Armenian Jerusalem
                  It   seems   as   if   the   dust   of   centuries   has   buried   traces   of   the   once   vibrant,   and  vociferous,   community,   in   oblivion.   You   pause   for   a   moment   to   "weep   and   mourn,"   with the   great   Jahiliya   poet   Umru   'ul   Qais,   "Qifa   nabki   fi   dhikra   habiben   wa   manzili"   ("in memory of a loved one and a home.)"       Where   are   the   garrulous   "barav"s   (old   women)   who   lined   both   sides   of   the   street, engaged   in   exchanging   the   day's   gossip   and   shredding   the   reputations   of   rivals?   Where   are the   squabbling   children   as   they   chase   each   other's   shadow   up   and   down   the   alleys?   Where are   the   water-vendors,   the   scrubbing-sand   peddlers,   the   "ka'ek"   (bagels)   bakers   whose strident cries filled the air?        And   where   is   Khoren   the   Jamgotch   who   pounded   the   cobblestones   of   your   childhood, inviting    the    faithful    to    Sunday    prayers    at    the    Church    of    the    Holy    Archangels,    his mellifluously evocative voice still retaining its haunting lilt?        Does   anyone   remember   the   ribald   poem   the   hapless   Michael   Kostayan   used   to   spout   at the   drop   of   a   hat?   It   had   been   composed   and   taught   him   by   the   ragtag   band   of   vagabond kaghakatsi   youth   who   delighted   in   teasing   him,   and   began   with   the   nonsense   verse:   "Dokh kondeh dokh kondeh. . . "        Gone   are   the   wild   nights   of   the   Armenian   New   Year   when   the   kaghakatsis   would   all gather   at   their   club,   the   Jerusalem Armenian   Benevolent   Union,   have   a   drink   and   a   bite, sing   songs   led   by   an   accordion   wielding   pied   piper   and   snake   around   the   streets   on   their "pub crawl" to bring joy and cheer to all the homes in the Quarter.        Among   them   would   have   been   Bedros,   perhaps   the   most   uncelebrated   hero   the Armenians   of   Jerusalem   have   ever   produced,   a   man   who   without   any   protective   armor, had   disarmed   and   bodily   carried   away   an   unexploded   missile   that   landed   in   somebody's kitchen   during   the   1948 Arab-Israeli   war.   The   picture   that   lingers   most   is   the   sight   of   this diminutive    man    hugging    the    bomb    to    his    chest    as    he    manhandled    it    down    stairs, stumbling blindly because the missile was taller than him.        Who   will   forget   the   avuncular   Apraham   Baba,   towering   over   us,   clad   in   an   Ottoman "shirwal,"    (baggy    trousers)    as    he    sold    us    candy    and    trinkets    from    his    shop    which disappeared   in   a   puff   of   smoke   after   a   bomb   landed   there,   or   Megerditch   the   dairy farmer   whose   rantings   at   his Arab   hired   help   punctuated   our   mornings?   His   spread   is   now a Jewish housing complex.        They,   and   the   cavalcade   of   other   intriguing   characters   that   animated   the   idyll   of   this community   (dubbed   "kaghakatsi,"   city   or   native   dwellers)   in   the   Armenian   Quarter   of Jerusalem,   have   long   gone   their   way,   but   the   memory   lingers,   and   will   linger   as   long   as this tiny enclave remains on the map.        For   under   every   cobblestone   carpeting   the   ancient   alleys,   lies   a   tale   to   be   told,   of heroes   and   villains,   of   tears   and   laughter,   of   love   and   hope,   of   glory   and   disaster. And   you would   never   get   lost   in   the   Armenian   Quarter,   for   every   household   had   its   own   personal signpost,   a   nickname   based   on   some   distinct   incident   or   characteristic:   "dar   el   'ajayez," the   home   of   the   old   ones;   "dar   el   tasseh,"   the   home   of   the   bowl;   "dar   el   hattiti,"   the   door of the bolt . . .        But   the   kaghakatsi   have   a   stronger   claim   to   a   cherished   niche   in   the   annals   of   the   Old City:   their   claim   to   immortality   will   probably   be   ensured   not   solely   by   virtue   of   their expressive    history,    but    by    an    anthropological    or    genealogical    rarity:    every    single kaghakatsi is related by blood to another kaghakatsi.        The   whole   kaghakatsi   community   is   a   spiderweb   of   family   relations.   If   you   are   not   my cousin, you are my cousin's cousin.        It   would   not   be   uncommon   for   two   kaghakatsis   from   totally   different   families   to stumble   upon   a   common   ancestor   going   back   several   decades   or   even   a   century   or   more. Along   the   way,   this   lively   community   (at   its   peak   it   numbered   1,000)   has   given   the   world photographers,     teachers,     artists,     writers,     scholars,     craftsmen,     philosophers     and musicians, among others, paramount among them the composer Ohan Dourian.        Attrition   has   seriously   depleted   their   ranks   over   the   years,   and   only   a   handful   of stalwarts now remains to man the fort and hold the flag.        "We   are   few,   what's   left   of   us,   but   we   carry   in   our   genes   the   long   cherished   memories and   traditions   of   a   glorious   past.   And   the   hope   is   always   that   we   shall   pass   these   on   to our children," as one kaghakatsi resident noted.        His   compatriots   have   taken   a   bold   and   ambitious   step   forward   with   the   launching   of   a project   to   map   out   the   genealogical   history   of   the   kaghakatsis,   creating   a   kaghakatsi family tree, for the first time ever.         "It's    probably    too    late,    with    all    the    oldsters    long    departed,    taking    along    their memories   and   stories   with   them,   but   we're   going   to   backtrack   as   far   as   we   can   go, delving   into   the   memory   banks   of   grandparents,   uncles,   aunts,   whoever,"   the   organizers note.        While   documented   records   are   sparse,   the Armenian   Patriarchate   of   Jerusalem   houses an impressive archive of family histories dating back to a little more than 200 years.        Beyond   that,   it's   all   shrouded   in   mystery:   Armenians   have   been   coming   to   Jerusalem ever since the 5th Century.        The   organizers   have   gathered   genealogical   details   of   all   current   Kaghakatzis   living around the world, and entering these into a computer database.        "Because   all   the   old   kaghakatsi   families   were   related,   it's   logical   to   assume   that   they had a common ancestor, perhaps more than one," the organizers believe.        The   project   has   yielded   interesting   results.   Tamar   Schlekhat,   living   in   the   USA,   can now   quickly   take   herself   back   a   hundred   years   to   her   paternal   grandfather's   days,   and discover   a   wealth   of   relatives,   literally   all   over   the   world,   she   never   expected   to   know about.      "It's unbelievable, the kaghakatsis are all one big network of relatives," she enthuses.        The   project   is   an   on-going   one   as   more   names   are   added   to   the    database,   more pictures   are   uncovered   and   more   anecdotes   remembered,   creating   a   living   genealogical depository future generations can tap in.        "It   will   be   a   live   project   because   future   generations   can   continue   to   add   to   it,"   the organizers say.        While   the   aim   has   been   to   concentrate   on   the   Armenian   kaghakatsis,   odar's   (non- Armenians)   also   make   a   cameo   appearance   in   the   database,   but   there   have   been   no attempts to trace their ancestry.      "Otherwise, it would have become unmanageable," the organizers say.   
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

As you walk along the ancient cobblestones of the twisting

and turning alleys of the Armenian Quarter of the Old City of

Jerusalem, you are struck by the eerie silence that seems to

have settled everywhere.

St James compound
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