Armenian Jerusalem
It is Good Friday in Jerusalem, and and the Old City has shaken off its lackadaisical torpor in tune with the growing excitement. Thousands of pilgrims, from all parts of the world, some for the first time ever, have congregated in the city. The intensity of religious fever is so palpable, one wonders if this is a manifestation of the eschatological longings that drives the throngs, it is as if they expect the Messiah to make his entrance. Will he, according to local legend, enter the city through the twin-arched Gohe Gate (or the Gates of Mercy) which has been blocked now for centuries? It will not be a tip-toe through the tulips, more a shuffle through the mounds of graves lining the approach to the gate.     A week earlier, the Catholic church went through its repertoire of Easter ceremonies and now it is time for the Orthodox churches (the Armenians, Greeks, Copts, Ethiopians and Syriacs) to re-enact the passion play according to their ancient scripts.     This was the day Jesus had died and had been buried, and to symbolize the grief and the darkness that had descended upon the city two thousand years ago, the Cathedral of St James in the Armenian Convent has been cast  into the bowels of the night.      The row of lanterns slung across the width of the nave have been extinguished, the wicks limp and lifeless. No candles will be lit during the 3 to 4 hour "Khavaroom" (descent of darkness) ceremony, except for 12, in commemoration of the Disciples of Jesus.      People are coming to the church in droves, their numbers spilling outside. Armenian churches in Jerusalem have no seating arrangements and the congregation has to conduct their prayers standing up or sitting down on the worn carpets, if there is room enough.      The main part of the ceremony consists in readings from the New Testament. As each reading ends, one of the 12 candles is blown out.      When all 12 have gone out, the night once more asserts its domain banishing the slightest suspicion of light from the gathering. In the silence, all one can hear is the shuffle of feet, or an occasional cough.      But when the priests launches into the mournful cadence of "Mayr Im" (the mother of Jesus), it is as if the floodgates of everyone's soul have been flung wide open, and we all join in the singing.      This is the highlight of "Khavaroom."      I hurry home as soon as the service is over - it would be close to midnight by then, an unheard of anomaly when people, as yet untouched by the titillations of television, were abed by 8. I need to get some sleep before I am up at daybreak. The next day is Holy Saturday, and I have to be ready early to carry out my role in the re-enactment of the resurrection of Jesus.      Typically, my best friend and cousin, David, misses out Khavaroom - he would be cosily ensconced within the confines of the Armenian section of the Holy Sepulcher. He has been doing it for years, going there Friday evening before the doors are locked for the night, so he can secure for himself a front-row position near the Edicule which houses the tomb of Jesus.      For Christians all over the world in general, and the faithful who hold the fort in the Holy Land in particular, Easter is the most sublime of all feasts in their religious calendar. But the Saturday before, which is popularly called as Sabt el Nour (literary, Saturday of the Light), is unequivocally the most inspiring and awesome day of the year.      The festive season that begins with Maundy Thursday, which marks the washing of the feet of the 12 Disciples, commemorates the resurrection of Jesus Christ and is meant to engender a rebirth of faith and belief in the religion of peace he preached two thousand years ago.      Jerusalem, regarded as the center of the world by the three Guardians of the sacred sites in the Holy Land (the Latin Catholic, the Greek and Armenian churches), literally erupts into a frenzy of religious zeal over the two week period of the festivities.      The euphoria is contagious and spreads into every alley, every nook and cranny of the Old City, and sometimes people get carried away, the passion becoming uncontrollable and is transmuted into violence, with unpleasant results.      The three Guardians endeavor to keep relations among the various Christian churches harmonious, but it is a daunting task because of territorial jealousies, church sources say.      The Guardians enjoy exclusive proprietary rights, guaranteed by the Ottoman Turkish Sultan Abdul Majid, under a "status quo" arrangement which encapsulates a pledge made over 150 years ago by the ruling potentate, and which "defines, regulates and maintains, without change" these rights.      In 1929, during the British Mandate of Palestine, a young official, L.G.A. Cust, was commissioned to outline the premises of the status quo since old records had been destroyed. His efforts resulted in a monogram entitled The Status Quo In The Holy Places, but a superior officer, H. G. Luke, thought it prudent, because of the complexity of the situation, to add a proviso: "The accounts of practice given in this Print are not to be taken as necessarily having official authority.”      Occasionally, the "practices" are violated. Over what Western observers might construe as trivial, like sweeping an extra floor tile which happens to be outside your territorial jurisdiction, the reasoning being that if an Armenian sweeps the tile lying within the Greek enclave, then the Armenians might some day claim sovereignty over that part of the property, an encroachment no Greek would tacitly accept.      Or standing in the wrong place, at the wrong time. Like the Greek monk who positioned himself within the Edicule (the tomb of Jesus) during an Armenian solemn procession, contravening the right of exclusivity of the Armenians on the date in question, as specified in a 1890 "Book of Ceremonies in the Holy Places" that states unequivocally: "during the days that Armenians have solemn religious ceremonies the Greek monk has no right to enter the Edicule."      The complex rules governing procedures for the cleaning the Holy Places has been a Gordian knot for as long as one remembers.      In one enlightening passage, Cust dwells in detail over such "very complicated" points as the proper placing of a ladder, in the Armenian part of the Church of Nativity in Bethlehem.      "The roof beams and walls down to, but not including, the cornice, and to a similar level in places where the cornice does not exist, all to be cleaned by the Orthodox. Where on the west wall of the North Transept a thinner wall is built on, the Orthodox sweep the sloping part. For the purpose of cleaning, the Orthodox place steps on the floor of the Armenian Chapel, but do not lean a ladder against the wall. The cornice and walls below the level of the cornice, are cleaned by the Armenians. The three windows in the Armenian Chapel under the level of the cornice are cleaned with their window recesses by the Government. The northern face of the Grotto is cleaned by the Government. The pictures in the northern face of the Grotto are to be removed, the eastern one by the Orthodox, and the western one by the Armenians, and to be re-hung by them. The pillar west of the Grotto entrance is cleaned on the south-west, south-east and north-west sides by the Orthodox, and on the north-east side by the Government."      As children growing up in the Old City, we were confused eye-witness to these interfaith confabulations - we could not understand the complexities of the issues involved, and wondered why Christian assaulted Christian, in their holiest city.      But that did not diminish from the excitement we felt as we glided through ceremony after ceremony, leading up to the grand awe of Holy Fire Saturday.      Only two days before, we had piled into the Cathedral of St James for the Washing of the Feet. Squashed among the throng of worshippers, we had to crane our necks to get a peek of the Armenian Patriarch squatting in a corner, with holy oil in one hand and a a towel in the other, washing the unshod feet of 12 priests. He would be in full regalia, the dazzling vestments he wore specifically selected for this occasion.      In front of the main altar, rows of chairs have been arranged for the convenience of high- profile invitees which include government officials and members of the consular and diplomatic corps.      In the middle of the ceremony, the Anglican bishop of Jerusalem mounts the steps to the altar and reads a passage from the Bible in English, in a tradition whose origins are clouded in history. He is be the only non-Armenian granted such a privilege within an Armenian church - although, years later, with the inception of the annual ecumenical week, held in January, the church would be agog with a bouquet of representatives from the various Christian denominations in the city, in an exchange visit, each praying to the one God, in his own tongue.       The morning of Holy Fire Saturday would see us up in a race with the sun. We barely had time to grab a bite before we were hurtling out into the street. We had to get ready to join the Armenian church procession heading towards the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, with a platoon of Kawasses leading the way. Their staff of office, topped with a silver knob, with which they pounded the cobblestones, must have weighed more than 5 kilograms. At their side, dangled an Ottoman sword, the edges dulled from neglect. It would have been close to a century when they last saw service on a battlefield. Up until the latter part of the 20th Century the Kawasses, mostly Moslems, used to wear baggy, cumbersome Turkish "shirwal" trousers and don a "tarbouche," complete with frills. The Armenians preserved the "tarbouche", but the "shirwal" dropped by the roadside.      The Kawasses were recruited almost exclusively from the extended Abul Hawa clan whose members have staked a claim to the Mount of Olives, across the Siloam valley. The two brothers, Mohammed and Ibrahim, were the end of the line.  During their lengthy tenure, they had learned to speak Armenian like a native, and their demise marked the end of an era.      One of Ibrahim's sons, Omar, who might have been the most suitable candidate to follow in his father's traditional footsteps, opted instead to work at the Inter.Continental Hotel near his home, and became its Front Desk manager.      When I visited him a few years ago, he had retired and was living in relative comfort in a house he built himself on one of the highest points of the Mount of Olives, commanding a breathtaking view of the walled Old City, with the golden Dome of the Rock, its centerpiece.      I had taught Abul Hawa children at both the St George Boys School, and the Schmidts' Girls College. With their prevalent blue eyes and fair hair, they stood out among the crowd. Did their ancestors have Frankish blood in them? It's a question one dare not ask of people for whom the word "Crusader" evokes unpalatable connections and memories, implying as it does the onerous yoke of occupation.