Qara Kelisa A Church In Iran That Hosts Armenian Pilgrimage
‘Qara Kelisa’ which literally means as the ‘Black Church’ is one of the oldest & the most famous surviving Christian monuments in Iran. The church is basically an ancient Armenian monastery, which was built on the memories of one of the 12 apostles, ‘St. Thaddeus’.
The ‘St. Thaddeus Monastery’ which is predominantly called as ‘Qara Kelisa’ is nestled atop a mountain ridge in the northern Iranian province of West Azerbaijan & holds the significant importance among Iran’s Armenian Orthodox community. On the day of St. Thaddeus, the ‘Black Church’ gets flocked by myriad devout Armenians, Assyrians & Catholics from Iran as well as from other countries who congregate here to attend the annual event & to revere St. Thaddeus as part of their pilgrimage.
HISTORY IN BRIEF:
Armenians strongly believe that the ’St. Thaddeus Monastery’ is the first church in the Christianity & was built in 68 AD to venerate St. Thaddeus who is also known as St. Jude. Saint Thaddeus traveled to the east towards Armenia & was martyred while spreading the Gospel. Since then, people in Armenia have started revering him as an apostle of ‘Armenian Apostolic Church’.
The church went through numerous reformation regimes in the due course of time & does not retain much of the part of the original construction. Following the devastating earthquake in 1319, the structure was badly hampered which was later on, rebuilt on a large scale in 1329.
The present day appearance was given to the church by ‘Qajar’ prince ‘Abbas Mirza’ in the early 19th century who refurbished the church using carved sandstone. The original construction of the church was done entirely by using black stones due to which, the church became famous by its Turkish name ‘Qara kalisa’ which means the ‘Black Church’!
The ‘Qara Kalisa’ consists of two major parts- an ancient black structure & relatively recent white stoned structure which was an addition in 1810 AD to the original structure’s west wing. The new structure has given the church not only massive but also a beautiful appearance as its walls are decorated using bas-reliefs, arches & other artistic work.
The structure is cruciform in shape & houses two pyramidal shaped cupolas. The shorter one among the two is decorated using the alternate dark & light colored horizontal bands on the drum. The church also has twelve-sided tambour built with alternate dark & light colored stone bands having equal number of windows.
The church is endowed with two big courtyards, out of which, the first one was used for farming, whereas, the other one encloses the white building, the portico & other church buildings. The First courtyard houses oil-extracting rooms, a fountain, a windmill, an oven & couple of elaborately designed stone crucifixes. The second courtyard contains an unfinished portico together with rooms with the kitchen for the resident monks & abbots.
The exterior of the building is ornamented using myriad arches beautified by rosettes, flowers & coats-of-arms. The front façade of the church is adorned with the statues of the angles, whereas, the southern & northern façade of the monument are bejeweled with dark-colored stone crucifixes. The most of the walls of the church are decorated with the extensive bas-reliefs of the passages from old & new testaments & carvings of saints.
PILGRIMAGE TO THE ‘QARA KELISA’:
As per the Armenian beliefs, the ‘Qara Kelisa’ being the first church in the Christendom & the martyrdom of the St. Thaddeus being considered as the highest of salvations for humanity, the ‘Qara Kelisa’ or in other words ‘St. Thaddeus Monastery’ annually holds a special service in the 2nd half of the July that coincides with the day of martyrdoms of St. Thaddeus & his Christian followers.
The annual ceremony held at the ‘St. Thaddeus’ attracts many Armenians in Iran as well as in the neighboring countries who congregate here in large herds to be the part of three-day pilgrimage. Baptism of the Armenian children is one of the major rituals which is followed hear as many of them believe that the baptism at the site of the Jesus Christ’s first church which is also the place dedicated to one of his apostles brings the great fortune.
The pilgrimage at the ‘Qara Kelisa’ is thoroughly enjoyed by many Armenians as they get an opportunity to spend a few days with their family & friends amidst the spiritual & zestful environment. The suppers inside the tents serve as the great family gatherings as many family members & friends who gather from all around the places in the world see each other only during this three—days long annual pilgrimage.
The church services are held in the morning & evening on 19th & 20th July while on the third day, the service is held only once with a special celebration in the presence of the Archbishop of Tehran & the bishop of Tabriz.
A small chapel located on a hill two km northwest of the ‘Qara Kelisa’ is also visited during the pilgrimage as according to the legend, that chapel is a shrine of first martyr Christian woman- Sandokht, who was the daughter of King Abgar V of Edessa who was converted into the Christianity by St. Thaddeus.
The ‘Qara Kelisa’ is considered as the most important monument of Christianity situated in Iran & is renowned for its iconic Armenian architecture. It was added to UNESCO’s list of ‘World Heritage Site’ on July 2008!