Armenian Jerusalem
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

     The little children sit enthralled, watching with baited breath the colorful

biblical figures pirouette around the flannel-covered display board perching on

its makeshift tripod.

               The   story   being   depicted   in   the   2D   diorama   is   familiar   to   them:   the   Three   Wise   Men   in   pursuit of   the   elusive   Star   of   Bethlehem.   But   the   animation,   created   by   the   imposing   pastor   with   the sonorous voice, is an altogether new experience for the motley Sunday class, of which I am one.       We   can   only   gape   open-mouthed,   and   keep   coming   back   for   more,   half   a   dozen   rowdy   children from the Armenian Quarter, guests of the Evangelical church.       It   is   1946,   a   brief   spell   before   all   hell   breaks   loose   and   the   bombs   start   falling   on   our   beloved Old City of Jerusalem in the first major Arab-Jewish conflagration.       We   know   hardly   more   than   the   pastor's   name,   Jamil   Chamichian,   this   magical   story-teller   who, like   his   Savior,   we   learned   later,   had   been   a   carpenter   in   a   neighboring   country.   His   ancestors   had hailed   from   the   distant   land   of   the   Peacock   Throne   but   had   been   expelled   and   forced   to   find refuge elsewhere.     Among   the   displaced   group   was   Jurjy   Chamichian,   the   man   who   had   been   crowned   the   "king   of the   pistachios"   for   his   expertise   in   cultivating   the   tree.   His   green   thumbs   were   known   to   coax copious harvests of nuts from even the most bashful tree.     And when he and his people fled Persia, they took their precious pistachio saplings with them.             The   refugees   settled   in Ainteb,   Turkey,   in   what   they   thought   was   a   safe   haven,   but   it   proved   an illusion:   their   descendants   were   forced   to   flee   again,   and   this   time   seek   succor   in   Jerusalem   and Aleppo: how many remain alive in that devastated, mournful city in Syria remains unknown.       Jamil's   daughter   Ani   picks   up   the   tale   of   woe,   taking   us   back   to   the   cataclysmic   year   1915,   the year   of   the   Armenian   "yeghern",   when   the   Ottoman   Turks   attempted   to   wipe   the   Armenian   entity off   the   face   of   the   world.   They   set   about   putting   into   action   their   "final   solution"   to   the Armenian "problem"   by   singling   out   the   cream   of Armenian   society,   their   intelligentsia:   the   heartless   pruning of   the   flower   of   Armenian   literature   saw   giants   like   Krikor   Zohrab,   Daniel   Varoujan   and   Siamanto, vanish like the morning fog of lake Van.        The   other   victims   were   deported   [many   were   summarily   executed   along   the   way],   decimating the   heart   and   mind   of   Armenia,   but   not   the   soul   of   a   people   that   was   the   first   in   the   world   to accept the teachings of Jesus, and become Christians.     One and a half million Armenians perished in the first genocide of the 20th Century.       Those   who   survived   told   harrowing   tales   of   privation   and   starvation,   torture   and   torment, midnight   flights   through   desert   and   forest,   subsisting   on   the   rinds   of   oranges   they   rummaged   from the lifeless soil.       Najib   Shirkijian, Ani's   maternal   grandfather,   was   one   of   those   who   survived   the   pogrom,   but   only because   of   his   prowess   as   a   goldsmith.   It   seemed   the   executioners   were   prepared   to   make   an exemption   in   the   case   of   tradesmen   like   him:   if   you   were   a   carpenter,   blacksmith   or   goldsmith,   you were reprieved and would be allowed to stay behind and serve the needs of their Turkish "hosts."       The   Chamichian   clan   in   of   Jerusalem   belonged   to   the   Evangelical   denomination   and   had   their own   church,   the   Nazarene,   perched   at   the   top   of   a   flight   of   stairs,   a   minute's   walk   from   the Christian Quarter of the Old City where Ani and one of her sisters were born.       Ani   suspects   her   grandmother   was   not   really   a   Protestant   because   "every   once   in   a   while   she would   take   me   to   [the   Cathedral   of]   St   James,   and   quietly   slip   upstairs   for   a   service.   She   would say,   'don't   tell   your   father   or   mother'   because   it   would   be   embarrassing   to   him   as   the   pastor   of   a Protestant   church.   She   loved   to   listen   to   the   "sharagans"   (hymns)   and   I'm   assuming   she   missed   them in the more austere Protestant church."     The   other   thing   she   missed   in   her   Jerusalem   exile   was   the   "hamams",   the   public   baths   of   which one is still functioning in the Old City.     "In   our   house   we   had   an   indoor   bathroom   with   a   tub   and   shower   but   she   would   frequently   drag me   to   a   'hamam'   with   her   to   be   tortured   by   the   hot   water   and   be   scrubbed   down   with   the   black "cassa"   [bag]   that   she   took   along. After   getting   clean   the   ladies   wrapped   themselves   in   huge   towels and sat around chatting."         "I   don't   remember   tea   being   served   as   like   in   the   Ainteb   and   Paris   'hamam's   I   visited   in   my travels," Ani recounts.       One   of   her   Saturday   chores   as   a   child   was   to   heft   a   large   tray   of   loaves   and   carry   it   to   the bakery   just   outside   the   Convent   of   St   James,   then   wait   for   it   be   baked   and   take   the   warm   bread home.       "Because   of   my   father's   position   in   the   church,   we   were   frequently   visited   by American   Nazarene pilgrims   who   came   to   the   Holy   Land.   This   was   at   Easter,   Christmas   and   summer,   just   those   times when I didn't have to go to school and got to go along [on their tours]," she recalls.             "In   this   way   I   was   very   fortunate   to   see   parts   of   the   region   I   would   not   have   otherwise   seen.   We went   to   Bethlehem   at   Christmas,   the   Garden   Tomb   at   Easter,   and   my   grandmother   used   to   take   me to   the   miraculous   appearance   of   the   Holy   Fire   on   the   Saturday before   Easter   at   the   Church   of   the Holy Sepulcher."     Eventually, Ani   left   Jerusalem   and   settled   in   the   United   States   but   her   attachment   to   the   "city   of gold," and "the flower of cities," remains strong.       "I   feel   very   fortunate   to   have   grown   up   in   a   city   with   such   an   ancient   history   and   physical   beauty and   to   have   been   taken   to   so   many   places   with   deep   pre-   and   post   Roman   history. The   white   stones along   the   hillsides,   the   red   poppies   blooming   in   the   spring   and   the   crisp   clear   air   have   all   become part of who I am," she proclaims.      (Dec 10, 2016)