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
   It   is   Good   Friday   in   Jerusalem,   and   and   the   Old   City has   shaken   off   its   lackadaisical   torpor   in   tune   with the    growing    excitement.    Thousands    of    pilgrims, from   all   parts   of   the   world,   some   for   the   first   time ever,   have   congregated   in   the city.   The   intensity   of religious   fever   is   so   palpable,   one   wonders   if   this   is a   manifestation   of   the   eschatological   longings   that drives    the    throngs,    it    is    as    if    they    expect    the Messiah to make his entrance.            Will   he,   according   to   local   legend,   enter   the   city   through   the twin-arched   Gohe   Gate   (or   the   Gates   of   Mercy)   which   has   been blocked   now   for   centuries?   It   will   not   be   a   tip-toe   through   the tulips,   more   a   shuffle   through   the   mounds   of   graves   lining   the approach to the gate.          A   week   earlier,   the   Catholic   church   went   through   its   repertoire   of   Easter ceremonies   and   now   it   is time   for   the   Orthodox   churches   (the   Armenians,   Greeks,   Copts,   Ethiopians   and   Syriacs)   to   re-enact the   passion   play   according   to   their ancient   scripts.         This   was   the   day   Jesus   had   died   and   had   been buried,   and   to   symbolize   the   grief   and   the   darkness   that   had   descended   upon   the   city   two   thousand years   ago,   the   Cathedral   of   St   James   in   the Armenian   Convent has   been   cast    into   the   bowels   of   the night.          The   row   of   lanterns   slung   across   the   width   of   the   nave   have   been   extinguished,   the   wicks limp   and   lifeless. No   candles   will   be   lit   during   the   3   to   4   hour   "Khavaroom"   (descent   of darkness) ceremony, except for 12, in commemoration of the Disciples of Jesus.          People   are   coming   to   the   church   in   droves,   their   numbers   spilling   outside.   Armenian churches   in   Jerusalem   have   no   seating   arrangements   and   the   congregation   has   to   conduct their prayers standing up or sitting down on the worn carpets, if there is room enough.          The   main   part   of   the   ceremony   consists   in readings   from the   New   Testament.   As   each reading ends, one of the 12 candles is blown out.          When   all   12   have gone   out, the   night   once   more   asserts   its   domain   banishing   the   slightest suspicion   of   light   from   the   gathering. In   the   silence,   all   one   can   hear   is   the   shuffle   of   feet,   or an occasional cough.          But   when   the   priests   launches   into   the   mournful   cadence   of   "Mayr   Im"   (the   mother   of Jesus),   it   is   as   if   the   floodgates   of   everyone's   soul   have   been   flung   wide   open,   and   we   all   join in the singing.      This is the highlight of "Khavaroom."          I   hurry   home   as   soon   as   the   service   is   over   -   it   would   be   close   to   midnight   by   then,   an unheard   of   anomaly   when   people,   as   yet   untouched   by   the   titillations   of   television,   were abed   by   8.   I   need   to   get   some   sleep   before   I   am   up   at   daybreak.   The   next   day   is   Holy Saturday,   and   I   have   to   be   ready   early   to   carry   out   my   role   in   the   re-enactment   of   the resurrection of Jesus.          Typically,   my   best   friend   and   cousin,   David,   misses   out   Khavaroom   -   he   would   be   cosily ensconced   within   the   confines   of   the   Armenian   section   of   the   Holy   Sepulcher.   He   has   been doing   it   for   years,   going   there   Friday   evening   before   the   doors   are   locked   for   the   night,   so   he can secure for himself a front-row position near the Edicule which houses the tomb of Jesus.        For   Christians   all   over   the   world   in   general,   and   the   faithful   who   hold   the   fort   in   the   Holy Land   in   particular,   Easter   is   the   most   sublime   of   all   feasts   in   their   religious   calendar.   But   the Saturday   before,   which   is   popularly   called   as   Sabt   el   Nour   (literary,   Saturday   of   the   Light),   is unequivocally the most inspiring and awesome day of the year.        The   festive   season   that   begins   with   Maundy   Thursday,   which   marks   the   washing   of   the feet   of   the   12   Disciples,   commemorates   the   resurrection   of   Jesus   Christ   and   is   meant   to engender   a   rebirth   of   faith   and   belief   in   the   religion   of   peace   he   preached   two   thousand years ago.        Jerusalem,   regarded   as   the   center   of   the   world   by   the   three   Guardians   of   the   sacred   sites in   the   Holy   Land   (the   Latin   Catholic,   the   Greek   and Armenian   churches),   literally   erupts   into a frenzy of religious zeal over the two week period of the festivities.        The   euphoria   is   contagious   and   spreads   into   every   alley,   every   nook   and   cranny   of   the   Old City,   and   sometimes   people   get   carried   away,   the   passion   becoming   uncontrollable   and   is transmuted into violence, with unpleasant results.        The   three   Guardians   endeavor   to   keep   relations   among   the   various   Christian   churches harmonious, but it is a daunting task because of territorial jealousies, church sources say.        The   Guardians   enjoy   exclusive   proprietary   rights,   guaranteed   by   the   Ottoman   Turkish Sultan Abdul   Majid,   under   a   "status   quo"   arrangement   which   encapsulates   a   pledge   made   over 150   years   ago   by   the   ruling   potentate,   and   which   "defines,   regulates   and   maintains,   without change" these rights.        In   1929,   during   the   British   Mandate   of   Palestine,   a   young   official,   L.G.A.   Cust,   was commissioned    to    outline    the    premises    of    the    status    quo    since    old    records    had    been destroyed.   His   efforts   resulted   in   a   monogram   entitled   The   Status   Quo   In   The   Holy   Places, but   a   superior   officer,   H.   G.   Luke,   thought   it   prudent,   because   of   the   complexity   of   the situation,   to   add   a   proviso:   "The   accounts   of   practice   given   in   this   Print   are   not   to   be   taken as necessarily having official authority.”        Occasionally,   the   "practices"   are   violated.   Over   what   Western   observers   might   construe   as trivial,    like    sweeping    an    extra    floor    tile    which    happens    to    be    outside    your    territorial jurisdiction,   the   reasoning   being   that   if   an   Armenian   sweeps   the   tile   lying   within   the   Greek enclave,    then    the   Armenians    might    some    day    claim    sovereignty    over    that    part    of    the property, an encroachment no Greek would tacitly accept.        Or   standing   in   the   wrong   place,   at   the   wrong   time.   Like   the   Greek   monk   who   positioned himself    within    the    Edicule    (the    tomb    of    Jesus)    during    an   Armenian    solemn    procession, contravening   the   right   of   exclusivity   of   the Armenians   on   the   date   in   question,   as   specified   in a   1890   "Book   of   Ceremonies   in   the   Holy   Places"   that   states   unequivocally:   "during   the   days that   Armenians   have   solemn   religious   ceremonies   the   Greek   monk   has   no   right   to   enter   the Edicule."        The   complex   rules   governing   procedures   for   the   cleaning   the   Holy   Places   has   been   a Gordian knot for as long as one remembers.        In   one   enlightening   passage,   Cust   dwells   in   detail   over   such   "very   complicated"   points   as the proper placing of a ladder, in the Armenian part of the Church of Nativity in Bethlehem.        "The   roof   beams   and   walls   down   to,   but   not   including,   the   cornice,   and   to   a   similar   level in   places   where   the   cornice   does   not   exist,   all   to   be   cleaned   by   the   Orthodox.   Where   on   the west   wall   of   the   North   Transept   a   thinner   wall   is   built   on,   the   Orthodox   sweep   the   sloping part.   For   the   purpose   of   cleaning,   the   Orthodox   place   steps   on   the   floor   of   the   Armenian Chapel,   but   do   not   lean   a   ladder   against   the   wall.   The   cornice   and   walls   below   the   level   of the   cornice,   are   cleaned   by   the Armenians.   The   three   windows   in   the Armenian   Chapel   under the   level   of   the   cornice   are   cleaned   with   their   window   recesses   by   the   Government.   The northern   face   of   the   Grotto   is   cleaned   by   the   Government.   The   pictures   in   the   northern   face of   the   Grotto   are   to   be   removed,   the   eastern   one   by   the   Orthodox,   and   the   western   one   by the Armenians,   and   to   be   re-hung   by   them.   The   pillar   west   of   the   Grotto   entrance   is   cleaned on   the   south-west,   south-east   and   north-west   sides   by   the   Orthodox,   and   on   the   north-east side by the Government."        As   children   growing   up   in   the   Old   City,   we   were   confused   eye-witness   to   these   interfaith confabulations   -   we   could   not   understand   the   complexities   of   the   issues   involved,   and wondered why Christian assaulted Christian, in their holiest city.        But   that   did   not   diminish   from   the   excitement   we   felt   as   we   glided   through   ceremony after ceremony, leading up to the grand awe of Holy Fire Saturday.        Only   two   days   before,   we   had   piled   into   the   Cathedral   of   St   James   for   the   Washing   of   the Feet.   Squashed   among   the   throng   of   worshippers,   we   had   to   crane   our   necks   to   get   a   peek   of the   Armenian   Patriarch   squatting   in   a   corner,   with   holy   oil   in   one   hand   and   a   a   towel   in   the other,   washing   the   unshod   feet   of   12   priests.   He   would   be   in   full   regalia,   the   dazzling vestments he wore specifically selected for this occasion.        In   front   of   the   main   altar,   rows   of   chairs   have   been   arranged   for   the   convenience   of   high- profile    invitees    which    include    government    officials    and    members    of    the    consular    and diplomatic corps.        In   the   middle   of   the   ceremony,   the Anglican   bishop   of   Jerusalem   mounts   the   steps   to   the altar   and   reads   a   passage   from   the   Bible   in   English,   in   a   tradition   whose   origins   are   clouded in   history.   He   is   be   the   only   non-Armenian   granted   such   a   privilege   within   an Armenian   church -   although,   years   later,   with   the   inception   of   the   annual   ecumenical   week,   held   in   January, the   church   would   be   agog   with   a   bouquet   of   representatives   from   the   various   Christian denominations   in   the   city,   in   an   exchange   visit,   each   praying   to   the   one   God,   in   his   own tongue.         The   morning   of   Holy   Fire   Saturday   would   see   us   up   in   a   race   with   the   sun.   We   barely   had time   to   grab   a   bite   before   we   were   hurtling   out   into   the   street.   We   had   to   get   ready   to   join the   Armenian   church   procession   heading   towards   the   Church   of   the   Holy   Sepulchre,   with   a platoon   of   Kawasses   leading   the   way.   Their   staff   of   office,   topped   with   a   silver   knob,   with which   they   pounded   the   cobblestones,   must   have   weighed   more   than   5   kilograms.   At   their side,   dangled   an   Ottoman   sword,   the   edges   dulled   from   neglect.   It   would   have   been   close   to a   century   when   they   last   saw   service   on   a   battlefield.   Up   until   the   latter   part   of   the   20th Century   the   Kawasses,   mostly   Moslems,   used   to   wear   baggy,   cumbersome   Turkish   "shirwal" trousers    and    don    a    "tarbouche,"    complete    with    frills.    The    Armenians    preserved    the "tarbouche", but the "shirwal" dropped by the roadside.        The   Kawasses   were   recruited   almost   exclusively   from   the   extended Abul   Hawa   clan   whose members   have   staked   a   claim   to   the   Mount   of   Olives,   across   the   Siloam   valley.   The   two brothers,   Mohammed   and   Ibrahim,   were   the   end   of   the   line.    During   their   lengthy   tenure, they   had   learned   to   speak   Armenian   like   a   native,   and   their   demise   marked   the   end   of   an era.        One   of   Ibrahim's   sons,   Omar,   who   might   have   been   the   most   suitable   candidate   to   follow in   his   father's   traditional   footsteps,   opted   instead   to   work   at   the   Inter.Continental   Hotel   near his home, and became its Front Desk manager.        When   I   visited   him   a   few   years   ago,   he   had   retired   and   was   living   in   relative   comfort   in   a house   he   built   himself   on   one   of   the   highest   points   of   the   Mount   of   Olives,   commanding   a breathtaking view of the walled Old City, with the golden Dome of the Rock, its centerpiece.        I   had   taught   Abul   Hawa   children   at   both   the   St   George   Boys   School,   and   the   Schmidts' Girls   College.   With   their   prevalent   blue   eyes   and   fair   hair,   they   stood   out   among   the   crowd. Did   their   ancestors   have   Frankish   blood   in   them?   It's   a   question   one   dare   not   ask   of   people   for whom   the   word   "Crusader"   evokes   unpalatable   connections   and   memories,   implying   as   it   does the onerous yoke of occupation.