Armenian Jerusalem
2,000 years of glorious history

The    

Armenian     

connection     

to     

Jerusalem

predates  

the  

Christian  

era.  

The  

first

Armenians

to   

set   

foot   

in   

the   

Holy   

Land,   

pagan   

idol-

worshippers,   

would   

have   

been   

conscripts   

or

mercenaries   

marching   

with   

the   

conquering

armies    

of    

Tigranes    

II.    

Historically,    

it    

is

uncertain    

whether    

Tigranes    

did    

actually

conquer  

Jerusalem,  

but  

there  

is  

no  

doubt  

that

he had overrun Judea.

               Some   of   his   soldiers   settled   in   the   region,   others moved   north   towards   greener   the   pastures   of   the   fertile crescent   (that   would   have   included   Syria   and   Lebanon), and a number settled in the land of Canaan.      When   the   Armenian   nation   became   the   first   in   the world   to   accept   Christianity   as   its   state   religion,   my   ancestors   lost   no   time   making   the pilgrimage to Jerusalem.      They   came   on   the   back   of   camels   and   donkeys,   braving   the   long   travails   of   danger   and hardship:   but   their   first   sight   of   the   golden   city   with   its   towering   walls,   reinforced   their faith.      In one caravan alone, there were more than 700 camels.                Halfway   between   Jericho   and   Jerusalem,   the   pilgrims   paused   to   set   up   what   would later become the foundation for the first Christian monastery in the Holy Land.                The   site,   now   known   by   its   Arabic   name   of   Khan   El   Ahmar   (the   red   khan),   also features   in   the   bible   as   the   place   where   the   the   Good   Samarian   came   to   the   succor   of the injured traveler.                A   typical   feature   of   those   early   monasteries   was   the   creation   of   a   floor   mosaic   with the    emphasis    on    depicting    local    flora    and    fauna.    But    the    6th    Century    "medallion" uncovered   recently   (in   1991),   bore   only   a   script   in   the   Classical Armenian   of   the   day,   laid out in capital letters.                Historians   estimate   that   the   Armenians   had   built   hundreds   of   monasteries   and churches   along   the   width   and   breadth   of   the   Holy   Land,   but   today   only   a   handful   survive, among   them   the   magnificent   cathedral   of   St   James,   situated   within   the   convent   that   is the seat of the Armenian Patriarchate.                Armenians   are   a   nation   of   survivors.   Pulitzer   Prize   winner   William   Saroyan   calls   us   a small tribe of unimportant people that no power on earth can destroy.                "See   if   you   can   do   it,"   he   says.   Even   if   you   "send   them   into   the   desert   without   bread or   water,   burn   their   homes   and   churches,"   they   will   laugh,   sing   and   pray   again.   And whenever   two   of   them   meet   anywhere   in   the   world,   "see   if   they   will   not   create   a   New Armenia."                Of   course,   he   got   it   wrong   when   he   assumed   that   our   structures   have   crumbled,   our battles   fought   and   lost,   our   literature   unread   and   our   music   unheard.   Had   he   forgotten William   Saroyan   and   Ohan   Durian?   There   were   no   Kim   Kardashians   or   Joe   [Hokedoonian] Hockeys   then,   true.   Neither   had   Armenia   broken   free   of   the   former   Soviet   Union   and reclaimed   its   independence.               The   Persians   tried   to   force   Christian   Armenia   into   fire- worship   and   failed.   The   Turks   tried   to   exterminate      the   flower   of   Armenian   intellectual, artistic and religious culture, and failed.                Perhaps,   in   time,   the   Armenians   are   destined   to   succumb   to   the   insipid   wiles   of assimilation where armies and armaments made no headway.                It   won't   happen   in   Jerusalem.   Despite   the   relentless   encroachments   of   attrition:   at one   stage,   there   were   thousands   of   Armenians   living   in   and   around   the   Convent   of   St James,   their   numbers   touching   25,000.   Today,   that   has   shriveled   to   a   fraction,   but although   the   political   future   remains   uncertain   as   Israelis   and   Palestinians   wrangle   over the   status   of   the   city   they   have   made   their   home, Armenians   know   that   the   imprint   they have made on Jerusalem, is indelible.                Armenians   reached   the   Holy   Land   between   the   tenth   and   sixth   centuries   BCE,   when Tigranes   the   Great   ruled   an   empire   extending   from   the   Caspian   Sea   to   the   shores   of   the Mediterranean.   The   first   time   the   word   "Armenia"   is   mentioned   in   a   historical   context   is in   an   inscription   attributed   to   King   Darius.   Armenians   arrived   in   the   wake   of   conquering armies,   as   traders,   artisans,   legionnaires   and   administrators.   But   it   was   Christianity   that put the final stamp on the perpetual Armenian presence in Jerusalem.      Diaspora Armenians   are   thus   descended   primarily   from   ancestors   who   lived   in   historic Armenia.   Many   still   have   relatives   in   the   disparate   towns   and   villages   of   the   parts   of Armenia   now   ruled   by   Turkey,   although   their   roots   may   have   disappeared   from   the   pages of   history   following   frequent   family   name   changes,   necessitated   by   political   exigencies. Apkar,   for   example,   has   been   changed   to Ali,   Misak   into   Murad,   or   even   Mohammed. And the unique Armenian patronymic "ian" has been obliterated from family names.      Armenians   have   survived   in   the   past   by   challenging   empires   and   by   scuttling   all attempts   at   assimilation.   They   have   never   taken   kindly   to   these.   However,   they   adapt easily to changing circumstances because they are pliable and pragmatic.                Social   historians   point   out   that   being   a   mountain   race, Armenians   have   always   been   a fighting   people,   fiercely   jealous   of   their   independence.   But   that   has   not   made   them ossified   relics.   On   the   contrary,   the   Armenians   have   merged   with   the   stream,   while retaining their own uniqueness, quite adroitly.                In   Jerusalem,   the   only   threat   to   their   ethnic   purity   would   be   intermarriage   with "odar"s (non-Armenians), mainly other Christians.                  This   is   a   people   that   believes   in   the   eternality   of   their   race,   symbolized   by   their emblem   -   the   soaring   twin   peaks   of   Mount Ararat,   traditional   site   of   Noah's   stranded   ark. The   goldsmiths,   jewelers,   photographers,   pharmacists,   teachers   and   potters   who   pound the   ancient   cobblestones   of   the   Old   City   of   Jerusalem   -   which   has   become   a   fount   of spirituality   second   only   to   the   Cathedral   of   Etchmiadzin   in   Yerevan,   capital   of   Armenia   - are living proof of Armenian durability.             Jerusalem's Armenian   community   is   concentrated   in   the   complex   of   St.   James   and   the encircling   Armenian   Quarter.   In   its   heyday,   the   compound   was   home   for   nearly   25,000 people,   sometimes   crammed   ten   to   a   room.   That   number   has   been   shrinking   inexorably over   the   years,   the   first   significant   depletion   occurring   in   the   1948   exodus   (some   would call   it   repatriation)   to   the   homeland   in   Armenia.   Today,   barely   a   few   hundred   still   hold the   fort   in   the   Old   City,   with   another   eight   to   nine   hundred   scattered   throughout   Israel, mainly   in   Jaffa   and   Haifa,   and   the   West   Bank   (Bethlehem,   Ramallah   and   Gaza).   A   far larger   number   live   in   the   neighboring   Arab   countries   where   they   had   found   a   secure   and generous haven as they fled from the Turkish massacres.                The   Armenian   Patriarchate   has   won   semi-diplomatic   status   as   one   of   the   three guardians   (the   others   are   the   Greek   Patriarchate   and   the   Franciscan   Custodia)   of   the   Holy Places   [which   includes   the   church   of   the   Holy   Sepulchre,   the   Church   of   Ascension,   the Tomb   of   the   Virgin   at   Gathsemane,   all   in   Jerusalem,   and   the   Church   of   Nativity   in Bethlehem].    Without    this,    the    Armenians    here    would    be    no    more    than    simple landholders.                The   Armenian   Patriarchate   is   a   city   within   a   city,   running   manifold   educational, cultural   and   religious   programs,   subsisting   on   revenues   mainly   derived   from   the   rents   it collects   on   its   properties   in   West   Jerusalem   and   other   parts   of   the   land,   both   in   Israel and the West Bank.                The   Armenians   of   the   Holy   Land   generally   fall   into   four   different   groupings.   The "kaghakatsis"   (native   residents)   live   in   the Armenian   Quarter   where   they   established   roots centuries   ago.   They   have   a   cultural   club   of   their   own,   the   JABU   (Jerusalem   Armenian Benevolent    Union).   At    one    time    the    JABU    was    the    guiding    spirit    of    the   Armenian community,   but   it   has   become   a   mere   shadow   of   its   former   self,   its   members   scattered all   over   the   world.   The   club   premises   have   virtually   been   abandoned;   the   beautiful, expansive   hall   where   banquets   were   once   held   and   the   grand   stage   where   Julius   Caesar used to strut have been claimed by ghosts.      Within   the   St.   James   convent,   the   "Vanketsis"   (convent   dwellers)   are   divided   into   two distinct   groupings   with   differing   "political"   leanings,   the   shades   blurred   in   the   wake   of Armenia's   newly   gained   independence:   the   Hoyetchmen,   the   bigger   group,   has   been   more active   and   more   influential.   It   pines   for   a   return   to   the   homeland,   even   under   Soviet rule,    while    the    Homentmen    wanted    a    free,    independent   Armenia.   The    Homentmen cultivates   the   "Hai   Tad"   (Armenian   cause)   organization,   set   up   to   perpetuate   the   memory of   the   Armenian   genocide   and   to   spur   Turkey   to   admit   guilt   and   responsibility   for   the estimated   1,500,000   men,   women   and   children   massacred   in   1915.   The   two   run   youth clubs   at   a   stone's   throw   from   each   other.   In   years   gone   by,   there   had   been   no   love   lost between   the   two,   but   global   developments   and   realities   have   inevitably   dulled   the   edge of irreconcilable differences and they have grown closer to each other.      The   fourth   Armenian   grouping   revolves   around   the   Catholic   church.   They   have   their own   church   and   were   traditionally   considered   outcasts   by   mainstream   Armenians   who pride   themselves   on   being   sons   of   the   Lousavoritch,   Gregory   the   Illuminator,   patron   of the Armenian Orthodox Church.                The   Armenian   Patriarchate   of   Jerusalem   has   titular   ownership   of   all   property   in   the Armenian   compound   -   but   no   one   pays   it   rent   although   the   kaghakatsi   are   liable   to municipal   taxes   since   their   residences   fall   outside   the   boundaries   of   the   Convent   which, as a religious institution, is exempt from land duties.      Some   of   the   houses   in   the   Armenian   Quarter   have   been   inhabited   by   the   same   family for   generations.   A   cursory   glance   at   the   architecture   yields   telltale   evidence   of   the slipshod   art   of   Ottoman   masonry.   Walls   are   sometimes   three   feet   thick.   Foundations   are pure   earth,   pressed   tight,   with   a   scattering   of   rocks.   Sunlight   and   ventilation   are   unheard of   luxuries.   The   plaster   cakes   continually,   as   the   walls   shed   their   whitewash   under   the ravages   of   humidity.   The   houses   may   be   nothing   more   than   dank   dungeons,   in   some cases, but for hundreds of years, Armenians have been born and bred here.      Perhaps   the   fact   that   the   houses   are   blessed   twice   every   year   (at   Christmas   and Easter) by the parish priest, helps to make them habitable.      Although   the   older   generations   are   too   deeply   rooted   in   their   way   of   life   to   consider leaving,    the    young    are    inclined    to    think    of    their    sojourn    in    Jerusalem    as    merely temporary.   Many   believe   that   this   is   merely   a   way   station,   that   their   future,   or   that   of their offspring, lies in America, Canada, Australia, or perhaps Armenia.                There   was   a   time   in   the   Old   City   when   family   ties   were   unshakable   -   and   no   one   ever heard   of   a   son   or   daughter   leaving   home,   whether   when   he   or   she   turned   eighteen,   or   at all.               This   did   not   imply   a   total   embargo   or   moratorium   on   the   movements   of   people:   rather the    reluctance    to    abandon    familiar    and    familial    grounds    for    the    strange    unknown, perhaps   replete   with   risks   and   uncertainty.   The   only   exception   was   the   odd   "business" travel   -   my   own   father   left   home   as   a   late   teen,   accompanied   by   an   uncle,   to   try   his   luck in   Uruguay,   of   all   places. They   stayed   there   fore   10   years:   the   money   they   made   peddling clothes   door   to   door   enabled   my   father   to   set   up   shop   as   a   leading   wool   merchant,   just outside Jaffa Gate.      But   things   change,   and   ties   begin   to   loosen.   Almost   every   parent   in   Jerusalem   will   at some   time   face   the   inevitable   prospect   of   seeing   a   son   or   daughter   leave   the   family roost,    temporarily    or    permanently.    But    they    are    bolstered    and    consoled    by    the opportunities the children will have to better their prospects.      And   with   Skype   and   Facebook,   and   God   knows   what   other   hi-tech   communication delights are yet in store for us, the distances and time lapses are shortened.
This project has been supported by the Gulbenkian philanthropic Foundation, the Armenian Patriarchate of Jerusalem, and members of the worldwide Armenian community. Reproductions of the genealogical documents [domar’s] are courtesy Photo Garo, Jerusalem. Copyright © 2007 Arthur Hagopian
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