The Door to a Lesser Side of Iran

“We don’t just have Muslims and mosques in Iran,” grins my guide, Saeed, revealing the gaps in his teeth and a deep river of wrinkles around his mouth. His dark grey shirt clings to his body in the blaze of overwhelming heat as he pushes open the time-worn door of the Vank Cathedral. 

It stands in the centre of the Jolfa district, a vibrant Armenian community in the heart of Esfahan. Home to 250,000 people who arrived after fleeing the Ottoman Empire. Both the community and the cathedral are over 300 years old. Saeed ushers me inside. 

Inside the Vank Cathedral

Detailed frescoes depicting scenes of man’s expulsion from Eden stretch from the hard floor to the grand ceiling. A giant canvas soaring towards the circular dome at the top. There is not a bare patch in sight.

Other frescoes show scenes of good and evil. Hot orange and danger-red lines as thin as blades of grass rise tall, swaying and scorching the figures. The looks of horror and fear on their faces are piercing, their fright chilling to the bone. With gaping mouths wide open screaming, they are helpless to survive the towering nightmare suffocating them. Above, there are clear-blue skies with figures wearing fluttering white robes standing on luscious pristine fields. Barefoot, they are cushioned by the soft soothing ground beneath them, comfortable and content. They hold a long glowing candle each with two hands cupped around them tight.

Another scene displays Jesus Christ, sitting prominently in front of a draped white rectangular table. Surrounded by kneeling male and female angels coated in deep crimsons, plum purples and Christmas-green robes, they hold out carafes of ruby-red liquid, a circular bread roll, sparkling knives and round plates. He looks relaxed, holding up two fingers – is He asking for two dishes or is He gesturing a peace sign? A tiny rabbit with giant pointed ears sits at His feet watching Him closely – do they know? 

Saeed leads us into the adjoining museum. Sunlight pierces through the arched windows and ornate chandeliers sag into the centre of the room. “Look at this – you won’t ever forget it!” he says, gesturing for me to peer into a microscope. Slowly my vision adjusts from blurry blobs to a clear silky view. At the end I can just about make out a single delicate strand of hair. It is around 45-years-old. Inscribed on it is a Biblical prayer: ‘to know wisdom and instruction; to perceive the words of understanding.’ I whisper the prayer’s words under my breath, letting them sink in.

Stepping out of the compound, the sun burns through my matching bold blue manteau (coat) and layered headscarf. I look back at the cathedral. From the outside the walls look unattractive and plain, almost dull. There’s not a hint of the rainbow hidden within. I look at the heavy lock and handle – they open the door to a lesser side of Iran. A Christian enclave amidst a myriad of mosques.

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