Armenian Jerusalem
rmenians have been living in Jerusalem for over 2.000 years, even before Armenia proclaimed Christianity as its state religion in 3O1 AD, when pilgrims began trekking to the Holy Land on a spiritual journey that would rejuvenate their faith and reinforce their commitment to the new religion of peace and love, preached by Jesus of Nazareth. The Armenians of Jerusalem are the direct descendants of those pious pilgrims who braved all sorts of dangers, endured all kinds of hardships, in their determination to walk in the footsteps of the Christ. A large number of the Armenian pilgrims chose to remain here. Jerusalem had become their new home. They built houses, churches arid convents, some no longer standing, like the one at the Musrara Quarter, a stone's throw from the 15th Century walls of the Old City, where in 1991 archaeologists uncovered an incomparable mosaic, laid down by an unknown Armenian priest, Eustacius, in the 7th Century. The Armenian Convent of St James became, in time, the largest single compound that housed Armenian pilgrims, and represented the demographic and spiritual core of the newly-established colony. As you tread the cobble stoned alleys of the Convent, you are taken back more than a thousand years into the distant, idyllic past of our forefathers who laid down the foundation stone of our present existence, for all generations to come. The Convent itself occupies the southwestern corner of the Old City and is situated on the site of the encampment of the Xth Legion of Rome which was to storm the Jewish Zealot stronghold at Masada. Together with its adjoining outcrop, the Armenian Quarter, which skirts the northern edge of the Convent, the Armenian compound is home for about 2,000 to 3,000 Armenians. Another 2,000 are scattered in various parts of the Holy Land, mainly in Bethlehem, Haifa, Haifa, Ramleh and Ramallah, where visible Armenian communities have evolved around the periphery of their ubiquitous nucleus, a church or convent. At its peak, the Armenian presence in Jerusalem, where they have been most densely concentrated, num-bered 25,000. But the havocs caused by the discom-bobulations of half a century of bloodshed and the perennial political and economic instability in the region, have decimated the colony. Most of its former members are now ensconced in the more placid, greener pastures of the free world: the USA, Canada, Australia, and parts of Europe. You can even come across former Jerusalemites in such far-flung places as Calcutta or Johannesburg. Nevertheless, Armenians have continued to be a dynamic presence in Jerusalem. The numerical factor is irrelevant. Armenians are in a unique situation in Jerusalem. Their Patriarchate enjoys a semi-diplomatic status. It is one of the three major guardians of the Christian Holy Places in the Holy Land. (The other two are the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate and the Franciscan Custodia). Among these sites are the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in the Old City, the church of the Ascension on the Mount of Olives, the Tomb of St Mary in the Valley of Gethsemane, and the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. When you first enter through the huge iron gate of the Convent, you come face to face with an ancient marble water fountain, which was placed there centuries ago to provide a cool, refreshing drink for pilgrims, in compliance with an ancient Middle Eastern custom. The introduction of running water to the homes of Jerusalem residents sometime during the British Mandate, made the fountain redundant. Behind and above the fountain, a marble plaque embedded in the wall and engraved in flowing Arabic script, proclaims the privileged status of the Armenian Patriarchate, and calls down horrendous curses on the heads of those who would violate these privileges, granted by the Mameluke Sultan Chaqmaq. A few paces away, to your left, is another ancient iron gate that leads to the vestibule of the Cathedral of St James, the jewel of the Armenian Patriarchate. A magnificent edifice that ranks as one of the most awe-inspiring in all of the Middle East, the Cathedral is bedecked with centuries-old "gantegh"s (oil lamps), dangling from the soaring vault, and tallow candies dotting the three altars. The oil lamps are still in use today, lovingly tended by altar boys who replenish them with pure olive oil at regular intervals. The candles, made by the Patriarchate's own candle-maker, try vainly to dispel the elemental darkness that pervades the church and that impart mystical significance to Armenian church rites. The Cathedral, which has been built on the site of the tombs St James the Lord's brother and St James the Lesser, has in the past also served as a bomb shelter. During the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, the only sanctuary from the daily bombardment of the city that Armenians could find was within the solid, reassuring confines of their Cathedral, with its one-meter thick walls. During one particularly memorable night, over 1,000 shells of all kinds, including the dreaded mortar, landed on and around the Cathedral - but no single casualty did they claim. Many believers would later swear that they had seen a mysterious figure, dressed in white, standing vigil on the roof of the Cathedral, and with his hands warding off the shower of missiles. It was none other than St James, believers assert. At the entrance to the Cathedral, a large plaque marks the site of the grave of Jerusalem's 94th Armenian Patriarch, the late Archbishop Guregh Israelian. One of the city's most popular and charismatic men of the cloth, Israelian died in 1949 of a broken heart, after witnessing the intolerable sufferings of his war-ravaged flock, caught in the crossfire between the Arab and Jewish armies. More than once, he would cradle in his own arms the shrapnel-shredded body of an Armenian who had been the latest casualty in the unrelenting war. Another lonely, unpretentious grave sits forlornly under an archway a few paces away, at the other end of the vestibule. This one is the last resting place of Jerusalem's first Armenian Patriarch, Abraham, a contemporary of Saladin. As you come out of the Cathedral, you will notice a flight of steep steps to your left. These lead to the private residence of the Patriarch and to the Patriarchate's administrative offices. Normally, entry beyond this point is barred to people who have no official business there. Just across, on the right hand side, is another flight of steps leading to the private residences of the priests and convent's lay population. Unless accompanied by a local resident, officially invited by the Patriarchate, visitors are requested not to proceed beyond that point, When you emerge from the vestibule, turn left and follow the passage-way until until you reach the Convent's large courtyard. To your immediate right, you will see the medical clinic established by the Jinishian Memorial Fund to cater to the needs of the Armenian community. The center is staffed by a doctor and a nurse. Medications are dispensed either free or at a fraction of their cost. A few paces away is the Patriarchate's bookshop where visitors can find some rare Armenian publications going for a song. The Armenians of Jerusalem were the first to establish a printing press in the city, and a copy of the first book printed here, in 1833, is available for inspection. The Armenian Patriarch, Yessai Garabedian, opened the city's first photographic studio in 1866 and became its first official photographer, bequeathing a rich and exciting legacy to the Armenians of Jerusalem, which they nurture to this day. The original printing press building, complete with a huge manual printing machine and trays of lead type, is still there. Part of the building has been converted into an exhibit of rare Armenian books, including the first book (an almanac) ever printed in Armenian (in Venice, in 1512), and the first printed Armenian bible (the work was done in Amsterdam, in 1666). Until recently type was still sometimes being set by hand at the old printing press, but the practice has now given way to innovation. The Patriarchate now boasts a new state- of-the-art facility, located just outside Convent, which is equipped to handle a heavier and more fastidious work load, including color printing. This new institution was the first within the Armenian compound to introduce the concept computerization on a dedicated scale, setting the scene for an eventual local area network (LAN) designed to link all the Patriarchate's institutions in one IBM-inspired environment. Adjacent to the old printing press, the Armenian Youth Union, "Hoyetchmen", one of three major Armenian organizations in the city, which are active in the cultural, sports and educational fields, has carved out a niche for itself, converting an abandoned warehouse into a club and a stage-hall. The second youth club, the "Homentmen," lies about a hundred yards away, in an enclave that abuts the official residence of the Patriarchate's Grand Sacristan who is entrusted with the safe keeping of the Armenian treasures and Holy Places of Jerusalem. The club was recently renovated and expanded. The third club is the Jerusalem Armenian Benevolent Union in the Armenian Quarter, outside the Convent walls. Its members boast an illustrious lineage of Armenian pilgrims who settled in the city over a thousand years ago. With their own hands they laid down the foundations of what would later become one of the Old City's most picturesque quarters, inhabited exclusively by their descendants. At the end of the large courtyard, a wide but low-ceilinged arched entrance leads you to "Paghchatagh", (the Quarter of Flowers) which had originally been intended as the residential quarters of the Armenian priests, but was evacuated and converted to accommodation for the thousands of Armenian refugees fleeing Turkish persecution at the turn of the 19th Century. The refugees dramatically swelled the ranks of the native Armenian population but the steady, relentless attrition that is the bane of the Christian community of the Holy Land, has sharply reduced the numbers of Armenians and other Christians here. Soon after his ascent to the throne of St James, Patriarch Torkom Manoogian set about renovating Paghchatagh, helping revert it to its original designation. The grandiose scheme was funded mainly by contributions from Armenians around the world. When you step out of Paghchatagh, you come to another courtyard. To your right, you will find the Gulbenkian Library, one of Jerusalem's most important landmarks. Named after the great Armenian benefactor, Calouste Gulbenkian, who was also known in oil and financial circles as "Mr Five Percent," the building houses some 100,000 volumes, half in Armenian and the rest in several other languages, including ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics. The library subscribes to almost every single Armenian-owned publication in the world, making it an invaluable repository of Armenian culture and literature. Almost every single Armenian-owned newspaper and magazine published anywhere in the world is represented here. Next to the library stands a relatively recent innovation: the Edward and Helen Mardigian Museum of Armenian Art and Culture. The museum is actually situated in the former "Chamtagh," which once served as the Patriarchate's theological seminary. Like its twin, Paghchatagh, this building too had to be converted into residential quarters for displaced Armenian refugees. After all the refugees had emigrated and found new homes in America, Canada and a host of other countries, Chamtagh fell into disrepair. Half a dozen years ago, the Armenian philanthropist couple, Edward and Helen Mardigian, came to its rescue. Thanks to their generosity, Chamtagh was soon transformed into a museum and has become one of the Armenian Diaspora's most important and valuable cultural outposts. Following its inauguration, the building has undergone extensive refurbishing at the hands of an expert seconded to the Patriarchate by UNESCO (the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization). The building houses incomparable historical and religious artifacts some of which were brought to Jerusalem by a regular stream of pilgrims. Included among the museum's unique displays are precious hand- woven rugs, a collection of Armenian coins and even some banknotes issued by the short- lived pre-Bolshevik Armenian Republic, scraps of evidence of the presence here of the Xth Legion, huge copper cauldrons, colorful tiles from the world-famous Kutayha district, an ancient map of the world printed in Armenian, and a replica of Gutenberg's original printing press. But the Patriarchate's most precious treasures, its 4,000 illustrated manuscripts, are not among the items on exhibit at the museum. However, visitors can view facsimile pages, in full color, of some of the most beautiful manuscripts, which have been moved to a safer location, at the church of St Thoros, close to the Cathedral of St James, where for nearly all his adult life, the late Archbishop Norayr Bogharian lavished special care and attention on them. His most enduring achievement has been the compilation of eleven grand catalogs listing every one of the manuscripts, with occasional excerpts culled from them, and a full physical description, as well as a brief summary of the contents of each. The manuscripts are inaccessible to the general public. However, bona fide researchers who meet the stringent scholarly demands of the Archbishop, may be allowed to study the manuscripts, on the premises. Walk out of the museum, and turn right, you will find yourself in the playground of the "Tarkmanchatz", one of Jerusalem's leading co-educational private schools. It was the celebrated thinker and writer, Patriarch Yeghishe Tourian, who was instrumental in giving the city's Armenian community its first formal educational institution, back in 1929. The school is named after Sts Sahag Mesrob-Maschtotz, the two Holy Translators who personally single-handedly crafted the Armenian alphabet. The curriculum of the Tarkmanchatz, the first one among the city's dozen private schools to introduce the teaching of Hebrew in class (it also teaches English, French and Arabic in addition to Armenian), is oriented towards both the London University inspired General Certificate of Education (GCE) examination and the Jordanian government sponsored school leaving certificate, the year 12 Tawjihi. Almost every single Armenian who lived in Jerusalem would have attended Tarkmanchatz. On your right-hand side sprawls a modest-sized multi-purpose foot-ball field. One of the Jerusalemite Armenians' most cherished traditions had been the festival of the annual bonfire, which was lit in the centre of the field, on the feast of St Simeon the Elder. Men and women, of all ages and professions, make the rounds of their neighbors to collect firewood for the bonfire. Tree branches, broken furniture, a dilapidated termite- infested door, discolored signposts, an odd toilet-bowl cover, anything that will feed the voracious flames, is dumped into the field, whose boundaries reach to within a few feet of one of the city's seven portals, Zion Gate. Celebrants gather around the fire, singing songs to the accompaniment of an accordion. Some of the more daring or foolhardy will leap across the flames. The practice has since been discarded, to the dismay of all, in the wake of the prevailing political situation. To the left of the Tarkmanchatz school, going down a flight of steps, the visitor will arrive at the Church of the Holy Archangels, the traditional site of the house of Annas. This is the second major Armenian church in Jerusalem, but is built on a less grandiose scale than the Cathedral of St James. Located at the northern edge of the Armenian compound, it is commonly associated with weddings, christenings and funeral ceremonies. During the recent restoration of the church, workers came across ancient Armenian inscriptions buried behind layers of plaster. Some of the inscriptions have been dated as far back as the 13th Century. An old baptismal font was also uncovered behind one of the walls. The vault of the church is supported on four fat columns. Stripped of their plaster, the columns revealed row upon row of distinctive Armenian stone-crosses (Khachkars) engraved in the masonry by Armenian pilgrims. The church boasts another unique distinction: it has no less than seven altars, one of them marking the site of the prison where Christ was held. But the most striking feature of the church is the decorative array of Kutayha tiles lining the walls. Most of the tiles are painted in blue and carry traditional Armenian floral motifs. But a very small number bear full-color illustrations of Biblical scenes. Experts consider these tiles, and the ones found on the walls of the Cathedral of St James, masterpieces of Armenian ceramic art. Once you leave the Church of the Archangels, you can turn right and march straight into the Armenian Quarter of the Old City, which lies outside the walled perimeter of the Convent, or walk back along the path you came. When you retrace your steps and reach the Edward and Helen Mardigian Museum, you will come to a passageway that will lead you out of the Convent, to the main road leading from Jaffa Gate to Zion Gate and the Western Wall. If you turn right here, and walk a hundred yards, you come full circle to the huge iron gate at the entrance of the Convent of St James. To your left is the complex of the Theological Seminary of the Patriarchate, a gift of the American Armenian philanthropists Alex and Mary Manougian. Here, Armenian youths from all over the world, including the USA and Armenia, come to study for the priesthood. When ordained, after several years of intensive study, they will be posted to various churches in the Holy Land or overseas, and help infuse new blood among the ranks of Armenian clergy.

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