Armenian Jerusalem
The Holy Land, with Jerusalem nestled at its core, has seen conqueror after conqueror pitch his tent by its golden rocks, only to vanish in time from the pages of history. Assyrians, Babylonians, Romans, Byzantines, Mameluks, Ottomans have come and gone, leaving faint traces behind. Traces in the sand, evanescent and barely palpable. But among the others who also came some, like the Armenians stayed, indelibly imprinting their vibrant presence into the annals of the city. The first wave of Armenians landing on the shores of the Holy Land would have been in the wake of the invading armies of their emperor, Tigranes II, King of Kings. They were pagans then, worshippers of lifeless stone gods and goddesses. Until the year 301 when they accepted Christianity as their national religion. And the Armenian church was born. Since that seminal era, the church has played a pivotal role in the life of every single Armenian, anywhere in the world. While Etchmiadzin, in the Armenian capital of Yerevan, continues to be their main spiritual fount of religious rejuvenation, Jerusalem has come to occupy a no less auspicious place in the heart of Armenians. It is no wonder that throughout their illustrious history, their church has remained the mighty anvil upon which their identity as Armenians has been forged: were it not for the Armenian church, Armenia as a nation would have ceased to be a viable entity long ago. Dr Harry Hagopian, international lawyer and Ecumenical advocate active in promoting Christian affairs, reminds us that "the Armenian Church has held in the past, as it still does today, a prominent and undisputed position in the Holy Land." His newly published book, "The Armenian Church in the Holy Land," which he dedicates to "the Armenian community of the holy land and all who call it home," provides a timely and urgently needed update on the status of the church in Jerusalem, especially in the wake of the renovations being carried out at the tomb of Jesus for the first time in over 200 years, a development that has spawned eschatological expectations among the billion Christians of the world. Hagopian [we are not related] notes that first of all, the Armenian church "enjoys a unique standing in Jerusalem by virtue of its historical role as joint custodian or guardian of the Holy Sites alongside the Greek Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches. Secondly, it still influences the lives of many Armenian communities in the Middle East, and thirdly, it holds substantial properties, including churches and monasteries, both in Israel and in the Palestinian Territories." The slim 60-page volume is packed with insightful observation and solid documentary evidence, including a list of the Armenian patriarchs of Jerusalem and a bibliography, presenting readers with "an informative and analytical work which can help to deepen our awareness of this ancient Christian community which is thankful for its past, passionate for its present, and hopeful for its future," according to Bishop Declan Lang, Chairman, Dept of International Affairs of the Catholic Bishops' Conference of England and Wales. In all the battles for survival the Armenians have fought, the Church had always been in the vanguard of the struggle, its banners hoisted above the spears of the defending army, the chants and exhortations of the priests and bishops encouraging and inspiring the troops. The church provided not only solace and comfort, inspiration and courage, but also refuge to its wandering children. Most of the Armenians pilgrims who first began trekking to the Holy Land in long caravans that often boasted hundreds of camels, were housed in convents built by the Armenian priests in and around Jerusalem. Those who opted to settle down in the city were gifted plots of land on which to build homes, thus establishing the nucleus of what came to grow into the Armenian Quarter. Many Armenian families still live there and in the nearby Convent of St James, seat of the Armenian Patriarchate of Jerusalem, side by side with members of the clergy. Its Cathedral, regarded by some as the most magnificent in all of the Middle East, has been built on the site of the tombs of St James, the brother of Jesus, and St James the Lesser With its museum, school, library, medical centre, printing press, football field, theological seminary and clubs, the convent is a city within a city, encompassing a cohesive communal spirit that continues to spawn the dynamic footprint of the Armenian presence in Jerusalem. These are the descendants of those who stayed, endured and prospered, and put their stamp upon the once unremarkable provincial town, helping transfer it into the vibrant center of the world. It is from these pioneers that all the Armenians of the Holy Land are descended. But Jerusalem is not the sole province of Christianity. As Latin Patriarch Emeritus Michel Sabah put it, "this Holy City is home for two peoples and three faiths. And that faith leads us inexorably to the central tenet of our belief that manifests itself by a two-millennia-old empty tomb in a cobwebby church." And, Hagopian adds, Jerusalem could have a very proactive role to play in bringing peace to the Holy Land, recounting a remark an old friend, the late Armenian Patriarch Torkom Manoogian jokingly made "over a cup of brandy-laced and honey-rich tea, that if people can get along in Jerusalem, they can get along anywhere." One of the nuggets Hagopian has inserted into his monogram is an excerpt from firman issued by Ottoman Sultan Abdulhamid dated July 25, 1888, which unequivocally grants an Armenian patriarch the right to bear arms during his travels. Not only that. "The patriarch in order to go about in dangerous areas in safety, will have the right to change his dress and carry arms and no intervention will be made in this matter by the police authorities," the firman, addressed to then Patriarch Haroutioun Vehabedian dictates. The Armenian church is still relevant today, and forever, a pillar of strength and beacon of hope for Armenians all over the world. It may be ancient, but it is not archaic, as the late Armenian Catholicos Karekin, once told Hagopian. [Dr Harry Hagopian has kindly made the book available for free, in PDF format, at these websites: ] (19 Dec 2016)
Guardian angels inside the Cathedral of St James