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Church/Monastery :: St Stepanos  
St. Stepanos monastery

Saint Stephen's monastery lies about 15 km west of Joulfa in the eastern part of Iran's Azerbaijan province. Geographically it lies in a lateral valley formed by the Araxes River whose deep gorge joins the Nakhichevan and Joulfa plains to create a natural boundary with the Azerbaijan Republic. Historically however the monastery belonged to the Armenian region of Nakhichevan even though this, which lay almost entirely on the other side of the river, was during some periods attributed to the Siounik region.

To distinguish it from numerous monasteries of the same name, the monastery is often linked with a geographical location. It is best known as the "Maghart" monastery, in reference to the hill on which it is built, or as the "Darashamb" monastery, from the name of a village, now in ruins, located approx. 3 km away on the mouth of the Ok-Tchai, a tributary of the Araxes. The monastery has a largely rectangular plan, 48.3 x 71.7m, with circular towers at the corners of the main building, and semicircular towers at intervals along the walls for support. The main entrance faces west and is 8 meters behind the line of the outer boundary wall; a secondary entrance made it possible to reach quickly the cemetery about one hundred meters north-east up the mountain slope.

The terrain surrounding the monastery slopes upward in a regular fashion from north-west to south-west (including a small amount of terracing). This gives the impression that the outer boundary wall slopes downwards. It also seems that the buildings and the two courtyards they enclose are on different levels. In fact one courtyard following the contour of the land, is about two meters higher than the other, in front of which the church rises. The monastery is composed of three distinct structures, the individual bodies of which have such specific characteristics as to suggest a laborious stratified development. They are:

a) The central body, consisting of a building, part of which has two floors. From the entrance the other three monastery structures can been reached: a corridor leads to a stairway opposite the entrance, and on to the kitchen built next to the west boundary wall. This corridor also communicates, through an oblique passageway, with the south cloister.

b) The north wing has three distinct bodies. The main church is part of the first body, and has the bell-tower built on the south side. Between the main church and the north boundary wall is another church, a secondary one. The second body is formed by the building that skirts the east panels inside boundary wall, of which only the original two stories to the south still remain; the northern part has been destroyed. Lastly, opposite it are two towers, part of the eastern boundary wall; their rectangular bases extend towards the courtyard and they are joined by an underground passage.

c) The south wing courtyard is surrounded on all sides by buildings that contain the monastery quarters. The eastern part rises step fashion towards the mountain; on the inside there is a passageway that opens onto the mountain, forming a sort of terrace which once skirted the wall to the south side. Now only ruins remain.

The cells are in the south wing, facing towards the west. What remains of the building shows that the arrangement of the rooms was the same on the two floors. The rooms to the west of the church were probably cells as well, given their size and structure.

The south side of the south wing housed the abbot's residence containing a tavern which opened onto the cloister and probably served as a vestibule. Beside it to the west is the oldest part used as a reception hall, and it too had two stories like the abbot's residence. South of this same body is the monastery's largest room, as high as two normal stories. It was probably the chapter house or perhaps the original refectory. Only later was the room south of the kitchen, and connected to it by a small stairway, used for this purpose.

The central part most likely contained store rooms in addition to the kitchen. Outside the monastery are numerous small buildings that were once stables; south of the east boundary wall was also a larger stable. In addition there was a water mill to the west of the monastery entrance. Contrary to the rest of the monastery, faced in rough-hewn quarry stone, the church facade is of sandstone slabs, ranging in colour from ochre to a reddish brown, and arranged in a checkerboard pattern or in stripes. The inside of the church is plastered. The external plain is rectangular, 15.85 x 22.37 m, and the inside is cruciform, with the transversal wings giving onto lower rooms. Except for the arms of the cross, which have a single slope roof with less of a slant to it, the church has a double slope roof. The central dome rests on a 16-sided drum and is topped by an "umbrella" roof. The bell-tower is three stories high; the two lower ones are arched and the top one is open. Above it rests an open octagonal lantern with a pyramid roof.

The church base socle is made up of three mouldings; above it the walls are smooth except for an interlaced band surmounting a flute that runs around three sides of the church. On the upper part of the south and east sides, 3.82 m from the socle, is a recess several centimetres deep. Above it are decorative bands made of torus-shaped semi-circles and moulding rectangles with keel arch the whole, rich in ornamental motifs, rests on pairs of vase-shaped supports. Rectangular dadoes with interlaced ornaments and variously decorated rosettes inserted in panels, form the lower border. The bands continue around to the east side and meet at a cross-shaped window, framed by a rectangle to form a cross of interlaced listels. Instead, on the west wall, the bands follow the shape of the portal and because this side of the church, contrary to the others, is not flat but divided into three sections by two deep niches, the band unwinds continuously stressing this articulation. The carved wooden door, particularly worthy of note located in a deep niche, is flanked by two other niches and surmounted by a rich archivolt similar to a pointed stalactite adorned with stylized designs of plants, stars and other figures. The lower part of the door has two intricate half-columns on either side of it. To be noted at the corners of the building are the vase-shaped base semicircular columns.

In addition to the numerous inscriptions by pilgrims particularly on the west and south sides, note should, in conclusion, be made of the rosettes with interlaced designs, the capitals, the stalactite windows, other interlaced bands and the figurative bas-reliefs on the outside church walls. An example of these bas-reliefs is the one on the west-facade depicting the stoning of St. Stephen. The main dome is of particular interest since it rests, as has already been said, on a 16-sided drum, with half-columns on its corners. These columns then taper to two-headed dragon-shaped capitals that support the keel vault arches, each decorated with a triple interlaced band.

Relief figures of apostles, saints, seraphim, as well as crosses, stars and birds decorate the drum. Between the "umbrella" dome and the windowed drum is a thick cornice, and from the water spouts protrude animal and human heads. Another four wild beasts are placed at the corners of the dome's square-shaped plan. Formerly stone crosses surmounted the corners, but now they remain only on the north pediment and dome roof. On the pediment remain time-worn kneeling stone figures that serve as corner acroteria.

The inside the church interior has a cruciform plan with three polygonal apses. On the sides are four rooms, each two storeys high. One north room on the ground floor was probably the baptistery as evidenced by the baptismal font there, and the other, a chapel containing a false sarcophagus, the so-called "tomb of the thousand". Tradition has it that it holds the relics of the thousand followers of Vartan killed together with the Armenian national hero in 451 defending Christianity at the battle of Avarayr. Presumably the west room was also a chapel with the east room its sacristy. These rooms have a spiral staircase connecting the two floors. The west room gives onto the pulpit (the ambo is of a later date) Abundant light enters the windows in the dome drum, resting on wide pendentives, from small openings along the axes of the building, and also from the three larger windows on the west wall. There are three altars , each with its own ciborium , a main one and two side ones, situated on the east wall of the left and right apses.

The main apse is raised by a platform and is embellished by a series of two-storied niches. There is only one entrance to this church. This is axial and does not connect with the other one. The ground floor of the bell-tower acts both as a passageway and a cemetery as indicated by the light graves found there. On the upper floor, there are niches on either side of the passageway opening. The west niche contains a lavabo and the east one is surmounted by a stalactite vault, with a bas-relief figure of Mary's Annunciation over the opening, probably to indicate the original intention of dedicating this space to Mary, as also happened with the chapel of the Etchmiadzin tower, dedicated it seems to Saint Gabriel. The second church, dedicated to the Apostles, Peter and Paul, is formed by an ogival vaulted hall covered with a flat roof. This hall, with its five archways, was not originally intended as a church, so that its east and west quarry stone walls were added at a later date. Furthermore the west wall has an archway that forms a small vestibule open on one side.

An analysis of the monastery functions, its structure and the decorative motifs of the entire complex reveals two fundamental facts: on one hand is the strength of tradition and on the other, the open reception of %93external%93 influences, more than justified by the minority character of the Armenian communities, evident for that matter in many parts of the Iranian Azerbaijan as well as in the colony of New Joulfa (near Isfahan). To understand this problem better, we will illustrate four points which in our opinion are essential to grasp the meaning of the relationship between the architectural styles of the XVII and XVIII centuries and those of previous periods.

1) The Armenian tradition is firm in specifying not only the form and structure of the church, but also most of the decorative elements. Thus the tendency to enlarge the church with vestibules, secondary buildings and bell-towers can only be vaguely connected with architectural complexes, for example, of the XIII century.

2) Whereas in the XIII and XIV centuries the acceptance of "external" ideas could be noted only in part of the decorations, these ideas during the period in question also affect the building structure itself. Significant of this new reality are the Safavid period vault constructions, the keel arch vaults, the ribbing in the cells, and the new part of the monastery. The fact that brick, with its ease of use, readily lends itself to the construction of more complex vaults, should not be underestimated. In any case, the Safavid period exercised its influence on the jointing of inside walls of the church, in the newer parts of the monastery (the reception hall), on a large part of the decorations (fireplaces, cornices, etc.). These influences, and that of Iran in general, spread throughout Eastern Armenia by means of the church buildings in New Joulfa, encouraged by the fact that between 1614 and 1638, the Catholicos of the Armenians were exiled to this area. It is almost impossible to establish the entity of ancient Iran's contributions, for example, from the Sassanid period, in particular as regards plastic elements such as the representation of animals, or specific architectural forms such as the kitchen. There may also have been indirect contact with other Armenian buildings.

3. From the XII to the XIV centuries, Seljuk decorations were widely used throughout Armenia and thus incorporated into the Armenian architectural tradition. They witnessed a revival in the XVII and XVIII centuries. In this category belong the stalactite forms and other decorative elements such as rosettes, interlaced bands, arabesques, the structure of the church doorway with corner columns and decorated panels, even though it has variations and formal differences with respect to the Seljuk niches.

4. There remains the contribution of the non-Armenian churches, (Roman Catholic, Orthodox, etc.). It is difficult to separate individual influences as often they are interwoven. However the effect of the liturgy on the interior church arrangement has been decisive, for example, on the number of altars, separated from one another by curtains, and on the choir, which reached Eastern Armenia at a much later date. The fact that a connection exists however is proven by the bell (1595), preserved in the south sacristy, which bears a Latin inscription. It was perhaps a gift of the "Uniates" who settled in the Nakhichevan territory. In the second half of the XVII century, this order still possessed ten or so monasteries there.

Saint Stephen the Martyr in conclusion is symbolic of the renaissance that flourished in Eastern Armenia between the XVII and XVIII centuries and lasted until the XIX century as the monastery of Saint Thaddeus demonstrates. The original concepts of this period are taken from the art of the X and XIII centuries as well as from ideas of the VII century. This renaissance never succeeded in producing an authentic synthesis of its heterogeneous architectural elements. For inspiration it draws constantly on the vast range of traditional architecture but the clear presence of new trains of thought can be seen. This can be noticed for example in the contrast between interior brickwork and the models of the part which inspired church exteriors; the decoration no longer respects the restrictions to which it was once subject: in a certain way a definite opening towards future artistic order. Thus the movement leading to the Baroque period can be glimpsed in the bell-tower of the Etchmiadzin cathedral XVII c.), attributed, as well as the church of Saint Stephen, to the efforts of Catholicos Jacob, and more clearly in the luminous building added to the church of Saint Thaddeus" monastery or in the Dogubayazit palace. Within these limits, the monastery is a work of considerable importance, if only for its drum, and for the decorations of the east and west facades. Certainly it is difficult to speak of exceptional results; foreign forms remained as they were, with no original transformation of the models. This is still far removed from the situation in New Joulfa where in those times the Armenian minority was moving progressively towards assimilation of the local architectural tradition, and thus towards bricks as the only building material, and towards churches in which by now only the bell-tower, as regards the external appearance, distinguished them from Islamic architecture.

Source: The St. Stephen monastery historical-illustrative monograph by Hartmut Hofrichter