“Architecture in Persia has a continuous history of more than 7,000 years, with characteristic examples distributed over a vast area from Syria to North India and the borders of China. Persian buildings vary from peasant huts, tea houses and garden pavilions to some of the most beautiful and majestic structures the world has ever seen. In meaning and purpose, monumental Persian architecture was primarily religious – at the beginning, magical and innovational in character – by which man was brought into communication and participation with the powers of Heaven.” Upham Pope
The Safavid Empire (1501-1722/37) was the first dynasty whose identity was based on the religion and ideology of Shi’ism that created political unity and national identity in Iran since the establishment of Islam there. The Safavid era was economically strong and politically stable. Under Shah Abbas the Great( 1587-1629), the capital of the empire was moved to Isfahan, and became the center of Persian art, philosophy and literature that leaded to the creation of ” Isfahan School” as a new architectural and artistic style . The architecture of this era evolved with new patterns based on geometrical networks in the development of cities, which gave order to open urban spaces, and took into account the conservation of natural elements (water and plants) within cities. The establishment of distinctive public spaces is one of the most important urban features of the Safavid period, as manifested, for example, In The Naghshe Jahan square, Chahar’ Bagh (the world’s first boulevard), and the royal gardens of Isfahan. Other extensive development of urban spaces, which is rooted in Persian culture are found in the form of schools, baths, carvansaries, places of worship, and bazaars.
The Vank Cathedral , also known as “All Savior’s Cathedral“, was one of the first churches to be established at Esfahan’s Julfa district by Armenian immigrants after the Ottoman war of 1603-1605. Shah Abbas the Great founded new Julfa as a settlement on the southern bank of The Zaynadehrud River, for the Armenians of the Old Julfa on the Araxes, who were consequently rescued from the dangers of Turkish attack and brought to the Shah’s new capital. He gave the immigrant Armenians special privileges and formal guarantees concerning their religious freedom. Construction of the Vank Cathedral began under the supervision of Archbishop David in 1606. Some alterations occurred around 1655, and the cathedral was finally completed in 1664 during the reign of Shah Abbas II (1633-1666). The cathedral was one of the many churches established in the city’s Julfa quarter across the Zayandehrud River.
The Armenian architects built the churches in Isfahan with a unique style, the church plan is the same one as in Armenia but the exterior form and facade is completely different from the Armenian one, they used the vernacular material and CONSTRUCTING methods of Persian architecture.
The church has a rectangular plan in east-west direction with dimensions 92/14 x 53/10 meters, the roof and walls are relied on the arches that connect the lateral walls and columns. The main dome of the church is twelve meters high and has eight lights that are made in double layers. The exterior of the cathedral is covered with relatively modest brickwork with exceptionally plain design while the interior is profusely decorated.
The spaces of the Cathedral are divided in :
1- the clock Tower
2- the printing office ( the first printing house in Iran and Middle east was located in this place behind the chamber, the office was built in the late century)
The dome symbolizes a mystical attempt to depict heaven on earth. The sanctuary or chamber is the place where God and mankind meet and converse. The natural symbol for this is the universe, which expresses the infinite creativity of God while enclosing mankind in a protective space.
Amongst the innumerable possibilities of concretizing the universe, the architects of Persia developed the concept of a dome. The dome is thus a shape of great symbolic importance that must be replicated through the properties of matter. Domes consequently took on an astrological or mystical significance and came to symbolize mankind’s attempts to create a heaven on earth.
In order to be easily recognized and respected, the places of worship were usually built with domes.
In orthodox cathedrals the dome symbolizes heaven and it is intended to remind the worshipers god’s assent and their deliverance through Christ. Designing domes in Persian architecture dates back to pre-Islamic time. In particular the Sasanid Empire (226-651) developed the designing domes to perfection. Accordingly, their structural design technique penetrated the world both in space and time until the present. A Persian dome is often double layered, and can have various shapes: semi-spherical, partial spherical, onion shaped, parabolic, polygonal conical, and circular conical. In pre-Islamic times, the dome was a sign of imperial grandeur for the king. In Islamic times, the tradition continued, and the interiors were made to simulate the celestial dome, reminding the muslim of Man’s place in the cosmos vis-a-vis God and creation.
The cathedral consists of a domed sanctuary much like a Persian mosque but with the significant addition of a semi-octagonal apse and raised chancel.
Although the dome is built in the traditional Islamic form, decorative surface treatment, which is typical in designing a mosque, is almost absent here. It is precisely this which makes the role of shape much more important. There are some brick designs and a few patches of ceramic on the walls.
The interior of the Vank Cathedral is ornately decorated with wall paintings and covered with gold leaves and rich tile work that reach up to its high ceiling and the inner surface of the dome, this was the first time of using the Persian tiles in Armenian churches. The delicately blue and gold painted central dome depicts the biblical story of the creation of the world and man’s expulsion from Eden. The cathedral has greatly influenced the architecture and decorative treatment of many subsequent and smaller Orthodox churches in the entire Persian-Mesopotamian region: that is to say present Iran, Iraq, Turkey, and Syria.
The interior of the Vank Cathedral is decorated with fresco paintings on the ceiling as well as on the walls. Pendentives throughout the church are painted with a distinctly Armenian motif of a cherub’s head surrounded by folded wings. The ceiling above the entrance is painted with delicate floral motifs in the style of Persian miniature. Two sections, or bands, of murals run around the interior walls: the top section depicts events from the life of Jesus, while the bottom section depicts tortures inflicted upon Armenian martyrs by the Ottoman Empire.
The courtyard contains a large freestanding belfry towering over the graves of both Orthodox and Protestant Christians. Graves are placed along the exterior wall before the entrance, with inscriptions in Armenian. In one corner of the courtyard is a raised area with a memorial to the 1915 Armenian Genocide in Turkey. Across the courtyard and facing the cathedral is a building housing a library and museum;
The Vank Cathedral is constructed by Brick instead of stone(which is the traditional material for building the Armenian church). It is obvious that the use of certain material for building the Vank Cathedral came of necessity. By looking at contemporary buildings such as the Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque, one can conclude that materials such as bricks and tiles were also used in the Vank Cathedral because they were readily accessible and fit in the climate. The other reason of using adobe and brick in the church was not to cause a conflict in religious archicture (mosques) in Isfahan.
However, the application of these same materials results in the creation of a cathedral albeit overwhelmingly influenced by Persian design.