Armenian Jerusalem

The Armenian Patriarchate of Jerusalem has taken steps

to computerize and preserve the genealogical records of

community members dating back over a century and a

half, rescuing them from oblivion and the ravages of time

and weather.

The data, spread over more than 220 musty pages of three ancient "domars" (registers) maintained by the Patriarchate's scriptorium, was photographed by one of Jerusalem's leading artists, Garo Nalbandian. Patriarchate sources revealed that the pages had become brittle and in several cases the running ink had made the painstaking handwritten script almost illegible. Enshrined on computer CD-ROMs, the registers, which are primarily lists of the details of the births, marriages and deaths of the Armenian community of the Old City over the past 170 years, will now be permanently preserved for posterity within the Patriarchate archives. The Patriarchate has also acceded to a request by the kaghakatsi Armenian Family Tree project, which assisted in the rescue effort, to have a copy hosted on this project website. The information will be accessible to members of the kaghakatsi community whose forebears appear in the registers. The Project's participation in the rescue operation is part of its efforts to safeguard the history and culture of the members of the unique kaghakatsi ("native dwelling") community of the Old City. These efforts have resulted in the compilation of a database listing close to a hundred kaghakatsi clans, covering more than 2400 names. But only as far back as 1840. What of those who went before? Armenians have been living in Jerusalem even before the advent of Christianity - but documents or records attesting to their presence in the Holy Land around that era are hard to come by. Even before Thaddeus and Bartholomew, the two apostles of Jesus of Nazareth who according to tradition brought Christianity to a heathen Armenia, a large number of the denizens of that rocky region had already set up home in Jerusalem, the sleepy village that had become a distant outpost of the empire carved out by Armenian emperor Tigranes II some 150 years before the birth of Jesus. Tigranes invaded Syria and Palestine, extending his empire from the Caspian Sea to the Mediterranean, and left behind sizeable garrisons and colonies of Armenians to hold the fort and show the flag. When in 301 AD King Tiridates adopted Christianity as Armenia's state religion, the epoch-making move gave added impetus to an enthusiastic influx of Armenians eager to chase the lodestone of rejuvenation in the new faith, in the city of the Christ. The colonies endured and flourished. Caught up in the zeal of the new religion, the Armenian pilgrims laid down streets and put up houses, established churches and monasteries, and created mosaics and institutions. Out of that exuberance emerged a whole new compound, claiming over a quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem as its private enclave. In the middle of that enclave, the Armenians crafted a magnificent church within a convent and there established the Holy See of St James, with Abraham later becoming its first patriarch. The pilgrims were lavish in their largesse to the church and the Patriarchate soon became a major repository of Armenian treasures. The Armenians gave free rein to their creative spirit, giving the city its first printing press and photographic studio. For over two millennia, the Patriarchate of St James has held and added to its variegated treasures, mementos of the caravan of Armenians who had lived, worked and died in the Old City of Jerusalem. And during all that time, Patriarchate scribes continued to keep a running commentary of the lives of the community and the congregation, tracing their lineage, encrusting their names and memories into its venerable domars. Although the genealogical records that have been unearthed so far go back only as far as 1840, there is uncertainty about the existence of any prior ones. The current incumbent of the Holy See, Patriarch Torkom Manoogian, has almost single handedly streamlined the laborious archival system of the patriarchate of St James, propelling it into the IT age, but despite all his heroic efforts, there is still much left to do. His fondest dream is to computerize the whole range of the Patriarchate's extensive archives, a job too daunting to even contemplate at the moment: a researcher could spend a lifetime delving into the Patriarchate's paper mountain, and still come short of sorting everything out. There are countless numbers of ancient records languishing in one corner or other of the Patriarchate, but hardly anyone on the Patriarchate staff can spare the time or effort to research or catalogue or computerize them. And few are qualified to undertake the job. "It is true the patriarchate has more employees than there are able bodied men and women in the community,” Patriarchate sources say. "But what it requires is someone of the caliber of Archbishop Norayr Bogharian" (who spent years creating a definitive catalogue of the thousands of illustrated Armenian manuscripts owned by St James). In the meantime, the kaghakatsi Armenian Family Tree project continues to forge ahead with its mission, adding another batch of names to the database of genealogical information it has compiled. The number of names now stands at over 2400. And still counting. "There are still many gaps left to fill," the organizers say. "We need more information - we've barely scratched the surface. The kaghakatsis thrived on custom and tradition, on anecdotes and tall tales, on escapades and adventure, on songs and jokes. On exquisite cuisine. On Khoren the Jamgotch's Sunday call to prayer. Our aim is to elicit these reminiscences and memories, and preserve them. And out there among kaghakatsi descendants, there must still be truckloads of old photographs, pleading to be brought back to life." "A-avodyan lo3s e /akoom," in the morning light has dawned, Khoren would sing, as he pounded the cobblestones lining the alleys of the Armenian Quarter. "In the morning, light has dawned." If the kaghakatsi Armenian Family Tree project has its way, that light will never wane. (Jerusalem, July 6, 2008)