Sitting photogenically aloof on a barren knoll, 8km off the lonely Shot–Chaldoran road in the middle of nowhere, behind the low-rise village of the same name, Qareh Kalisa is the best maintained of all Iran’s medieval churches. Mostly rebuilt after an earthquake, the smaller black-and-white-striped chapel section dates from 1319–29, and the whole site is Unesco listed. Ring the bell if it’s locked.
There’s no public transport. Taxis from Maku via Shot ask US$25 return including waiting time.
Qareh Kalisa is alternatively known as Kalisa-ye Tadi (Church of St Thaddaeus) for St Thaddaeus (aka Tatavoos or Jude the Apostle), who allegedly founded a church here in 43. Apparently his preaching proved a little too successful for the jealous Armenian king, who massacred Thaddaeus and 3000 of his converts in 66, including the king's own daughter, Sandokht, whose purported tomb is that lonely bunker on the hill you passed a few kilometres back. In a curious twist, Armenia later became the world’s first Christian nation (in 301). Thaddaeus’ memory was revived with a chapel built here at his assumed grave in 371.
The church was much restored and enlarged in 1810, when the main beige-white stone section was added. This is richly carved with saints, angels, kings and crosses, best observed from the surrounding fortress-style walls. The only Christian services are held during a colourful, three-day summer pilgrimage; dates vary and are announced shortly beforehand through the Armenian Prelacy Office in Tabriz. In spring, the surrounding fields and hills turn into verdant, flower-filled meadows, while in winter all is white.