Unlike what many travelers may assume, Iran churches are among the most beautiful and exceptional parts of all Iran attractions. Each of these holy churches has a story to tell, only the gist of which can be grasped from the numerous murals and frescoes adorning their walls. More than 600 churches exist in Iran, some of which age back to more than 3000 years ago.
To preserve the wholeness of these churches, many of them were turned into museums and some were even inscribed as UNESCO world heritage sites in different years. The significance of these holy chapels lie not in their history or architecture alone, but in their social and cultural impact as well.
Location: Chaldoran County, West Azerbaijan province, Iran
Built in: 1607
The glorious church of Thaddeus, also known as the Kara Kilise (the black church) and Qare church (qare is a Persian term which means black) has been on its feet for more than 400 years in Iran. It is said that this Iran church was dedicated to saint Thaddeus, also known by the name Saint Jude, who is revered as the apostle of the Armenians.
Moses of Chorene, the famous Armenian historian who wrote the first historiographical work on the history of Armenia, has written a story about the Church of Thaddeus in his book. Of course, most modern historiographers believe this story to be a myth:
King of Edessa, a Parthian city (ancient Persia), was converted by Saint Judas Thaddeus, one of the 12 apostles of Jesus Christ. After the king passes away, his son orders the execution of Saint Judas, and buries his body somewhere in Edessa. By this account, the Kara Kilise church is built on saint Thaddeus’ grave, and the king’s daughter’s grave who was also converted by him.
The building of this Iran church itself has the unique characteristics of ancient Armenian church architecture:
Of course, parts of this building were destroyed and later rebuilt and renovated, but the original glory of this church has survived the ups and downs of Persian history.
The peerless black and white exterior of this holy cathedral has made it even more popular and famous among people, even those who are not fully aware of this building’s historical importance. Western Azerbaijan is home to many natural and architectural beauties like the astounding Anahita Shrine (goddess of sun), Takht-e Suleiman massif, and lake Urmia.
But Kara Kilise is among the more valuable and significant landmarks of this region. Monastery of St. Thaddeus was inscripted on the UNESCO world heritage sites list in 2008 as a part of Armenian Monastic Ensembles of Iran (one of the three).
UNESCO World Heritage Site
Location: Maku County, West Azerbaijan Region
Built in: 10th century
The Monastery of Dzordzor used to be a grand and significant monument near the village of Baron in west Azerbaijan. This holy chapel’s mesmerizing building was completed in the 10th century, and was widely influential during the 14th century as an educational and religious center.
Similar to Saint Thaddeus’ church, this Iran church is also inscribed as a part of the UNESCO world heritage sites list in 2008, as an Armenian Monastic Ensemble in Iran. This monastery was built by the Archbishop of St. Thaddeus, named Zechariah. Of course, the building of this structure was supervised by the famous Armenian scholar and philosopher, Hovhannes Erznkatsi.
It is speculated that the church’s name is also driven from this scholar’s name, as the Persian pronunciation of his name resembles “Zor Zor”. As great and glorious as this holy construction once was, the Chapel of the Holy Mother of God is the only part of the monastery that still stands to this day.
And yet, the Armenian architectural elements and decorative traditions somehow manage to shine through this small and beautifully plain chapel. The remains of this Iran church shows that it was composed almost entirely of stone, topped with a conical dome which was customary in Medieval Armenian architecture.
Location: Jolfa, West Azerbaijan
Built in: 1655
The Monastery of Saint Stepanos, or Saint Stephanos (also called Maghardavank), is the second most important cathedral in Iran (the first being the monastery of saint Thaddeus) and last of the three Armenian Monastic Ensembles in Iran on the UNESCO list.
This majestic Iran church was built in honor of Saint Stephen who was the first martyr of Christianity, and the patron saint of bricklayers and stonemasons. He was an ordained deacon in the early Christian church, and nurtured and cared deeply for the poor. In his holy life, Stephen was so consistent with Jesus that his martyrdom was both a natural and supernatural symbol of his love for the Lord.
Saint Stephen was wrongly accused of blasphemy and speaking against God, and was stoned to death at the age 28. This Iran church is, similar to Dzordzor church and Saint Thaddeus church, located in pristine rural lands of west Azerbaijan in Jolfa. Jolfa used to be the place of residence for many of the Armenians of the time, who became significantly more important during the Safavid edra.
One of the Safavid kings (Shah Abbas) even prepared a place near Isfahan, one of Iran top cities, for the people of Jolfa so they can educate the locals about silk weaving. He even went as far as naming the beautiful village near Isfahan Jolfa!
Monastery of Saint Stepanos is still one of the most important religious sites and churches in Iran. Not only was this church a place of worship for Christians and Iranian Armenians of the time, but it was also a gathering place for the like-minded scholars of the time. Students of Calligraphy, music, and painting assembled in this church to learn from these scholars and experts. Other subjects and discussions such as philosophy and science were also held in this grand monastery.
It is said this Iran church, although well respected and renowned by all Christians, Muslims, and all other religions in Iran; is dedicated to Saint Gregory the Illuminator. He is also known by the name “Saint Gregory the Enlightener”, and was the first bishop of the Armenian church who spread Christianity in the country. Historians generally credit him for converting king Tiridates the Great to Christianity, and forming the first official church of his time.
This holy place used to be enclosed by 7 magnificent watchtowers and 5 monstrous stone pillars which were built during the Sassanid era. The architectural style of this cathedral is, similar to the last two, the traditional religious Armenian style but subtly mingled with Roman and Persian architectural styles as well. The structure is mostly composed of stone (which come in the colors of red, rosy, and white) and a magnificent belfry is just next to this church’s conical dome.
The church of Saint Thaddeus, the Chapel of Dzordzor, and the Monastery of Saint Stepanos are:
Not on UNESCO world heritage sites list
Location: New Julfa, Isfahan
Built in: 1655
Vank Church, also called the Church of Saintly Sisters, is one of the most beautiful and scenic tourist attractions of Isfahan city. This cathedral was one of the first establishments Shah Abbas of the Safavid prepared for the Armenians who moved to the pristine city of New Julfa near Isfahan.
As it was mentioned before, many valuable and treasurable skills, arts, and trades were passed on to other generations and neighboring cities by the citizens of the New Jolfa. Upon entering this Iran church and walking through the hallway that leads to the altar; the first thing that catches every visitor’s attention is the mesmerizingly masterful paintings on the walls and ceilings of the building.
Each artwork and fresco tells a different tale from Jesus Christ’s life, Adam and Eve, Garden of Eden, and other biblical stories. Every single one of these Italian-style inspired paintings are depicted masterfully and in great details. This alone makes Vank worth holding a place on your Iran tourist attractions list to visit.
Nowadays the church itself has a library and a museum, which holds many ancient and important documents, letters, and printed forms that belong to the church. The grand bell tower of the Vank church is situated just above the gateway of this church, and holds a beautiful and valuable bell within its structure.
There is a gorgeous marble epigraphy on top of the main door of this Iran church, and it tells the readers how the bell tower and the magnificent clock on Vank’s clock tower was a gift from the famous Armenian painter, Martiros Saryan. Martiros Saryan is the founder of the Armenian national contemporary school of painting, and offered the bell tower to Vank cathedral as a gift, and a memorial for his dead brother.
NOT in UNESCO world heritage sites list
Built in: 1971
The Sarkis Church, which is called the Surp Sarkis mayr tachar in Armenian, is one of the most famous churches in Iran. This apostolic church is a relatively modern and contemporary church, as well as one of the most significant, as well as the largest religious buildings you can find on Tehran travel guide.
This Iran church was built by an Armenian benefactor in Tehran, and was devoted to Saint Sargis the General. By accounts of the Armenian folk tradition, Saint Sarkis is a courageous and honorable warrior who always rushed to defend the poor, and helped those in need. He was a protector of the innocent and helpless, and a ruthless punisher of evil and the wicked!
An interesting fact about this Iran church, is the fact that this majestic building underwent changes in the year 2000. Sarkis church was renovated to make sure the building will be standing tall and glorious for years to come, and to be as steady as possible.
Nowadays, the Sarkis church is one of the most popular attractions of Tehran. And this is a big claim! Considering the numerous beauties of Tehran and its surroundings, the Sarkis church is still one of the most beautiful churches in Iran and Tehran.
For a church which was built during WWII, the Cantor Church is still very much unique in its style and also, in a rather good shape! The exterior of this Iran church resembles a beautiful, if a rather rural, traditional Russian church. The resemblance, of course, doesn’t end in just looks; as the Cantor church was in fact built by Russians during the years of the second world war.
The multiple onion domes, the use of red and blue in the building’s architecture, and the tower-like structure of the church are tell-tale signs of Russian church architectural designs. Rows of pointed, curved corbel arches visualize the transition from the head of the church to the lowering domes. Elements of traditional Russian churches are beautifully illustrated in this plain, but homely building.
The cantor church is also the only red church in Iran, which makes this church matchless and singular in all countries. Sings of Islamic architecture can also be traced in this building. For example, the cyan tinted tiles decorating this church’s dome are symbolic in Islamic architecture.
The lovely structure of this Iran church is famous with tourists who travel to Qazvin all year round. And while it’s true that Qazvin is home to many renowned buildings like the ancient Jameh Mosque, or the Qajar bathhouse; the Cantor church has remained popular with visitors throughout the years.
This church is also one of the smallest churches in Iran, and the world.