The church of Saint Stephanos is among a handful of magnificent churches that were built between the tenth and twelfth centuries, AD The church's architectural style is a mixture of Urartan, Parthian, Greek, and Roman styles that came to be known as Armenian subsequent to the construction of the fantastic structures of Echmiadzin, Thaddeus, Akhtmar, and indeed Stephanos. With respect to the history of the construction of this building, which is considered one of the architectural masterpieces of north-western Iran, there are a number of differing views. Some maintain, regardless historical events or the evolution of architectural styles, that this structure dates from the first century of Christianity. Others, such as Tavernier, hold that the church dates from the middle of the Safavid era. However, historic evidence, the type of construction, the building materials, the ornamentation, the philosophy behind the ornamentation, and the circumstances that allowed for the creation of this church all attest to the fact that it was constructed in the same manner and during the same period as Akhtmar and Thaddeus; that is to say, during the tenth to twelfth centuries AD. This church, which has found its place in the hearts of Christians throughout the world and is visited annually by hundreds of Iranian and foreign tourists, is located in the abandoned village of Dare Sham, in the Gechlart district, situated in the Poldasht section of Maku. Prior to 1971 it was accessible only by dirt path, however, at that time a road was constructed providing access by automobile.
On the approach to this church, at a distance of three kilometers from Julfa, one encounters the ruins of a caravansary, that was built during the reign of Shah Abbas, the Safavid king, at the expense of Khajeh Nazar Armani, a favorite in the royal court. This man was among the Armenians who immigrated to Isfahan during Shah Abbas' reign, where he enjoyed a great deal of success, receiving the favor of the Shah, and amassed considerable wealth and fortune. With the Shah's permission, he built a sizeable caravansary of brick and stone on the ruins of his birthplace so that travelers who crossed the Aras river into Iran, could rest before proceeding the following morning to Sojia, or what is now called the village of Shoja. From the proximity of this caravansary, the old bridge of Julfa is visible in the distance. According to Hamdullah Mostofi, this bridge was constructed by Zia-ul Mulk Nakhjavani. Even today, the pillars in the Aras river resemble individuals who have thrown themselves into the water from fear of the enemy, and in that terrified state, are looking back in fear over their shoulders. Tavernier recounts that this bridge was destroyed by Shah Abbas during his wars against the Ottomans, at the same time as the destruction of Julfa. The ruins of the historic town of Julfa are visible from the western side of the bridge, and the cemetery still remains on the northern banks of the river. Hundreds of tall gravestones stand one after the other in orderly rows. Armenians tell a story about this cemetery, saying that these are martyrs in the path of Christianity. They are mistaken, however, since this is the old cemetery of Julfa, and the bodies of the dead have been buried here over prolonged periods, with a tall tombstone erected at the head of each grave.
Church of Saint Stephanos
Slightly to the west, in the foothills on the southern shore of the Aras, a small shrine can be discerned. It is called the Nakheirchi church. In Azari Turkish Nakheir signifies a heard of cattle, and Nakheirchi consequently means a cattle herder. Sarkis, the aged caretaker of St. Stephanos recounts: "I heard from my parents that a cattle herder built this chapel so that shepherds and cattle herders, while tending their animals outside the confines of the village, would not be deprived of the blessing of prayer within a church.
This chapel is located within a walled area, is cylindrical in shape, and is topped by a conical roof. The walls and indeed the entire structure are built of stone fragments. A sister chapel also exists on the northern side of the Aras, bearing testimony to the fact that the chapels were constructed during a period when the same government controlled the territory on both sides of the river.
From this point on, the road passes through increasingly hilly terrain until it approaches a mountain, at which point the road inclines southwards, and after another two kilometers, the dome of the entranceway to the church of St. Stephanos becomes visible amid a green and verdant valley. The dome of the entrance building has a width of four meters at its base, while the grounds are covered by a variety of trees. A large pool exists on the site, and there is a wooded hill to the south of the pool within which stands an old millstone. A clear, clean spring flows at the base of the mill and to the pond.
The fortifications for the monastery and church are located to the east of the site and consist of a tall rampart with seven watchtowers and five cylindrical buttresses, similar to the fortified strongholds from the Sassanid era or from the first centuries of Islam; of which numerous examples exist throughout Azarbaijan. The watchtower on the south-western corner has crumbled, but the other portions of the fortification have remained relatively sound. While deterioration is apparent on the upper portions of the wall, it is not significant enough to pose a threat to the overall solidity and integrity of the wall. The gateway to this rampart is situated in the center of the western wall. It has a width of approximately one and a half meters, and a height of roughly two and a half meters. The door itself is made of wood, with wrought iron details, much in the style of fortress gates in the Safavid and Qajar eras. The pillars, and the dome above the gate are all constructed of red limestone. and bear extensive masonry, and sculpting. A portion of the stones above the dome have crumbled. However, the dome itself and the areas below it are intact. A stone relief of the Virgin Mary and the Infant Jesus, remarkable in its design and beauty, is sculpted in the dome's vault. This gateway opens on to a dark passageway that leads on the south to the monastery, on the north to the church, and to the west to the stables; all three of which are elevated slightly higher than the passageway.
Door of Saint Stephanos Church
In order to arrive at the church, one must pass through a narrow corridor, climb a few steps, and enter the church's courtyard. The church is constructed entirely of stone, and consists of three distinct parts: the belfry, the church proper, and Daniel's furnace. The church proper is constructed upon land with dimensions of 16 by 21 meters, and has a height of an average three story building. The masonry and sculpting of the pillars, vaults, arches, and columns; the ornamentation and murals on the arches and vaults are so novel, so well executed and wonderful that the inlay work on the door pales in comparison.
The beautiful murals on the dome and the relief works above and below it are crafted with a precision that must place this work among the few artistic marvels of the world. Not limited to the domes, the murals, and the ornamentation of the vaults and arches at the entry, this beautiful artistry extends to all the arches and vaults of the western walls, to the pillars, columns and capitals, and to the decorative work both in the interior and exterior of the building.
This same artistry and exuberance is also evident in the captivating designs of the church's other walls as well. Remarkable stone relief of the disciples, saints, and angels have been sculpted on the faces of this sixteen-sided prismatic structure, which is considered the impost for the tower of the church. This tower is covered by an umbrella-like thirty-two sided pyramid that has been placed upon a foundation resembling a sixteen- sided star.
Doing justice to the captivating and wonderful design of this tower and prism, the relief, carvings, and structures and the overall effect that is produced, is, without doubt or exaggeration, beyond the ability of an ordinary observer. On both sides of each of the structure's sixteen facets, on a narrow and well-proportioned base, three slender half columns ascend vertically, and at a height of roughly one meter intertwine with another column to form a wonderful, twisted pilaster. The interior of the shrine is laid out as a basilica and consists of three components: arcade, apse and altar. The balcony to the arcade is situated upon two stone demi-columns.
Ceiling of Saint Stephanos Church
The oratory is located beneath an umbrella-like dome, the pillars of which bear inlay work and unexceptional painting that is slightly reminiscent of religious paintings of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The altar is located on the eastern side of the shrine and rises some 96 centimeters above ground level. The base and the surface of the altar are made of marble, and the upper portions of the base are decorated with zigzagged bays, two stories in height. The inlay work on the pillars to the umbrella dome and the paintings on the dome are truly marvelous, and notable for their ornamentation and stonework. They are executed, like the best Iranian artwork, with a delicacy and an attention to detail, to the proportions and symmetries employed, and in keeping with artistic principles. Three individual oratories exist, each of which contains a well-designed and well-proportioned dome of approximately 3 meters in height, with a prismatic cap, seated upon four slender columns. These oratories are symmetrically positioned with the main oratory in the center, and the lesser oratories to the north and south of the main oratory. The oratories are square in shape and rise 30 centimeters above the ground.
There are a number of interesting objects within the shrine of which two inlaid chairs, three images of Mary and Jesus, a brass reliquary, and four bibles stand out. The chairs are from the Safavid period, the paintings resemble those from the 17th and 18th centuries, the bones within the gilded reliquary are said to be those of Saint Gregory, and the oldest bibles date, according to Sarkis Misaghian, from the 17th century.
Daniel's furnace is a hall connected to the church's northern wall, with a width of 6 meters and a length of 20 meters. It is divided into three parts: the furnace, a congregation space, and a baptismal fountain. The furnace is separated by a wall from the congregation hall which is located in the center of the space. The baptismal urn is situated in the eastern extremity of the hall and stands in the middle of a high platform. It should be noted that this furnace is not, in fact, named after the prophet Daniel of the Old Testament, but rather, is named after Saint Daniel, who was born in Syria in the year 410, and after eighty years of devotion and asceticism, died in Sunisat, a village on the shores of Terat. The belfry is located on a two storied balcony that is connected to the church's southern wall. This tower is octagonal in shape, and stands on eight cylindrical columns, all of which are of the same red stone as the church and with exceptionally well designed capitals. The arches between the columns, or what might be considered the arcade of the tower, are ornamented with relief of angels, crosses, floral patterns, stars, and eight-petal flowers. This tower was rebuilt, and renovated under Nayeb ul Saltaneh.