Kalisa-i-Vank. The oldest Christian church in Isfahan’s Armenian quarters, New Julfa. A fairly large courtyard beyond the plain light-brown clock-tower gate. On my right is the main cathedral, a stern brick building with an Islamic dome, and on the far side of the courtyard is a belfry, some more buildings, and a black stone statue, which I later learn to be of Khachatur Kesaratsi, the Armenian archbishop who founded Iran’s first printing press around 1636.
I am not a religious person. And I am already calculating where to head next once I am done with this place over the next half an hour or so. I enter the church for a quick peek.
Colours. When was the last time I repented so deeply for being so poor? My cheap Nikon entry level DSLR D5200 with two simple 18-55 and 50-200 lenses is just not enough to catch that shock of colours. I repent even more for never taking even any basic training in photography.
This light and shade, this golden and blue fading into one another, this emerging of demonic faces from dark corners, this gentle stream of light through the windows around the dome on the kind face of Jesus, to catch all this on camera requires serious training in photography. And as can be expected in monuments with precious old paintings, flash photography is strictly prohibited. This indeed is a sorry situation, because I know when I write about this historic monument, I shall simply have to depend on whatever I can get away with, with my untrained skills and rudimentary camera, because words can never depict a painting. Particularly beyond words are the faces depicting human horror at what appears to be an attack by a band of demons, with fire leaping up from the ground devouring naked human bodies. There’s such cumulative horror in these frescos I can almost hear the screams of women and children and the old and the sick, screams of a whole populace, as their village is set on fire by marauding soldiers.
KALISA-I-VANK interior – prayers to Jesus
Instinctively I take a few steps back. As I look up, the scene merges into the serenity of prayer with green grass underneath people’s feet and the blue sky above. And up above the sky are even more serene angels with their wings of happiness floating on rolling clouds, until your eyes reach the haloed Jesus with open arms, surrounded by people offering prayers, all suitably dressed in colourful clothes. Of course it can be a depiction of Biblical hell and heaven and the earth in between.
But is it just that?
Face to face with hell, I sense a serious subversion, that supreme form of art, any of the arts. This hell, I cannot but remind myself, is more history than mythology. This hell is the barbarism that war is. Any war. And this fire devouring women and children is set by the emperor’s troops as a strategic move, so well known in the parlance of war as the ‘scorched earth policy’. Shah Abbas may have ensured for himself the coveted place of the great benevolent saviour, in some versions of history, to a handful of Armenian Christians, the artists of these vast frescos on their part, like true artists, made sure that the horror of his scorched earth policy remained in all its horridness in front of generations to come. And all this right under the benevolent nose of the Shah!
Artists. They do it all the time, often with a finesse that leaves mighty powers floored, be that of an emperor or of a grand corporate body. In a flash I am transported to the National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C. That is where I saw the remarkable painting. Exactly 250 years down the line George Inness (1825 – 1894) played his brushes with the same finesse, as he painted The Lackawanna Valley for his big corporate client, John Jay Phelps, the president of Delaware, Lackawanna and Western Railroad Company, which pretty much embodied the free market American Dream in the mid 19th century. The story was simple: railways taking America forward. The painting Innes made was simple too : emerging out of bluish rolling hills is a green lovely valley, with townships coming up and a nice roundhouse, chimneys emanating smoke – an unmistakable sign of industrialization, and right at the centre an engine running away in full steam. A picture postcard celebration of development carried forward by railways, exactly as the painter’s client had asked for. Only, Innes filled the foreground of the painting with stumps of felled trees, and almost to add to their grotesqueness, with a visceral sense of subversion, he placed a lush green full-grown tree looking down at the stumps.
There is no record that the company was displeased with the painting. Today, however, the Gallery’s ‘overview’ note to the painting reads, “Although it was initially commissioned as an homage to the machine, Inness’ Lackawanna Valley nevertheless serves as a poignant pictorial reminder of the ephemeral nature of the American Dream.”
Adjacent to the main cathedral also is a museum, where breathtakingly colourful hand painted Holy Bibles from as early as the 17th century are displayed side by side with the bare dirty yellowish fragments of bones of a few of the estimated 800,000 to 1.5 million Armenians killed by the Ottoman Islamic rulers beginning April, 1915. It’s a small glass covered box of polished wood, with a few fragments of bare human bones on a bed of dust. ‘Historians and cricketers have a stupid tendency of measuring everything by the yardstick of centuries,’ our venerable Prof. Barun Dey had pointed out in his first lecture. Indeed can it be of any consequence that I am standing in front of that box, exactly a hundred years after the mass murder was perpetrated largely in Turkey? It is not, except for the fact, no less grotesque than the pogrom itself, that hundred years later historians and national governments are still squabbling whether to call the killings a ‘genocide’ or not.
Church of Bethlehem – INTERIOR
With such thoughts, the honey-drop morning melts into a rather unsavoury early afternoon as I leave the Kalisa-i-Vank and head for the Church of Holy Bethlehem almost next door to the Church of the Holy Mother of God. It’s completely empty. Waves and waves of colours again. I quickly realize this small Christian district is a treasure trove of art. And I come to know later that there’s been a considerable effort to study and preserve this treasure. One of these detailed scientific studies has been done by Anahita Sasani, as her Ph.D thesis at the University of Ferrara, Italy: Material and Technical Analysis of Armenian Wall Paintings in New Julfa, Isfahan. She very kindly provides me access to the complete content of her thesis. It’s a pure scientific study with “analytical techniques employed for the characterization of the pigments and materials were XRF (X-Ray Fluorescence), Micro Raman spectroscopy, and FTIR for all samples and SEM-EDX and XRD (X-Ray Diffraction) for some samples” taken from numerous Julfa frescos.
Much of it is complete Latin to me, except the generic conclusion that “it is undeniable that the Armenians were one of the primary channels for the introduction of Western art and culture to Iran. Artefacts and objects in Armenian houses and churches in New Julfa/Isfahan are considered to be one of the most important cultural heritages in Iran and great relationships with Europe since 17th and 18th century made Armenian one of the most effective factors in birth of different art in Iran which was different with Iranian traditional art.”
Church of Bethlehem – dome
In brief, I muse, through painstaking scientific study Anahita has proven yet again how artists demolish borders!
Yes indeed, one of the most effective ways to demolish borders is people to people engagement, without any third institutional intervention, across all kinds of borders, marked on the map or on one’s mind. Much of my journey between Tabriz and Tehran is spent doing precisely that.
Prof. Fakr and I are not the only passengers in our coupe. After listening to our loaded theoretical exchange for a long time with benign nods once in a while, my second co-passenger finally decides to join. He can’t be more than 25. Sadly I do not remember his name, but I do remember his profession: a pointsman with the Iranian railways. He has many questions, simple and straight forward: “I hear there are many many religions in Hind? Even there are Muslims? And I hear they always live in peace?”
I take a little time to formulate my reply. I skirt the ‘leaving in peace’ part and tell him that India does have people from all major religions in the world. And he is stunned to find that there are more Muslims in India than in Iran. I can almost see the disbelief on his face.
At this point the train halts at a small empty station and something is announced on the public address system. It’s dark outside. Prof. Faqr quickly excuses himself and leaves the coupe. I see many more people deboarding.
What’s happening? My young co-passenger explains: this is the Namaz stop.
Photo Credit : Nilanjan Hajra