Armenian Jerusalem

Armenians have been living in Jerusalem for over 2,000 years. The

Armenian connection to Jerusalem predates the Christian era. The first

Armenians to set foot in the Holy Land, pagan idol-worshippers, would have

been conscripts or mercenaries marching with the conquering armies of

Tigranes II. Historically, it is uncertain whether Tigranes did actually

conquer Jerusalem, but there is no doubt that he had overrun Judea.

       Some   of   his   soldiers   settled   in   the   region,   others   moved   north   towards   greener   the pastures    of    the    fertile    crescent (that    would    have    included    Syria and     Lebanon),     and     a     number settled in the land of Canaan.      When     the     Armenian     nation became   the   first   in   the   world   to accept    Christianity    as    its    state religion,   my   ancestors   lost   no   time making       the       pilgrimage       to Jerusalem.      They    came    on    the    back    of camels   and   donkeys,   braving   the long      travails      of      danger      and hardship:   but   their   first   sight   of the   golden   city   with   its   towering walls, reinforced their faith.         In    one    caravan    alone,    there were more than 700 camels.        Halfway   between   Jericho   and Jerusalem,   the   pilgrims   paused   to   set   up   what   would   later   become   the   foundation   for   the first Christian monastery in the Holy Land.         The    site,    now    known    by    its    Arabic    name    of    Khan    El    Ahmar    (the    red    "khan",    or caravanserai),   also   features   in   the   bible   as   the   place   where   the   the   Good   Samarian   came   to the succor of the injured traveler.        A   typical   feature   of   those   early   monasteries   was   the   creation   of   a   floor   mosaic   with   the emphasis   on   depicting   local   flora   and   fauna.   But   the   6th   Century   "medallion"   uncovered recently   (in   1991),   bore   only   a   script   in   the   Classical Armenian   of   the   day,   laid   out   in   capital letters.        Historians   estimate   that   the   Armenians   had   built   hundreds   of   monasteries   and   churches along   the   width   and   breadth   of   the   Holy   Land,   but   today   only   a   handful   survive,   among   them the   magnificent   cathedral   of   St   James,   situated   within   the   convent   that   is   the   seat   of   the Armenian Patriarchate.      Armenians   are   a   nation   of   survivors.   Pulitzer   Prize   winner   William   Saroyan   calls   us   a   small tribe of unimportant people that no power on earth can destroy.        "See   if   you   can   do   it,"   he   says.   Even   if   you   "send   them   into   the   desert   without   bread   or water,   burn   their   homes   and   churches,"   they   will   laugh,   sing   and   pray   again.   And   whenever two of them meet anywhere in the world, "see if they will not create a New Armenia."        Of   course,   he   got   it   wrong   when   he   assumed   that   our   structures   have   crumbled,   our battles   fought   and   lost,   our   literature   unread   and   our   music   unheard.   Had   he   forgotten William   Saroyan,   Charles   Aznavour,   Hagop   Oshagan,   Roupen   Mamoulian   and   Ohan   Durian? There   were   no   Kim   Kardashians,   Cher   Sarkissians   or   Joe   [Hokedoonian]   Hockeys   then,   true. Neither    had    Armenia    broken    free    of    the    former    Soviet    Union    and    reclaimed    its independence.       The   Persians   tried   to   force   Christian Armenia   into   fire-worship   and   failed.   The   Turks   tried to   exterminate    the   flower   of   Armenian   intellectual,   artistic   and   religious   culture,   and failed.         Perhaps,    in    time,    the   Armenians    are    destined    to    succumb    to    the    insipid    wiles    of assimilation where armies and armaments made no headway.        It   won't   happen   in   Jerusalem.   Despite   the   relentless encroachments    of    attrition:    at    one    stage,    there    were thousands   of Armenians   living   in   and   around   the   Convent   of St   James,   their   numbers   touching   25,000.   Today,   that   has shriveled   to   a   fraction,   but   although   the   political   future remains   uncertain   as   Israelis   and   Palestinians   wrangle   over the    status    of    the    city    they    have    made    their    home, Armenians    know    that    the    imprint    they    have    made    on Jerusalem, is indelible.      Armenians   reached   the   Holy   Land   around   100   BCE,   when Tigranes   the   Great   ruled   an   empire   extending   from   the Caspian   Sea   to   the   shores   of   the   Mediterranean.   The   first time    the    word    "Armenia"    is    mentioned    in    a    historical context    is    in    an    inscription    attributed    to    King    Darius. Armenians   arrived   in   the   wake   of   conquering   armies,   as traders,    artisans,    legionnaires    and    administrators.    But    it was   Christianity   that   put   the   final   stamp   on   the   perpetual Armenian presence in Jerusalem.      Diaspora   Armenians   are   thus   descended   primarily   from ancestors   who   lived   in   historic   Armenia.   Many   still   have relatives   in   the   disparate   towns   and   villages   of   the   parts   of   Armenia   now   ruled   by   Turkey, although   their   roots   may   have   disappeared   from   the   pages   of   history   following   frequent family   name   changes,   necessitated   by   political   exigencies.   Apkar,   for   example,   has   been changed   to   Ali,   Misak   into   Murad,   or   even   Mohammed.   And   the   unique   Armenian   patronymic "ian" has been obliterated from family names.      Armenians   have   survived   in   the   past   by   challenging   empires   and   by   scuttling   all   attempts at   assimilation.   They   have   never   taken   kindly   to   these.   However,   they   adapt   easily   to changing circumstances because they are pliable and pragmatic.        Social   historians   point   out   that   being   a   mountain   race,   Armenians   have   always   been   a fighting   people,   fiercely   jealous   of   their   independence.   But   that   has   not   made   them   ossified relics.   On   the   contrary,   the   Armenians   have   merged   with   the   stream,   while   retaining   their own uniqueness, quite adroitly.        In   Jerusalem,   the   only   threat   to   their   ethnic   purity   would   be   intermarriage   with   "odar"s (non-Armenians), mainly other Christians.          This   is   a   people   that   believes   in   the   eternality   of   their   race,   symbolized   by   their   emblem -   the   soaring   twin   peaks   of   Mount   Ararat,   traditional   site   of   Noah's   stranded   ark.   The goldsmiths,   jewelers,   photographers,   pharmacists,   teachers   and   potters   who   pound   the ancient   cobblestones   of   the   Old   City   of   Jerusalem   -   which   has   become   a   fount   of   spirituality second   only   to   the   Cathedral   of   Etchmiadzin   in   Yerevan,   capital   of Armenia   -   are   living   proof of Armenian durability       Jerusalem's   Armenian   community   is   concentrated   in   the   complex   of   St.   James   and   the encircling   Armenian   Quarter.   In   its   heyday,   the   compound   was   home   for   nearly   25,000 people,   sometimes   crammed   ten   to   a   room.   That   number   has   been   shrinking   inexorably   over the   years,   the   first   significant   depletion   occurring   in   the   1948   exodus   (some   would   call   it repatriation)   to   the   homeland   in   Armenia.   Today,   barely   a   few   hundred   still   hold   the   fort   in the   Old   City,   with   another   eight   to   nine   hundred   scattered   throughout   Israel,   mainly   in   Jaffa and   Haifa,   and   the   West   Bank   (Bethlehem,   Ramallah   and   Gaza).   A   far   larger   number   live   in the   neighboring   Arab   countries   where   they   had   found   a   secure   and   generous   haven   as   they fled from the Turkish massacres.        The Armenian   Patriarchate   has   won   semi-diplomatic   status   as   one   of   the   three   guardians (the   others   are   the   Greek   Patriarchate   and   the   Latin   Custodia)   of   the   Holy   Places   [which includes   the   church   of   the   Holy   Sepulchre,   the   Church   of   Ascension,   the   Tomb   of   the   Virgin at   Gathsemane,   all   in   Jerusalem,   and   the   Church   of   Nativity   in   Bethlehem].   Without   this,   the Armenians here would be no more than simple landholders.        The   Armenian   Patriarchate   is   a   city   within   a   city,   running   manifold   educational,   cultural and   religious   programs,   subsisting   on   revenues   mainly   derived   from   the   rents   it   collects   on its   properties   in   West   Jerusalem   and   other   parts   of   the   land,   both   in   Israel   and   the   West Bank.         The   Armenians    of    the    Holy    Land    generally    fall    into    four    different    groupings.    The "kaghakatsis"   (native   residents)   live   in   the   Armenian   Quarter   where   they   established   roots centuries   ago.   They   have   a   cultural   club   of   their   own,   the   JABU   (Jerusalem   Armenian Benevolent   Union). At   one   time   the   JABU   was   the   guiding   spirit   of   the Armenian   community, but   it   has   become   a   mere   shadow   of   its   former   self,   its   members   scattered   all   over   the world.    The    club    premises    have    virtually been   abandoned;   the   beautiful,   expansive hall   where   banquets   were   once   held   and the   grand   stage   where   Julius   Caesar   used   to strut have been claimed by ghosts.      Within    the    St.    James    convent,    the "Vanketsis"   (convent   dwellers)   are   divided into   two   distinct   groupings   with   differing "political"   leanings,   the   shades   blurred   in the     wake     of     Armenia's     newly     gained independence:   the   Hoyetchmen,   the   bigger group,    has    been    more    active    and    more influential.    It    pines    for    a    return    to    the homeland,    even    under    Soviet    rule,    while the       Homentmen       wanted       a       free, independent     Armenia.     The     Homentmen cultivates   the   "Hai   Tad"   (Armenian   cause) organization,    set    up    to    perpetuate    the memory   of   the   Armenian   genocide   and   to spur   Turkey   to   admit   guilt   and   responsibility   for   the   estimated   1,500,000   men,   women   and children   massacred   in   1915.   The   two   run   youth   clubs   at   a   stone's   throw   from   each   other.   In years   gone   by,   there   had   been   no   love   lost   between   the   two,   but   global   developments   and realities   have   inevitably   dulled   the   edge   of   irreconcilable   differences   and   they   have   grown closer to each other.      The   fourth   Armenian   grouping   revolves   around   the   Catholic   church.   They   have   their   own church   and   were   traditionally   considered   outcasts   by   mainstream   Armenians   who   pride themselves    on    being    sons    of    the    Lousavoritch,    Gregory    the    Illuminator,    patron    of    the Armenian Orthodox Church.        The   Armenian   Patriarchate   of   Jerusalem   has   titular   ownership   of   all   property   in   the Armenian   compound   -   but   no   one   pays   it   rent   although   the   kaghakatsi   are   liable   to   municipal taxes   since   their   residences   fall   outside   the   boundaries   of   the   Convent   which,   as   a   religious institution, is exempt from land duties.      Some   of   the   houses   in   the Armenian   Quarter   have   been   inhabited   by   the   same   family   for generations. A   cursory   glance   at   the   architecture   yields   telltale   evidence   of   the   slipshod   art of   Ottoman   masonry.   Walls   are   sometimes   three   feet   thick.   Foundations   are   pure   earth, pressed   tight,   with   a   scattering   of   rocks.   Sunlight   and   ventilation   are   unheard   of   luxuries. The   plaster   cakes   continually,   as   the   walls   shed   their   whitewash   under   the   ravages   of humidity.   The   houses   may   be   nothing   more   than   dank   dungeons,   in   some   cases,   but   for hundreds of years, Armenians have been born and bred here.      Perhaps   the   fact   that   the   houses   are   blessed   twice   every   year   (at   Christmas   and   Easter) by the parish priest, helps to make them habitable.      Although   the   older   generations   are   too   deeply   rooted   in   their   way   of   life   to   consider leaving,   the   young   are   inclined   to   think   of   their   sojourn   in   Jerusalem   as   merely   temporary. Many   believe   that   this   is   merely   a   way   station,   that   their   future,   or   that   of   their   offspring, lies in America, Canada, Australia, or perhaps Armenia.        There   was   a   time   in   the   Old   City   when   family   ties   were   unshakable   -   and   no   one   ever heard of a son or daughter leaving home, whether when he or she turned eighteen, or at all.        This   did   not   imply   a   total   embargo   or   moratorium   on   the   movements   of   people:   rather the   reluctance   to   abandon   familiar   and   familial   grounds   for   the   strange   unknown,   perhaps replete   with   risks   and   uncertainty.   The   only   exception   was   the   odd   "business"   travel   -   my own   father   left   home   as   a   late   teen,   accompanied   by   an   uncle,   to   try   his   luck   in   Uruguay,   of all   places.   They   stayed   there   fore   10   years:   the   money   they   made   peddling   clothes   door   to door enabled my father to set up shop as a leading wool merchant, just outside Jaffa Gate.      But   things   change,   and   ties   begin   to   loosen.   Almost   every   parent   in   Jerusalem   will   at some   time   face   the   inevitable   prospect   of   seeing   a   son   or   daughter   leave   the   family   roost, temporarily   or   permanently.   But   they   are   bolstered   and   consoled   by   the   opportunities   the children will have to better their prospects.      And   with   Skype   and   Facebook,   and   God   knows   what   other   hi-tech   communication   delights are yet in store for us, the distances and time lapses are shortened.
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
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