Remains in Saint Stephanus Church may be bones of John the Baptist: archbishop

Tehran, Iran - The Armenian Orthodox primate of the diocese of Tehran, Archbishop Sebuh Sarkisian, said on Thursday that some of the remains recently discovered in Iran’s St. Stephanus Church may be the bones of John the Baptist.

In late July, Shahriar Adl, the director of the team documenting three Iranian churches for registration on UNESCO’s World Heritage List, said that they had discovered the bones of one of the successors of the Apostles of Jesus at the St. Stephanus Church, which is located near Marand in East Azarbaijan.

“About the box, which contains the remains of the apostles’ bodies and was found under the altar of the St. Stephanus Church, it is said that the box contains the body of John the Baptist. According to Armenian historian Arakel Davrizhetsi (17th century), the box, which was located under the main altar of the Church of the Holy Trinity in old Jolfa and contained the sacred remains and a scroll, was given to Shamun, the archbishop of St. Stephanus Church, after the Church of the Holy Trinity was destroyed,” Sarkisian explained.

“The remains may very likely have historic value. According to the tradition of the church, we know that after St. Gregory the Illuminator was consecrated as archbishop of Caesarea in Cappadocia, in a friendly gesture, he gave some remains of John the Baptist to Quintius, the archbishop of the region, during his return trip to Armenia. The remains were transferred to the John the Baptist Cathedral in the city of Mush in Armenia.

“Now, the remains were somehow transferred to another place, as a consequence of the wars and chaotic conditions prevailing in the land over past centuries, in which believers and church fathers changed the location of the box in order to safeguard it. A French traveler (Jean Baptiste Tavernier, 1605-1689), who saw a box at the St. Stephanus Church when he visited the place in the 17th century, had said that the box contained the body of one of the Apostles,” Sarkisian said.

Some historical sources, such as some photos kept at Tehran’s Golestan Palace, and the photos taken by Ali Khan Vali, the governor of northern Azarbaijan during the reign of the Qajar king Nasser ad-Din Shah and kept in the Adl family archives, indicate that the bones of Saint Stephanus (Saint Stephen), Saint Matthew, and the Prophet Daniel, are being kept in the St. Stephanus Church.

The bones have been examined by a team of anthropologists of the Cultural Heritage and Tourism Organization (CHTO).

Unfortunately, the bones have been damaged because of the bad condition of the place. Thus, the team could only determine that they are the bones of a single body but the individual bones can not be distinguished.

The experts have said that the complete skeleton belongs to a man with a strong physique who was about 50 years old when he died.

The bones have been transferred to the Prelacy of Azarbaijan in Tabriz because restoration work is currently underway in the church, but they will be returned after the renovation is complete.

Hayk Ajimian, an Armenian scholar and historian, recorded that the church was originally built in the ninth century CE, but repeated earthquakes in Azarbaijan severely damaged the original structure. The church was renovated during the reign of the Safavid king Shah Abbas (1588-1629).

The general structure of the St. Stephanus Church mostly resembles Armenian and Georgian architecture and the inside of the building is adorned with beautiful paintings by Honatanian, a renowned Armenian artist.

The CHTO plans to submit an application to UNESCO to register the St. Stephanus Church as well as the St. Thaddeus and Zorzor churches in West Azarbajian on the World Heritage List.