The St. Stepanos Monastery is an Armenian monastery about 15 km northwest of Jolfa, East Azarbaijan Province, northwestern Iran.
It is situated in a deep canyon along the Aras river on the Iranian side of the border between Nakhchivan Autonomous Republic and Iran. Since 2008 it has been registered on UNESCO’s World Heritage List together with the St. Thaddeus Monastery and the Chapel of Dzordzor.
St Bartholomew first founded a church on the site around AD 62, however there is little traces left. Since then Hayk Ajimian, an Armenian scholar and historian, recorded that the church was built in the 9th century AD, but repeated earthquakes in Azerbaijan completely eroded the previous structure.
The first monastery was built in the seventh century and expanded in the tenth century. Following this period, the monastery was damaged during the wars between the Seljuk’s and the Byzantine Empire in the eleventh and twelfth centuries.
Following the conquest of the region by the Mongols of Hulagu, grandson of Genghis Khan, in the middle of the thirteenth century, Christians benefited from the Ilkhanid dynasty, and a peace treaty was signed between the Armenian Church and the Ilkhans. The monastery was restored shortly after and completely rebuilt in 1330 under the leadership of Zachariah. By the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries St. Stepanos Monastery was at the height of its cultural and intellectual influence, producing paintings and illuminated manuscripts in religion, history and philosophy.
In the early fifteenth century, the new Safavid Dynasty protected the Armenians, but the region was wrought with Ottoman conflicts, who invaded Western Armenia in 1513. St. Stepanos gradually declined in the sixteenth century, and Shah Abbas I expelled the inhabitants in the region in 1604. Shortly after the monastery was abandoned.
By 1650, Shah Abbas the Second restored rule in the region and the monastery was re-established by the latter part of the seventeenth century.
At the beginning of the eighteenth century, the region came under the expansion of the Russian Empire. Yerevan was conquered by the Russians in 1827, and afterwards the border between Persia and Russia was established on the Araxes by Treaty of Turkmenchay. Consequently, part of the population was forcefully displaced to Russian Armenia. The following Qajar rulers, however, continued to protect the Armenians, and they restored and maintained St. Stepanos monastery between 1819 and 1825.
The monastery underwent several restorations in the twentieth century.
Currently the structure mostly resembles Armenian and Georgian architecture and the inside of the building is adorned with beautiful paintings by Honatanian, a renowned Armenian artist.
The Armenian monasteries in Northwestern Iran have borne continuous testimony, since the origins of Christianity. They bear testimony to a very large and refined panorama of architectural and decorative content associated with Armenian culture, in interaction with other regional cultures: Byzantine, Orthodox, Assyrian, Persian and Muslim. The monasteries have survived some 2,000 years of destruction, both of human origin and as a result of natural disasters. They have been rebuilt several times in a spirit in keeping with Armenian cultural traditions.