St. Thaddeus Monastery, also known as the Qara Kelisa (the “Black Church”) , is one of the oldest and most notable surviving Christian monuments in Iran. This quiet, isolated monstary located in the wilderness hinterlands of ancient Armenia is believed to stand on the site of the martyrdom and/or burial of the Apostle Thaddeus, or Jude. It is revered by both the Oriental Orthodox and Assyrian Orthodox Churches, especially members of the Armenian Apostolic Church. For the last three decades, the monastery has been under the jurisdiction of the Iranian government, and Christians are permitted to visit on only one day every year, the Feast Day of St. Thaddeus.
It is located about 20 kilometers from the town of Chaldiran. The monastery and its typical Armenian conical roofs are visible from long distances. 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.
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 western extension duplicates the design of Etchmiadzin Cathedral, the mother church of the Armenian Apostolic Church. The 19th century additions were constructed from ashlar sandstone. The earliest sections are of black and white stone, hence its Turkic name Qara Kilse, meaning “the Black Church.”
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.
In July 2008, the Monastery of Saint Thaddeus was added to UNESCO’s World Heritage List, along with two other Armenian monuments in the same province: the Monastery of Saint Stepanos and the Chapel of Dzordzor.