New Jolfa is the Armenian quarter of Esfahan established in 1606 by Shah Abbas I during the Safavid era. The Armenians were fleeing the Ottoman Empire’s persecution and because Iran and Armenia had a long history of close relations, Shah Abbas relocated 500,000 Armenians to Persia. New Jolfa quarter became their new home and over time, the Armenians became active in the cultural and economic development of Persia.
Shah Abbas treated the Armenian population well, as such, the Armenians were able to assimilate with the Persians while keeping their Christian faith and Armenian traditions. In the 20th century particularly during the times of Reza Shah and Mohammad Reza Shah until the Islamic Revolution in 1979, the Armenians were quite influential in the arts and sciences, economy and services sector. However, due to the Revolution, about 20,000-25,000 Armenians left Iran for Soviet Union or Soviet Armenia.
The current population of Armenians in Iran is approximately 300,000 residing mainly in Tehran, Tabriz and Esfahan. Their community and culture are still flourishing amidst Iran’s Shiíte Islam rule. There are Armenian churches, schools, cultural centres, sports clubs, associations, libraries, newspapers, books, journals, etc. They are also represented in Parliament.
Iranians are mainly tea drinkers and I’m not a tea drinker but we kept hearing about good coffee in Esfahan and immediately we were intrigued. The only coffee we had drunk in Iran was from the hotel at breakfast time, and that meant instant coffee which isn’t bad really, especially when you’re on the go (yours truly is guilty of 3-in-1 instant coffee in Malaysia!) but after a while, we longed for good, strong, brew coffee.
Our guide in Esfahan, Maryam, mentioned to us that Esfahan has a coffee-drinking culture due to influence from the Armenian community, and the best place to have good coffee is in New Jolfa.
The main attraction in New Jolfa is the Vank Cathedral, the first church built in this quarter during the 1600s. It is also called Church of St. Joseph of Arimathea – based on what I saw inside the church – however, Wikipedia says the cathedral is also known as Holy Saviour Cathedral or Church of the Saintly Sisters – hmm, oh well.
The exterior of Vank Cathedral looks modest but awe-inspiring inside the cathedral. The interior is covered with frescoes from the central dome to the walls. The frescoes on the central dome depict the biblical story of the creation of the world and Man’s expulsion from Eden while the frescoes and murals on the walls depict events from the life of Jesus and tortures inflicted upon Armenian martyrs by the Ottoman persecutors.
We also visited the library which contains over 700 books, artifacts, resources related to Armenian history (including the 1915 Armenian Genocide in Turkey), languages, the community in Esfahan, etc.
We returned to New Jolfa the next day (without the guide) to explore more of this quarter, and hoped to have some of that Armenian coffee. It was a Friday and the weekend had started, thus majority of shops are closed. Here’s an interesting observation: shops are open during the weekend in Malaysia and there are many people shopping, dining and up and about enjoying the weekend. But here in Iran, shops are closed during weekends and the streets are empty. Hence, we were not sure if the cafes in New Jolfa would be open on a Friday but we thought we ventured out there regardless to walk around in the quarter.
When we arrived in New Jolfa by taxi, the shops were indeed closed. We searched the internet the night before for a cafe which happened to have very good reviews (I can’t remember the name of the cafe now), but we just could not locate the shop. We walked and walked, probably went round in circles in the quarter, and found instead another church – Church of Holy Bethlehem.
And we found a wedding car…I thought it was rather interesting to note that the bridal decoration on the car was rather simple.
After some time, we didn’t want to go on searching for that elusive cafe, thus we chose to patronise Feroze Cafe instead, and what a gem! I love the interior decoration of the cafe – it was cosy and warm, and the coffee was gooood!
We wished we had stayed a little longer in Feroze Cafe but it was time for us to leave Esfahan to head back to Tehran (a 5-hour car journey) for our flight back to Malaysia. But this is not the end of my travel series on Iran: there is one more stop en route to Tehran and that will have to wait in the next post 🙂