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   early   in   the   day   in   the   Old   City   of   Jerusalem, and   virtually   no   one   is   up   and   around.   It   will   be some   time   before   the   serenity   of   its   streets   and alleys   is   disturbed   by   the   tread   of   heavy   feet   and the babble of many voices.     After    an    abbreviated    breakfast    of    "ka'ek"    (the elliptical   breadroll   cocooned   in   sesame   seeds)   and "falafel,"   I   stand   before   the   ornately   decorated   gate of   Deir   El   Sir-yan,   the   Syriac   or   Assyrian   Convent   of St Mark.         I    have    come    here    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   is   open,   and   I   step   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,   echoes   across   the   nave, an astringent but soothing balm.          "Avvon   d-bish-maiya,   nith-qaddash   shim-mukh," (our father, who are in heaven, hallowed be thy name).                  This   is 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   listen   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," (thy kingdom come).                   They   are   the   same   words   uttered   two   millennia   ago   by   the   man   who   preached   that   the   kingdom   of   god   is   within ourselves.       It is a lesson Khader Khano takes tenaciously to heart.                   The   service   over,   we   are   sitting   in   the   secretariat   which   is   being   manned   by   this   earnest   21-year-old   deacon   who   is acting for Archbishop Mar Sweiros Malki Murad during his absence abroad.                   Within   the   space   of   weeks,   Khano   will   be   making   history   of   his   own   when   he   is   ordained   celibate   priest,   the   first time in over 100 years a Holy Land native-born aspirant is invested with the habit by the Syriac church.                   The   occasion   has   spawned   widespread   jubilation   among   the   local   Christian   churches,   particularly   in   Bethlehem where a sizeable community of Khano's compatriots are gearing up for the ceremony.                   For   centuries,   St   Mark   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   in   the   convent   of   St Mark, before surfacing on the shores of an astounded world.                   Khano's   ordination   may   not   count   as   a   comparably   momentous   eventuality,   but   there   is   no   mistaking   the   euphoria that   has   gripped   the   Syriac   church,   for   this   too   is   another   milestone   in   the   glorious   history   of   these   proud   descendants   of the Babylonians.                   The   Syriacs   of   the   Holy   Land   are   better   known   by   the   Arabic   appellation   "Sir-yan,"   but   in   other   parts   of   the   world they also refer to themselves as Ashourayeh, Ashouri or Suryoyo.                   Traditionally,   the   Syriac   church   used   to   replenish   the   ranks   of   its   clergy   from   the   youth   of   Ashouri   colonies   in neighboring Arabic   countries,   particularly   Iraq.   But   the   political   upheavals   unleashed   by   the   1967   Six   Day   War   forced   that gateway to close.       Khano bubbles with scarcely concealed enthusiasm, caught up blissfully in the gentle breeze of faith and conviction.                   "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 tells 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."                   He   will   be   ordained   in   Bethlehem   but   will   come   back   to   serve,   under   his   new   name,   Father   Boulos   (Paul)   at   St   Mark, which   was   the   first   Christian   edifice   ever   built   anywhere,   according   to   a   6th   Century   inscription   unearthed   in   1940.   This was   the   house   of   Mary,   mother   of   John,   called   Mark,   the   Evangelist.   The   church   boasts   a   portrait   of   the   Virgin   Mary reputedly painted by St Luke the evangelist.                  Alas,   the   monastery   compound,   located   at   the   periphery   of   the Armenian   Quarter,   is   the   last   remaining   enclave   left to the Syriac Orthodox Church who has lost everything else in the city.                   It   is   now   home   for   a   mere   handful   of   clergymen,   their   sharp   decline   paralleled   by   the   attrition   in   the   numbers   of members of the Syriac community.       The little is gone too, and the social club has been boarded up.                   Only   years   after   its   erection,   the   church   was   destroyed   by 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.                   I   take   my   leave   of   Khano   and   a   short   time   later,   I   am   in   Bethlehem   to   meet   Saliba Tawil,   a   member   of   the   Bethlehem Syriac community. We are old friends.                   We   sit   for   lunch   at Abu   Ely's   restaurant. A   few   feet   away,   the   monstrous   security   wall   Israel   has   erected,   glares   at   us menacingly.                   For   the   moment,   that   eyesore   is   forgotten   as   we   dig   into   the   incredibly   soft   and   delicious   shish   kebab,   a   house specialty.                  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 says.                   His   fondest   wish   is   for   his   children   to   grow   and   appreciate   not   only   their   ethnicity,   but   also   the   wider   world community.       And he believes the only way this can be achieved is when peace reigns in the land.
Syriac monastery of St Mark