Armenian Jerusalem
It seems as if the dust of centuries has buried traces of the once vibrant, and  vociferous, community, in oblivion. You pause for a moment to "weep and mourn," with the great Jahiliya poet Umru 'ul Qais, "Qifa nabki fi dhikra habiben wa manzili" ("in memory of a loved one and a home.)"     Where are the garrulous "barav"s (old women) who lined both sides of the street, engaged in exchanging the day's gossip and shredding the reputations of rivals? Where are the squabbling children as they chase each other's shadow up and down the alleys? Where are the water-vendors, the scrubbing-sand peddlers, the "ka'ek" (bagels) bakers whose strident cries filled the air?      And where is Khoren the Jamgotch who pounded the cobblestones of your childhood, inviting the faithful to Sunday prayers at the Church of the Holy Archangels, his mellifluously evocative voice still retaining its haunting lilt?      Does anyone remember the ribald poem the hapless Michael Kostayan used to spout at the drop of a hat? It had been composed and taught him by the ragtag band of vagabond kaghakatsi youth who delighted in teasing him, and began with the nonsense verse: "Dokh kondeh dokh kondeh. . . "      Gone are the wild nights of the Armenian New Year when the kaghakatsis would all gather at their club, the Jerusalem Armenian Benevolent Union, have a drink and a bite, sing songs led by an accordion wielding pied piper and snake around the streets on their "pub crawl" to bring joy and cheer to all the homes in the Quarter.      Among them would have been Bedros, perhaps the most uncelebrated hero the Armenians of Jerusalem have ever produced, a man who without any protective armor, had disarmed and bodily carried away an unexploded missile that landed in somebody's kitchen during the 1948 Arab-Israeli war. The picture that lingers most is the sight of this diminutive man hugging the bomb to his chest as he manhandled it down stairs, stumbling blindly because the missile was taller than him.      Who will forget the avuncular Apraham Baba, towering over us, clad in an Ottoman "shirwal," (baggy trousers) as he sold us candy and trinkets from his shop which disappeared in a puff of smoke after a bomb landed there, or Megerditch the dairy farmer whose rantings at his Arab hired help punctuated our mornings? His spread is now a Jewish housing complex.      They, and the cavalcade of other intriguing characters that animated the idyll of this community (dubbed "kaghakatsi," city or native dwellers) in the Armenian Quarter of Jerusalem, have long gone their way, but the memory lingers, and will linger as long as this tiny enclave remains on the map.      For under every cobblestone carpeting the ancient alleys, lies a tale to be told, of heroes and villains, of tears and laughter, of love and hope, of glory and disaster. And you would never get lost in the Armenian Quarter, for every household had its own personal signpost, a nickname based on some distinct incident or characteristic: "dar el 'ajayez," the home of the old ones; "dar el tasseh," the home of the bowl; "dar el hattiti," the door of the bolt . . .      But the kaghakatsi have a stronger claim to a cherished niche in the annals of the Old City: their claim to immortality will probably be ensured not solely by virtue of their expressive history, but by an anthropological or genealogical rarity: every single kaghakatsi is related by blood to another kaghakatsi.      The whole kaghakatsi community is a spiderweb of family relations. If you are not my cousin, you are my cousin's cousin.      It would not be uncommon for two kaghakatsis from totally different families to stumble upon a common ancestor going back several decades or even a century or more. Along the way, this lively community (at its peak it numbered 1,000) has given the world photographers, teachers, artists, writers, scholars, craftsmen, philosophers and musicians, among others, paramount among them the composer Ohan Dourian.      Attrition has seriously depleted their ranks over the years, and only a handful of stalwarts now remains to man the fort and hold the flag.      "We are few, what's left of us, but we carry in our genes the long cherished memories and traditions of a glorious past. And the hope is always that we shall pass these on to our children," as one kaghakatsi resident noted.      His compatriots have taken a bold and ambitious step forward with the launching of a project to map out the genealogical history of the kaghakatsis, creating a kaghakatsi family tree, for the first time ever.      "It's probably too late, with all the oldsters long departed, taking along their memories and stories with them, but we're going to backtrack as far as we can go, delving into the memory banks of grandparents, uncles, aunts, whoever," the organizers note.      While documented records are sparse, the Armenian Patriarchate of Jerusalem houses an impressive archive of family histories dating back to a little more than 200 years.      Beyond that, it's all shrouded in mystery: Armenians have been coming to Jerusalem ever since the 5th Century.      The organizers have gathered genealogical details of all current Kaghakatzis living around the world, and entering these into a computer database.      "Because all the old kaghakatsi families were related, it's logical to assume that they had a common ancestor, perhaps more than one," the organizers believe.      The project has yielded interesting results. Tamar Schlekhat, living in the USA, can now quickly take herself back a hundred years to her paternal grandfather's days, and discover a wealth of relatives, literally all over the world, she never expected to know about.      "It's unbelievable, the kaghakatsis are all one big network of relatives," she enthuses.      The project is an on-going one as more names are added to the  database, more pictures are uncovered and more anecdotes remembered, creating a living genealogical depository future generations can tap in.      "It will be a live project because future generations can continue to add to it," the organizers say.      While the aim has been to concentrate on the Armenian kaghakatsis, odar's (non- Armenians) also make a cameo appearance in the database, but there have been no attempts to trace their ancestry.      "Otherwise, it would have become unmanageable," the organizers say.   

As you walk along the ancient cobblestones of the twisting

and turning alleys of the Armenian Quarter of the Old City of

Jerusalem, you are struck by the eerie silence that seems to

have settled everywhere.

St James compound