan
As mentioned in European travelogues between the 9th and 16th centuries, there were two districts next to each other called Yahudieh and Jey, the former being twice the size than the latter. The Jews (pronounced Yahudi in Persian) lived in Yahudieh. It is said that they migrated from Babylon in 605-562 BCE due to Nebuchadnezzar's oppression and formed the primary core of today's Jubareh. However, some believe that Shushandokht, the Sassanid queen (399420) was herself Jewish and invited other Jews to migrate to Esfahan.
Today, there are 2,500 Jews living in Esfahan, mostly residing in Jubareh or ancient Yahudieh around Kamal Street and the north of Valiasr Avenue. They own 17 synagogues in Esfahan, but these are of no great antiquity most being less than 100 years old. The synagogues are completely covered, having the prayer halls that
are square in shape with a dais in the middle for the rabbi to stand on during worship. Four stone corner legs support a roof over the dais with connecting intertwined wooden bars to reinforce the whole structure.
The synagogues Mullah Nisan, Shah Goli, Mullah Eliyahu, Shamuiel, Shokri, Khorshid, Mullah Yaqub (next to the tomb of the poet, Kamal Esmaeil), Moshe, Davud, Sangbast, Mullah Rabi, Kanise Bozorg, Kanise Jama'ati, and Yusof Shamuiel are in Jubareh. Keter Davud Synagogue is on Felestin Crossroad, Golbahar Synagogue is in Harunieh Street and Madreseh Synagogue is in Hatef Street.
The people neighbouring Jubareh, in ancient Jey were certainly Zoroastrians before the coming of Islam. The oldest historical site in Esfahan is the Zoroastrian Atashkadeh, located on top of a mountain. After the advent of Islam in Iran, some of the Zoroastrians converted to Islam, some moved east and others stayed whilst keeping their old religious beliefs. Unfortunately, not much is mentioned in our history about the lifestyle and rituals of these monotheists. However, we definitely know that they lived in the Gabr Abad Quarter on the southern bank of Zayandeh Rud, near Khaju Bridge. As mentioned in travelogues their crypt near the Sofeh Mountain was cannonaded during Shah Abbas II's time (17th century) leaving no traces today. This forced some more of the Zoroastrians to leave Esfahan for Yazd (now the centre of Zoroastrians in Iran) and for Kerman. There is no trace of their last atashkadeh anywhere. With the loss of the sacred continuous flame the last group also left Esfahan. Today there are only 250 Zoroastrians living in Esfahan. Their atashkadeh, Darb-e Mehr-oGohar is located in Sichan Quarter and their cultural affair society is next door.
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