Armenian Jerusalem

The men and women who make up the community of Armenians in

Jerusalem are among the most colorful anywhere in the world.

Though the years have taken their remorseless toll of the greater

part of the Armenian presence, the impact these touchingly

endearing people have left upon their progeny remains vibrantly


A background and history of a sizeable number of the members of this cast of characters is shrouded in mystery, at least for us, who only hold the memories of their later years. Take Penyamin, the gentle, inoffensive soul who had cast himself as the village idiot. Idiot? How do you account then for his tales of the man on the moon? At the drop of a hat, he would assume his professorial stance, gaze up at the moon, and regale us with tales of lunar exploits. He absolutely loved cats. They would follow him everywhere. And who will ever forget Khoren Aharonian, the Jamgotch (town cryer), who used to sing us awake Sunday mornings? Punctuating his diminutive steps with a hefty staff he banged on the cobblestones of the alleys of the Armenian Quarter, he would launch into a hauntingly evocative song, calling us to prayer. "In the morning, light is born," he would sing. Arakel Baghsarian won undying gratitude from football players of the Homentmen Club (one of the four Armenian youth clubs in the city), with his support and sponsorship. His passion was soccer and every time a player scored a goal, Arakel would reward him with a cash bonus of JD5 (a Jordanian Dinar was worth about US$3 at the time, and JD5 was an unheard of fortune. He would know: was a merchant, his merchandise usually consisting mainly of bread, "tchaman" (a garlicky paste), and "basturmah" (spiced dried beef), meted out of a hollowed enclave in one of the Old City's walls. The self-effacing Father Anoushavan Zeghchanyan, a linguist who knew a dozen languages, including ancient Egyptian, never made bishop or archbishop, although he was most certainly entitled to the rank and the privilege. He taught us French at the parochial school, but his lifelong wish was to compile a "comparative" grammar compendium. Hagop Zakarian earned himself the nickname "Sab' ul Leil" (lion of the night), for the true grit that characterized him. He was a Scouts leader and would take us on two or three daylong expeditions to the region's remote tourist attractions. Places like the Dead Sea, Jericho and the unforgettable Wad el Qilt, the ice-cold stream that meandered among the cliffs near Jericho. Sitting with us around our campfire, his trusty rifle by his side, he would entertain us with tales of heroic deeds, some in which we assumed he had participated, and then invite one of the more foolhardy kids to try and fire his gun into the air. Many volunteered, but it was a rare occasion when anyone was chosen.