Armenian Jerusalem

 At the periphery of the Armenian Quarter, a hundred feet from the

Jewish Quarter of the Old City, lies what a 6th Century inscription,

uncovered in 1940, proclaims is the first Christian edifice ever built.

               This   is   the   Syriac   convent   of   St   Mark and   has   secured   its   place   on   the   map   of Christendom    as    the    house    of    Mary, mother     of     John,     called     Mark,     the Evangelist.   The   little   church   it   shelters even    boasts    a    portrait    of    the    Virgin Mary   reputedly   painted   by   St   Luke   the evangelist.                Only   years   after   its   erection,   the church    was    destroyed    by    the    Roman emperor,   Titus   when   he   conquered   the city,   only   to   rise   phoenix   like   from   its ashes,   and   to   be   rebuilt,   over   and   over again,   the   last   time   a   century   and   a half ago.                For   the   Orthodox   Syriac   community, a    tiny    but    vibrant    element    that    has played    a    key    role    in    the    unravelling history    of    Jerusalem,    this    is    the    last remaining   enclave   left   to   their   church which   has   lost   everything   else   it   owned in the city.                    Although    the    convent    has    been renovated   and   refurbished,   it   now   houses   only   a   mere   handful   of   clergymen,   their   sharp decline paralleled by the attrition in the numbers of members of the Syriac community.                There   used   to   be   a   school,   and   a   scout   club,   but   the   school   is   now   a   Jewish   housing development and the club has been boarded up.                But   the   survival   instinct   of   the   die-hard   remnants   of   these   proud   descendants   of   the     Babylonians   and   their   grim   determination   to   endure   and   to   maintain   their   home   and   their standing   in   the   Old   City,   has      become   markedly   evident   with   the   advent   of   the   new   head of the church in the Holy Land, Archbishop Mar Swerios Melki Murad. Deacon   Khader   Khano               And   one   of   his   first   achievements   was   to   launch   a   building reconstruction   and   renovation   program   to   stem   the   ravages   of   time   and   re-establish   a residential    compound    to    cater    to    the    needs    of    an increasing number of pilgrims.                But   his   most   momentous   accomplishment   has   been the    fast-tracking    of    the    ordination    of    a    new    priest, native-born   Father   Boulos   Khano,   the   first   time   such   an event has occurred in over a century.                The   ordination   took   place   in   Bethlehem   where   a sizeable   community   of   Syriacs   live,   and   has   become   a milestone    in    the    annals    of    this    church,    spawning widespread   euphoria   not   only   in   the   Holy   Land,   but   all over   the   world   where   their   compatriots   have   put   down roots.                I   got   to   know   Khader   Khano   when   he   was   still   a deacon, and preparing for the priesthood.                   It   was   early   in   the   day   in   the   Old   City   of   Jerusalem, and   virtually   no   one   was   up   and   around.   It   would   be some   time   before   the   serenity   of   its   streets   and   alleys was   disturbed   by   the   tread   of   heavy   feet   and   the   babble of many voices.                  After   an   abbreviated   breakfast   of   "ka'ek"   (the   elliptical   bread   roll   cocooned   in   sesame seeds)   and   "falafel,"   I   stood   before   the   ornately   decorated   gate   of   Deir   El   Sir-yan,   the Syriac convent of St Mark.                   I   had   gone   there   filled   with   an   unusual   expectation:   to   hear   a   language   first   spoken in this part of the world 2,000 years ago by a man who changed the history of the world.                   The   gate   was   open,   and   I   stepped   in.   In   the   ghostly,   candle-lit   semi-darkness punctuated   by   velvety   clouds   of   billowing   incense,   the   sound   of   the   priest   intoning   the Lord's prayer, echoed across the nave, an astringent but soothing balm.                   "Avvon   d-bish-maiya,   nith-qaddash   shim-mukh,"   (our   FathThe   ordination   of   Father Bouloser, who are in heaven, hallowed be Thy name).                   It   was Aramaic,   the   lingua   franca   from   the   times   of   Jesus   of   Nazareth,   still   vibrantly alive   in   the   liturgy   of   the   Syriac   church,   faithfully   preserved   down   the   centuries   to   the present day.                   I   listened   rapt   to   the   modern   reverberations   of   the   ancient   tongue,   feeling   the haunting   inflections   of   the   guttural,   mellifluous   singing   penetrate   into   the   consciousness and   overwhelm   the   soul,   taking   the   imagination   back   through   time   and   space,   to   hover within the presence of the man from Galilee.       "Tih-teh mal-chootukh," Tthy kingdom come).                   They   were   the   same   words   uttered   two   millennia   ago   by   the   man   who   preached   that the kingdom of god is within ourselves.       It was a lesson young Khader Khano had taken tenaciously to heart.                   The   service   over,   we   were   sitting   in   the   secretariat   which   was   being   manned   by   this earnest 21-year-old man acting for Archbishop Malki Murad during his absence abroad.                   Within   the   space   of   months   breaking   a   100-year   drought,   and   putting   St   Mark forcefully back on the Jerusalem map again.                   For   centuries,   the   convent   had   languished   in   relative   obscurity,   its   visibility   and accessibility   hindered   by   its   uninviting   external   architectural   disposition.   But   all   that changed   with   the   1948   discovery   of   the   Dead   Sea   Scrolls   in   the   salty   caves   of   Qumran   by an   itinerant   Bedouin   sheepherder.   Through   circuitous   and   mysterious   routes   under   the gathering   clouds   of   war   between Arab   and   Jew,   the   scrolls   finally   reached   Jerusalem   and were   kept   for   a   brief   spell   at   St   Mark,   before   surfacing   on   the   shores   of   an   astounded world.                  The   Syriacs   of   the   Holy   Land   are   better   known   by   the Arabic   appellation   "Sir-yan,"   but in    other    parts    of    the    world    they,    or    their    derivatives,    also    refer    to    themselves    as Assyrians, Ashourayeh, Ashouri or Suryoyo.                   Traditionally,   the   Syriac   church   used   to   replenish   the   ranks   of   its   clergy   from   the youth   of   Ashouryah   colonies   in   neighboring   Arabic   countries,   particularly   Iraq.   But   the political upheavals unleashed by the 1967 Six Day War forced that gateway to close.                   I   was   there   to   touch   base   with   the   Syriac   church   and   gain   its   support   for   a   major   film project   for   which   I   had   been   invited   to   act   as   consultant.   But   I   was   no   stranger   to   it   for   I had been married there 40 years ago.                Khano   bubbled   with   scarcely   concealed   enthusiasm,   caught   up   blissfully   in   the   gentle breeze of faith and conviction.The miraculous jar                   "I   have   thought   very   hard   and   very   long   over   my   decision   to   become   a   priest,   and   I have   found   that   there   is   nothing   more   important   to   me   than   to   serve   God   in   this   way,"   he told me.                   "All   the   books   I   have   read,   all   the   lessons   I   have   studied   have   prepared   me   just   for this. I have no other interest in life other than to become a priest."                   I   took   my   leave   of   Khano   and   a   short   time   later,   I   was   in   Bethlehem   to   meet   Saliba Tawil,   a   member   of   the   Bethlehem   Syriac   community.   We   were   old   friends,   and   at   one time taught class at the St George Boys school in Jerusalem.                   We   sat   down   for   lunch   at   the   town's   premier   eatery, Abu   Ely's.   We   had   kebab   -   I   shall never   forget   the   exquisite   taste   of   the   minced   meat   balls   grilled   over   the   bed   of   real charcoal. A   pseudo   vegetarian,   I   convinced   myself   to   make   allowances   for   the   occasional skewer,   but   this   was   the   most   delectable   dish   I   had   ever   tasted. The   meat   almost   literally melted away in my mouth.                As   we   reminisced   over   the   good   old   days,   a   watchtower   straddling   the   the   sprawling security wall Israel has erected, a few feet away, glared at us menacingly.       But as we dug into the delicious meal, that eyesore was momentarily forgotten.                   Tawil   is   a   career   educator,   with   a   wide   ranging   interest   in   community   affairs.   He   has been    instrumental    in    furthering    negotiations    for    a    twinning    agreement    between Bethlehem and the French city of Grenoble.                   Like   all   members   of   minority   groups,   he   is   zealous   in   his   pursuit   of   the   aim   to   see   his children   gain   and   retain   a   mastery   of   their   native   tongue.   And   like   them,   he   is   worried about assimilation and the loss of ethnic identity.       But he also has a pragmatic turn of mind.       "We are all destined to live here together in the Holy Land," he said.                   His   fondest   wish   is   for   his   children   to   grow   and   appreciate   not   only   their   ethnicity, but   also   the   wider   world   community.   And   his   priorities,   as   those   of   their   fellow   Syriac community   members,   are   halting   any   further   slippage   among   their   number   and   ensuring their children complete their higher education.       And he believes the only way this can be achieved is when peace reigns in the land.                Saliba   has   already   earned   his   15   minutes   of   fame,   albeit   indirectly.   He   is   married   to   a grand-daughter   of   the   Syriac   merchant,   Kando,   who   was   involved   in   the   convoluted process   of   the   extraction,   revelation   and   the   transportation   of   the   priceless   Dead   Sea scrolls.                The   wily   old   merchant   passed   away   in   1993,   most   of   his   secrets   buried   with   him. Whether   Tawil      or   his   wife   Suzy,   became   privy   to   any   of   them,   remains   another   secret. They do not talk about it.                Saliba   still   teaches   in   Jerusalem.   To   reach   his   classes,   he   has   to   use   private   transport since   no   regular   government   buses   plying   his   route. Although   he   carries   a   permit,   he   still has to endure the daily hassle at the Israeli security checkpoints along the way.      "It's part of our daily existence," he said philosophically.                "We   live   for   the   day.   Tomorrow   is   too   far   away,"   Saliba   said,   adding,   "We   are   steadfast in our faith and the faith of our ancestors. We are here to stay."                    During   the   Jordanian   administration   of   Jerusalem,   members   of   Bethlehem's   Syriac community   would   commute   to   St   Mark   aboard   one   of   three Arab   village   buses,   taking   the indirect,   tortured,   and   often   perilous,   route   that   skirted   the   hills   around   the   western approach   to   Jerusalem.   (What   was   then   an   hour   long   journey   was   summarily   truncated   to a few minutes following the Six Day War and Israel's conquest of the West Bank).                The   guests   would   spend   most   of   the   day   in   and   around   the   Syriac   compound   -   the highlight of their stay a pilgrimage to a little known cavern underneath the church.                For   deep   within   the   bowels   of   the   convent,   lies   a   rare   treasure   gathering   dust.   It perches forlorn in a dark, dank corner, in the dimly lit enclosure.      A lidless earthen jar, its sides unvarnished and unadorned.      A nondescript, crude amphora, a modest clone of its more glamorous Greek cousins.                I   had   lived   for   years   within   a   stone's   throw   of   the   church   and   had   never   known   of   the cave's or vessel's existence.      Until my recent return visit to Jerusalem and my encounter with Father Boulos.      As I rose to shake his hand and take my leave of him, he gave me a quizzical smile.      "How well do you know the Old City?" he asked.      A strange question. I wondered what it was all about.      "I was born here and spent my childhood in the Armenian compound."      "Have you ever been to the cave under the church?" he asked.      I did not know there ever was a cave there.      "Come along, I'll show you something that will make your day."                We   trudged   down   the   stone   stairs   into   the   dimly   lit   cavern. At   first,   all   I   could   see   was a   simple   chapel,   apparently   newly   renovated,   an   altar,   and   a   couple   of   lanterns   hanging down from the ceiling.                "Look   in   the   corner,"   the   young   priest   said,   a   playful   smile   bathing   his   youthful features.                There   was   nothing   there   except   this   unpretentious   lidless   jar,   with   two   handles   either side.      "A sacred vessel?"                "More   than   that,"   he   replied.   "This   is   one   of   the   jars   that   contained   the   wine   that Jesus had converted at the wedding in Cana."                Time   stood   still.   I   could   not   bring   myself   to   kneel   down   and   examine   the   jar   -   I   would not   touch   it.   Somehow,   I   sensed   it   would   feel   like   sacrilege.   I   am   no   archaeologist   or antiquarian,   but   there   was   no   doubt   I   was   standing   before   an   ancient   artifact.   Whether   it bears   the   seal   of   authenticity   or   not   is   immaterial.   What   is   important   is   the   provenance   - the   inspiration,   the   invitation   not   only   to   believe   in   the   possibility   of   touching   the   verge of   an   aura   of   the   miraculous   and   sacred,   but   of   also   bearing   witness   and   participating   in a transcendental experience.                Because   if   you   take   all   this   away,   if   you   start   doubting,   then   Jerusalem   is   lost,   its mystique, and its golden hope crumbled, its message ground into dust.      "How did it get here?" I wondered.      "No one knows," the priest told me. "It's been there forever."                The   encounter   highlighted   a   marked   resurgence   in   faith   both   among   the   dwindling Syriac        community    of    the    Holy    Land    and    their    diaspora    cousins,    mostly    in    Europe. Archbishop   Melki   Murad's   advent   has   signaled   an   unparalleled   rejuvenation,   breathing new   life   into   the   somnolent,   minuscule   presence:   the   convent's   outlying   sadly   dilapidated properties    have    been    spruced    up,    providing    accommodation    for    hundreds    of    eager tourists and pilgrims who have been descending on Jerusalem in growing numbers.    
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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