One of the 12 Apostles, St. Thaddeus, also known as Saint Jude, (not to be confused with Judas Iscariot), was martyred while spreading the Gospel during strong Zoroastrian influence in the region. Legend has it that the St. Thaddeus Monastery was dedicated to him when first built on the present site in AD 68.
The Armenian Monastic Ensembles of Iran consists of three monastic ensembles of the Armenian Christian faith: St Thaddeus, St Stepanos and the Chapel of Dzordzor. These edifices - the oldest of which, St Thaddeus, is dated back to the 7th century however pays respect to local folklore.
St. Thaddeus Monastery, also known as Saint Jude, is an example of outstanding value of the Armenian architectural and decorative traditions. Situated on the south-eastern fringe of the main zone of the Armenian cultural space, the monasteries are a major centre of Christian culture in the region. For this reason they bear testimony to very important interchanges with the other regional cultures, in particular the Byzantine, Orthodox and Persian civilisations. The monastic ensembles are the last regional remains of this nature currently in a satisfactory state of integrity and authenticity.
Qara Kelisa itself, also known as the St. Thaddeus Church, is one of the oldest and most notable surviving Christian monuments in Iran.
For this reason, a special ritual is held over a three-day pilgrimage for the baptism of Armenian children. And why not, because many believe baptism of their children at the first church of Jesus Christ and the martyrdom site of one of his apostles will bring blessings from God.
Many Armenians, Assyrians and Catholics from Iran and elsewhere attend this annual event at St. Thaddeus Monastery as part of their pilgrimage on the Day of St. Thaddeus. To Armenians, the Qara Kelissa ceremony is a combination of theological, racial, traditional, family, emotional, and entertainment motives as well as traveling and enjoying summer weather and visiting friends and relatives.
Preparing food, eating and drinking is the public entertainment of families over the three days. Food is served inside tents and/or at the entrance day and night and the tables are set with food cloths spread on the ground to serve as a centre for gathering of families and relatives. Visiting friends and relatives is one of the characteristics of the three-day festivity, so much so that some Armenian families meet only once a year when gathering at Qara Kelissa.
Church services are held in the morning and evening on July 19 and 20 but on the third day the service is held only once and within a special festival held by an archbishop who comes from Tehran as well as the Tabriz bishop. Participation in the church services on the festival days is not obligatory and some people are seen who have never attended the ceremony.
The monastery is visible from a distant landscape due to the large size of church, strongly characterized by the polygonal drums and conical roofs of its two domes. There are several chapels nearby: three on the hills east of the stream, one approximately 3km south of the monastery on the road to Bastam, and another that serves as the church for the village of Qara Kelisa. This chapel is two kilometres northwest of the church is said to have been the place where the first Christian woman, Sandokh, was martyred, and believed to be as old as Qara Kelisa.
The church was destroyed and reconstructed after various foreign conquests. A great part of the church was destroyed in the year 1230 (616 Lunar Hejira) during the attack of Genghis Khan. The St. Thaddeus Monastery was extensively rebuilt in 1329 after an earthquake damaged the structure in 1319. Despite these setbacks, some of the parts currently around the altar are dated from the 10th century. However, since early construction most of the present structure dates from the 1811-1820, when Qajar prince Abbas Mirza allocated funds for cultural repair resulting in a massive and impressive structure. These 19th century additions include carved sandstone, with the earliest parts black and white stone, giving to its Turkish name Qara Kelisa, the Black Church. Also, a fortified wall surrounds the church and its now-abandoned monastery buildings.
Statues of angels adorn the front facade of the church and its northern and southern facades are decorated with dark-colored stone crucifixes. Sculptured bas-reliefs bearing passages from the Old and New Testaments, mythical animals and effigies of saints have also added to the beauty of the monument.
The ancient Christian historian Moses of Khorene tell the following story, considered a legend by most modern historians.
Thaddeus converted King Abgar V of Edessa. After his death, the Armenian kingdom was split into two parts. His son Ananun crowned himself in Edessa, while his nephew Sanatruk ruled in Armenia. About AD 66, Ananun gave the order to kill St. Thaddeus in Edessa.
The king's daughter Sandokht, who had converted to Christianity, was martyred with Thaddeus. Her tomb is said to be located near the Ghara Kelisa.
Qara Kelissa was registered as the ninth UNESCO site in Iran with historical-cultural heritage at the 2nd International Heritage Committee of the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in Quebec, Canada.
For general information on St. Thaddeus Monastery, the UNESCO site has further information, photos and a map: http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/1262