Escapism

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Iran: Banana-flavoured beer in an enclave of religious tolerance

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The stoning of St Stephen is depicted on the exterior wall of the Armenian church that also bears his name. Photo / Jill Worrall
The stoning of St Stephen is depicted on the exterior wall of the Armenian church that also bears his name. Photo / Jill Worrall

Tell people you're visiting an Armenian church in Iran and chances are you'll get some doubtful looks. This of course, the Islamic Republic of Iran and not widely recognised for its religious tolerance.

And although there are distinct limits to religious freedoms in Iran, there are a number of religious minorities in the country with their own churches or temples who do practise their own beliefs.

About 95 per cent of the population is Muslim (and the overwhelming majority of these are Shia), but among the remainder are Christians, Jews and Zoroastrians, the latter following a belief system that was once the Persian state religion that pre-dates Islam.

While Christian communities (including Pentecostals) tend to be found mostly in the larger cities such as Tehran and the Zoroastrians are centred mostly around the desert city of Yazd in central Iran, Armenians are especially important members of the community in Isfahan.

Up until the 17th century most Armenian Persians lived in the north-western corner of Iran, close to the border with what is now the independent nation of Armenia (formerly part of the USSR).

This area has had a long and turbulent history as the Turkish Ottoman and Persian empires waxed and waned, often waging battles that caught the Armenians in the middle.

During the 17th century the great Persian ruler Shah Abbas decided during yet another Ottoman advance that the Armenians living in his territory mostly around the town of Jolfa would be relocated to his new capital in Isfahan.

This was not altogether an altruistic gesture on his part - Armenians were recognised as excellent businesspeople and artisans, both of which skills Shah Abba needed in vast numbers to build and make prosperous his glorious new city.

It may also have been that by removing the bulk of the Armenian population from this highly strategic area, he defused other political complications there.

The story goes that because the Armenians were reluctant to move far away from their homeland, and especially from the holiest of their churches, near Yerevan in Armenia, Shah Abbas offered to dismantle this and relocate it in Isfahan.

The Armenians were understandably horrified by this plan, which was akin to an Ottoman ruler offering to reconstruct St Peter's of Rome in Istanbul. They declined the offer, settling instead for the chance to build their own cathedral in Isfahan.

They were also granted special privileges and today the part of Isfahan known as New Jolfa (after the town they left behind) is still mainly populated by Armenians.

Incidentally, when I was in search of a particular brand of non-alcoholic beer in Isfahan, an Armenian shopkeeper once offered me the alcoholic variety... something Armenian Christians (but not Kiwi tour managers) are officially allowed to purchase. I declined.

When I reported this to my group later there were sighs of disappointment... somehow the non-alcoholic beer just wasn't hitting the spot for some - not even the more inventively-flavoured varieties. Take it from me that while apple or lemon non-alcoholic beer is okay, as is the more exotic pomegranate flavour, the pineapple and especially banana varieties are best left to the truly desperate...

The Armenians' Vank cathedral in Isfahan was built in the 17th century and is a remarkable fusion of Christian and Islamic styles. The cathedral has an Islamic-style dome, but is topped with a cross.

Inside, one is immediately transported into Armenia. Painted angels gaze down from on high and the walls are completely covered with frescoes.

The Armenian Orthodox Church traces its roots back to the apostles Bartholomew and Thaddeus in the first century AD and claims to be the first nation to declare itself a Christian state (in 301 AD).

Richly decorated church interiors are part of the tradition but one special feature of Vank is a wall dedicated to an extremely lurid portrayal of hell.

If nothing else was going to keep the congregations of Vank on the straight and narrow, the graphic goings-on portrayed on the wall would certainly have done so.

While Vank is impressive, it is the two smaller Armenian churches in the remote mountains of north-west Iran that I find even more special.

Close to the border with Turkey is the Black Church, or the Church of St Thaddeus. The first chapel was built here in 371 AD but after an earthquake destroyed this and subsequent additions, it was rebuilt in the 14th century.

I first saw the Black Church on a sparkling winter's day. Its striped black basalt and white limestone exterior stood out dramatically among the deep drifts of snow.

One of the local Muslim caretakers was on the roof sweeping off the snow and had to be warned to stop as we walked past underneath.

This church is still used once a year on the feast of St Thaddeus. Armenian pilgrims from all over Iran and beyond travel to the church for a three-day festival, which includes mass baptisms of babies born in the previous year. The north and south doors are opened and pilgrims file through these, symbolically shedding themselves of their sins as they do so.

Closer to the current border with the Azerbaijan enclave of Nakchivan and tucked into a forested narrow valley is the other remarkable Armenian church, this one dedicated to St Stephen.

The church is reached along a winding road that follows the Aras River, the border between Iran and Nakchivan. On the far bank a railway hugs the bank above a steep hillside. There are sentry posts on the Azeri side too and occasionally soldiers can be seen patrolling the railway.

At present this is less to do with any perceived threat from the Iranians than because of ongoing hostilities with Armenia over the enclave which is surrounded on three sides by Armenia, with the Iranian border to the south.

The original church of St Stephen is said to have been established by Bartholomew in AD62 but the current church is mostly 16th century. There are some arresting carvings on the exterior walls, including one illustrating the stoning of St Stephen and another of a bird carrying away a lamb. A pigeon always seems to be nesting just under the lamb.

Beside the church is a monastery and a cloister garden that is growing more lush and beautiful each year, with fragrant roses blooming among a riot of annuals. To one side of the cloister are the monks' cells - their residents now long gone.

St Stephen's is a popular spot with Iranians too - most of whom are Muslim but who are equally respectful of the church's spiritual atmosphere as other visitors are, in fact sometimes more so.

The terraced monastery orchards are often full of picnickers. Iranians picnic in style - there are rugs, hubble-bubble pipes for smoking fruit-flavoured tobacco, tiny braziers for cooking fresh kebabs and enormous flasks of hot water to provide essential flow of tea.

Footballs and badminton sets provide entertainment and - at this time of year - there will be a small stockpile of water melons and a bag of glowing ruby red pomegranates.

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