IT MAY SEEM incongruous, but every December Christmas decorations appear in Tehran. Perhaps it’s not such a weird idea, after all, there was a Persian at the nativity – so the legend goes – but no Westerners as such: Melchior, one of the Three Wise Men, was a Persian scholar.
Received wisdom, meantime, may generally equate the Islamic Republic of Iran with an attitude of extreme intolerance, and a monolithic populace conforming to some (misperceived) Islamic stereotype. In reality, pluralism and diversity are part and parcel of the Iranian social fabric. So, while Khomeini’s stern visage may glower from oversize billboards, in some shops you will find Christmas trees, cards and even nativity scenes.
In Tehran, this is likely to be a middle-class phenomena, evidence of the pro-Western stance of significant segments of Iranian society. In Isfahan, in the neighbourhood of New Julfa, south of the Zayandeh River, Christmas is more than an aspirational Western affectation, for this is the Armenian quarter, home to a centuries-old Christian community that has long been embraced as an integral part of the Iranian nation. Here, Armenians celebrate Christmas with gusto on January 6th as is the case with the Eastern churches (for the Western churches, this is Epiphany).
New Julfa is in effect a part of Armenian that has been picked up and placed in the heart of historical Persia. The centrepiece and focal point of the neighbourhood is the imposing Vank Cathedral, dating from the 17th century, but there are a dozen churches, schools and an Armenian cemetery. Far from a cowled, tremulous, oppressed community, Armenian identity here is proudly upheld and displayed. The language that rings through the streets here is Armenian, not Persian.
The exterior of Vank Cathedral, with a central dome reminiscent of a mosque, is bulky and commanding; the interior reveals more lightness of touch, more artistic flourish. The artwork here – allegorical frescoes, tilework – are a hybrid of Eastern and Western styles: some floral motifs are apparently painted in a Persian miniature style, but to my eye would not be out of place in French baroque cathedrals.
In the cloisters, Armenian girls, no less sassy than their Persian counterparts, congregate and chatter. They wear a jeans-sneakers-tunic-headscarf combo to comply with Islamic dress restrictions, but they carry it off with a certain insouciance, headscarfs slipping back from mahogany tresses.
The Armenians were brought by Shah Abbas to his new capital in the early 17th century, shifted wholesale from Julfa, on the Caucasian fringe. Abbas intended them to act as his agents in political and economic dealings with the West. As detailed in a post on Ajam Media Collective, the Armenians slotted neatly into the Persian socio-political framework, forming a relatively autonomous merchant oligarchy. At the time, the Ottoman Turks to the west had made it illegal for their subjects to trade with Shi’ite Persia, so the Armenians stepped into the breach, creating flourishing trade networks across the Ottoman realm and further into western Europe.
The Armenians became an integral part of the upper crust, as it were, in Abbas’ Isfahan – notable Armenian families invited the shah to celebrate Christmas. However, as Monash University scholar James Barry points out, Abbas did not necessarily champion the Armenians’ cause out of the goodness of his heart, or some benevolent notion of multiculturalism. In fact, Abbas was being much more pragmatic. It was political and commercial expediency, pure and simple. Abbas distrusted the Persian (Muslim) commercial classes – and perhaps feared a strong Persian merchant bourgeoisie as an oppositional power – so nurtured and promoted the Armenians in their stead.
There are Armenian communities elsewhere in Iran, including Tabriz, another important trading city. St Mary’s Church, near the Tabriz bazaar, proved inviolate behind firmly closed iron gates when I passed through in 2008, but in The Way of the World, his outstandingly wonderful travel memoir, Nicolas Bouvier relates living in the Armenian community of Tabriz through the winter of 1953. He tells how on his first night there the locals came to see he and his travel companion, “these foreign Christians, escaped from an easier world”.
With exquisitely dexterous prose Bouvier details the freezing winter and evokes the sense of community, local rivalries, characters and dramas, including the saga of an Armenian girl who took her own life because she’d fallen in love with a local “Muslim”(it is not specified whether he was Persian, Kurdish or Turkish). To the modern reader, Bouvier’s book recounts an altogether less-troubled world. They drive in a Fiat from the Balkans, across Turkey, Iran and Afghanistan without any of the attendant issues that would waylay modern travellers. However, the fragmented nature of the world-wide Armenian community is apparent: as Bouvier observes them tuning into the Patriarch of Echmiadzin (at that time within the Soviet Union). “Each Christmas he sent to his brothers in Iran faint but politic encouragement over the air-waves of Radio Baku,” Bouvier tells us.
Meanwhile, communal relations between Persians and Armenians remain strong. Armenians are free to celebrate Christmas in Iran, and increasingly Iranians journey to Armenia for their holidays, including Nowruz, the Persian New Year. Iranians head north into Armenia to enjoy the more liberal atmosphere, to escape the constraints of Iran’s Islamic dress code and to hear Persian music acts that are banned at home. This is all made possible by a simplified visa regime between the two countries that has come alongside strengthening ties between Armenia and Iran and that makes zipping across the border relatively straight forward. Interestingly, however, Armenians appear to enjoy holidaying anywhere other than Armenia, heading in increasing numbers into Georgia, or even Turkey.
That Armenians would choose to holiday in Turkey strikes me as particularly incongruous given the historical controversies and modern acrimonies that pollute relations between these neighbours. The Turkish-Armenian border remains closed (despite the protestations of many on both sides of the border) and diplomatic relations frosty. The closure of the border, in turn, hobbles the economic development of Armenia, meaning that significant numbers of Armenians, many of them women, head to Turkey (passing by way of Georgia) seeking employment or economic opportunity. It is estimated that up to 20,000 Armenian women are working in Istanbul, centred on the historical Armenian neighbourhood of Kumkapı. As they are without papers, they effectively form an economic underclass, however they perform an important role in certain segments of the economy.
The contrast with the buoyant and assured entrepreneurial class in Abbas’ Iran could not be more stark. In Istanbul are women performing menial roles – often those that Turks won’t do – raising their families alongside them in straitened circumstances and sending money home to relatives in Armenia. This is in contrast, too, to the status of many Armenians in pre-20th century Istanbul, and other cities of the Ottoman realm, where Armenians often played prominent roles in politics, trade, society and literature. (For example see Mavi Boncuk’s post about Armenian lexicographers who played an important role in developing the Turkish language.)
The Armenian presence was all but expunged from Anatolia during the poisonous events of 1915. This was a tragedy for the Armenians, and I would assert that it was a tragedy for Turkey as well, as yet unreconciled. It means that in İstanbul, and elsewhere in Anatolia, where Armenians lived for thousands of years, Christmas may not be (openly) celebrated. Meanwhile, across the border, in the Islamic Republic of Iran, where the mullahs hold sway, the Armenians are busily exchanging Christmas cards and adorning shops with decorated trees.