St. Stephanous

This church takes its name from St . Stephanous who was one of the first Christian martyrs. Stephanous or Stephen was known for his strong beliefs and was stoned to death by angry Jews. This incident took place on 26 December 37 A.D in Jerusalem. From that date on Christians all over the world hold memorials in honor of that day .

Date and construction of the church

St Stephanous cathedral is situated 26 km west of Jolfa in a place called ' Gharaye Gizil Vang' (red monastery) in the eastern village of Dareh Sham near Poldasht in Makoo County. In the past it was only accessible through a mountainous track but in 1350 a road was built to ease transportation .

Andreanick Hooyan says in an article on St Stephanous published in Iran Zamin magazine :
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St Stephanous church is located in a very strong fort and the collection of all the buildings in this fort is called St Stepanous Vang or Magharat Vang. Like other Armenian Vangs, this place is the gathering center of priests, artists, philosophers, historians and scientists .

St Stephanous Vang has two major significances for the Armenians: due to its form and architecture and also cultural aspects, it is one of the most famous religious and cultural centers of many artists who have gathered here and written books which have often been decorated by other artists. Thus this church is one of the major decorative writing centers of Armenians and many books have been produced here that are now kept in Armenian and Italian libraries .

The exact date of its construction is not known, but historians estimate it to be between 7-9 centuries B.C .

The oldest document regarding this dates back to 649 A.D that mentions a church in this district .
In the reigning period of Ashoot Bagardooni, an Armenian king, Katalikoos Khajik was the religious leader of Armenia (976 A.D.) who sent a missionary to this area in which a church was built which the king financed .

Jacob Joghatisti who was the archbishop of St Stephanous Vang, during 1633 to 1655 repaired and reconstructed the building during the years 1643-1655 A.D .

In the year 1830 A.D Abbass Mirza bought the village of Dareh Sham for 300 tomans from Moheb Ali Beyg Nakhjavani and gave the village to St Stephanous Vang. There is an inscription on the church’s entrance that tells the story of this event .

The text engraved on this red stone rock is as follows :

After introducing himself as the representative of the king Fathali Shah, Abbass Mirza tells the reader that due to the fact that Sergess the son of Stephen is a loyal man and has proven his good-nature to the king, the village of Dareh sham is bought for 300 tomans and given to be of service to the church. It is also mentioned that no one has the right to take over or sell this area at any time in the future and that this place remains in the hands of the church for days to come .

Ali Ashraf Nakhjavani epigraph, 1247 A.D

Next we will go to John Batist Tavarnieh, the famous French traveler's observations in Safavid period :
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After crossing the bridge on the river and going for 2 more miles , we reach a small village by the name of Shambe. All inhabitants of this village become mad at the age of 18. The people believe that because their fathers had been false worshippers, this omen has come upon them. This village is not far from St Ethan but the track is very dangerous because of the mountains and cliffs .

St Ethan is a small shrine that has only been built about 30 years ago in the middle of the mountain. This shrine is difficult to access. It is believed that St Mathew and St Bartolmi have hid in this place after they were chased and even St Mathew has performed a miracle here; he has hit his walking stick to the ground and water has sprung out from beneath .

Armenians visit this sacred creek even today. They have found some religious items believed to be out there by the two saints. People have added some other valuable religious objects to this and now there is a very valuable collection of religious antiques in this shrine .

This collection includes a cross with a white stone in it. It is believed that if you placed this stone on the chest of a sick person, if the person is destined to die, the stone will turn black and change back to its original color only after the person is dead .

Some bones believed to belong to St Ethan's jaw, St Mathew's skull, and a bone belonging to St Gregory's hand. There is also a small box containing some small bones which is said to be Septant De Misiple's .

Location of the church

The church is located in a very green environment. This structure is in the form of a cylinder and has a cone shaped dome. All different parts of the structure are made of rocks and wood. There is another church to the north of Aras like the church and it is believed that both churches have been constructed when one government had been controlling two side of Aras River

 The main building has three parts:

The courtyard and a 16 sided dome

The bell steeple (tower)

3- Daniel's stove


 The courtyard and the 16-sided dome

The main praying room is 13.90 m long and 12.80 m wide. It is situated in the middle of the church grounds with an entrance to the west. The entrance has a very beautiful 1.5 by 2.5 m wooden door.

The wooden decorations and engravings on the door date back to the Gajar period. The decorations on this door are unique. The epigraph/inscription concerning the purchasing of the Darreh Sham village which is in Farsi and Armenian is placed over the top of the door.

Hakoupian writes about the door:

The western part of the church was built by Aghamal Nakhjavani in memoriam of his wife Maryam and his mother Naneh Gol in 1704 A.D.

The present door is a memory and a gift of Khajeh Nika Ghayoos and his 2 wives, Maryam and Margaret, and his great grandfather Barthogh and his parents Ghardash Bali and Chichak and his brother Nakhalar and his children Harmelon, Ahadoon, Samuel, Yaghina, Yaghyazar and Nazlar and his sister Naibat in the year 1680 A.D.

The praying room is shaped like a cross in such a way that the top of the cross points towards east and its two arms point in the direction of north and south.

The 16-sided dome is the roof of this cross and the end of the cross is the altar. The altar is situated on the east side of the church and is 96 cm higher than the floor of the praying room. The covering of the altar and the stairs leading to it are all made of marble.

On the church courtyard and on two sides of the altar there are two marble tables with 4 high stone pillars and a dome. This dome and the tables were used for lighting candles.

The courtyard is separated from the altar by a wooden fence. On the walls there are many beautiful paintings which add to the glory of the church but unfortunately many paintings are damaged and need to be repaired. There are two high seats on the altar; one for the archbishop and the other for the honored guest like the king for example.

The dome of the church has 16 sides. The roof of the church is designed in a beautiful way using half pillars and combining them to create beautiful forms. Each side of the 16 sides has a window which opens into the church and supplies the needed light. Each side creates special forms and shapes. A painting of saints and a cross is seen on each of them. There is also an star with eight corners painted on the roof.

Mr Hakoupian says of the star:

The story of the 8-cornered star is as follows: There was said to be three men from India, Egypt and Ashour who were searching for a savior for earth. They saw a star in the sky that guided them and by following this star they came to the birth place of Jesus. This is why a star always signifies Jesus' birth.

Church bell tower

The church tower is situated on the south side of the building. It has 2 floors and stands on 4 pillars. On the second floor of the tower there is a pyramid like dome which stands on 8 small pillar. On the tip of the pyramid we have the bell. All pillars of the tower are made of red stone like the church and beautiful decorative pillar tops.


Daniel's Stove

This place is a salon connected to the northern wall of the church that has a width of 6 m and a length of 20 m. It is constructed in 3 parts:

A gathering hall located in the centre;

The stove itself that is separated from the hall by a wall and is on the east side;

The Baptizing place that is situated on the western part of the gathering hall and is like a stage with a stone table in the middle for baptizing

An important point is that this stove has no relationship with the prophet Daniel. It was named after St Daniel who was born in 410 A.D in Syria and died in the village of Simsat on the bank of Forat River after many years of worship and bearing many difficulties.


Visage and appearance of the church

The walls of the church are all made of red and white marble stones. The decorative paintings, writings and engravings are with no doubt some of the best and most unique form of this type of art to be found.
It is very difficult to describe all the beauty of the numerous crosses that are painted and used in decorative forms all over the church. There are also many ancient rocks with engravings on them which have not been fully analyzed and read up until now. The four walls of the church are covered with many paintings that try to picture the philosophy of Christianity, invitation to this religion, Jesus' crucifix, and the good deeds of his friends.

In the upper part of the eastern wall there are two pictures showing Christ and the first Christian Martyr.
The first picture shows an eagle that has an innocent lamb in his claws and is flying in the sky. As mentioned in the old and new testament, lamb symbolizes Jesus.

In the holy book page 176 it is written:

"Christ was called the lamb because he was the accepted sacrifice for God and he sacrificed himself to gain forgiveness for the sins of all Christians"

At the bottom of this picture we have the picture of 'Stephanous' the first martyr. He was tortured and stoned to death by 3 Jews. (26 Dec 37 A.D)

On the western wall we have a picture of Christ on crucifix.

On the southern wall we have a picture of the Virgin Mary with baby Jesus

the northern wall shows the ascent of Christ

It should be mentioned that once the abbey next to the church was used as a resting place for the pilgrims and travelers and the church's library was also situated here.

Visage and appearance of the church

The walls of the church are all made of red and white marble stones. The decorative paintings, writings and engravings are with no doubt some of the best and most unique form of this type of art to be found.
It is very difficult to describe all the beauty of the numerous crosses that are painted and used in decorative forms all over the church. There are also many ancient rocks with engravings on them which have not been fully analyzed and read up until now. The four walls of the church are covered with many paintings that try to picture the philosophy of Christianity, invitation to this religion, Jesus' crucifix, and the good deeds of his friends.

In the upper part of the eastern wall there are two pictures showing Christ and the first Christian Martyr.
The first picture shows an eagle that has an innocent lamb in his claws and is flying in the sky. As mentioned in the old and new testament, lamb symbolizes Jesus.

In the holy book page 176 it is written:

"Christ was called the lamb because he was the accepted sacrifice for God and he sacrificed himself to gain forgiveness for the sins of all Christians"

At the bottom of this picture we have the picture of 'Stephanous' the first martyr. He was tortured and stoned to death by 3 Jews. (26 Dec 37 A.D)

On the western wall we have a picture of Christ on crucifix.

On the southern wall we have a picture of the Virgin Mary with baby Jesus

the northern wall shows the ascent of Christ

It should be mentioned that once the abbey next to the church was used as a resting place for the pilgrims and travelers and the church's library was also situated here.