Saint Mary Church Urmia
By: The Assyrian Church of the East Association
Saint Mary's church is not only the oldest church in Iran but also one of the oldest in the world speaking of its age, it suffices to say that it was built on the tomb of three magi who passed here on their way to Bethlehem. This ancient church, which its existence is directly merged with magi men, those who were mentioned in the holy book, in Assyrian language are called "Mart Maryam " or " Mat Maryam " Or saint "Ezra" , according to different stories , at least one out the three mentioned men are buried here in the basement of this church in the world, since the church which was built upon Jesus birthplace in Bethlehem is the first and Saint Mary's church was erected at the same time
With Germany's cologne cathedral. The square shaped building of this church possesses an extraordinary structure along with a simple form. Its thick foundation is built with stone and mortar and its huge and spacious appearance with wide and flat walls seems smaller from inside.
Like all other regional churches, the entrance is a relatively small one and in order to get to the main hall, one must follow some steps down. The building encompasses an altar, several chambers, a vestibule and the main hall. There was no chair or bench, so there were spaces for more prayers. They used to perfume the inner church with wild fragrant plants. No photo or portrait of any saints has been displayed in this church since a long time ago. It has been said that a Chinese princess named"Bafri" paid a visit to the church in 642 and donated some money to rebuild the church and therefore a memorial marble stone plate was installed on the church wall to remember her good deed. According to master "Benjamin Arsanos", this plate was on the wall until the end of the First World War.
The other prominent people who visited the church, we can mention to Marco Polo, the Italian adventure, Professor Abraham Jackson, the famous American Orientalists and the ex-lecture of Colombian University, visited Urmia in 1903 and could take a picture of this church that obviously displays that it was a little below the surface of the ground.
Until the end of 19th century and a little later, the church had a humble façade.
However, after Russian Orthodox missioners' arrival in the city, and maintaining a stronghold among the Urmia Assyrian, they decided to improve the building of the church. Eventually, the church was rebuilt according to the Russian style architecture with several domes and a big bell that was installed on top of the tower, which beautified the appearance of the church. Unfortunately, after the Ottomans' invasion, the church was raised with the ground. The church was used to be in the middle of a big garden, which was full of trees of all kinds and s spring in the middle to water the trees. There once was a cemetery on the East Side of the church that was the burial place for some of the East Assyrian Church priests and some important figures that today only a few tombstones of that time are placed haphazardly on the church walls.
Urmia researchers, scientists and historians' point of view
Lieutenant "Ahmad Karimpour", about Urmia's historical building and remains writes: Several carved tombstones with some writings were discovered around Mother Mary Church. The main part of the churchyard was lost in the street construction operations and a huge elm tree, which was planted in the old times by Zoroastrians, was cut.
Mr. "Ali Dehghan" has a similar view point of view about the religious buildings in Urmia and quotes:
… and to names of the most important, one can refer to Mother Mary Church which is the pilgrimage site and temple of the city Christians. Part of its yard was lost during the city construction but the church is still existing and some graves are discovered around it.
Mr. "Mohammad Tamadon" writes: This church is of historical importance and before "Khayam" street construction had a big yard and a huge elm tree, which was planted by the Zoroastrians in the ancient times. During the excavations in the yard, several graves were discovered. There are also some graves inside the church that their historical information is missing.
Building of the Church
After 1922, the Assyrians who had to leave Urmia because of the war gradually
Returned to the city and in order to have a place for holding their religious ceremonies, began to rebuild the once destroyed church. They excavated the main and untouched foundations of the church building from underneath of thousands of tons of soil and temporarily revived it. After 30 years, the damaged foundation collapsed. A true Christian's contribution became the first fund to rebuild the church to the form that today visitors can see. His name was Mr. "Eishou Beik". Later on, other contributions and financial aids were collected by a newspaper named "Ashour" in New Jersey in the U.S. In Iran, the building with at least 100 years documented history is considered to be a historical and national heritage. Therefore, this church easily fits the definition of this law. In 1912, a man called "OrihamOdishou" gifted a huge and ornamented lantern to the church that was placed on its dome.
Other significant historical events
In 1834, an American missioner called Dr. Justin perkins and a German called Frerik Hess, came to Urmia and temporarily resided in the church. They wrote: The church is a massive building made of some stone and brick, leveled with surrounding ground. It includes several sections that we visited them all. The entrances are very narrow but the main church hall is rather larger and the altar and the baptism chamber are behind the main hall. There are no photos or portraits of the church but the walls are distastefully decorated with colorful
Pieces of cloth. The church is engulfed with an old cemetery and huge square-shaped marble stones on graves that one can read the old Assyrian script on them.
There is also a spring in the yard which is surrounded by trees. In this church, because of the need to priest appointing ceremony, in a formal gathering, an American Protestant ceremony took place. Since Mr, Stoking was the only non-cleric of the mission, he was appointed as the priest by Dr, Perkins. This ceremony is registered on April 15th, 1841. After Mr, "Benjamin Shamon" was martyred, for the first time in this city and on April 15th, 1918, "Mar Polo" was selected as the leader of the east Assyrian church in presence of many clerics and figures of the Assyrian society. Arthur J. Maclean, head of an English mission, came to Urmia in August 1886 and assured Assyrian of this mission financial and cultural support. This gathering took place at Mother Mary Church.