Armenian Jerusalem

At the periphery of the Armenian Quarter, a hundred feet from the

Jewish Quarter of the Old City, lies what a 6th Century inscription,

uncovered in 1940, proclaims is the first Christian edifice ever built.

This is the Syriac convent of St Mark and has secured its place on the map of Christendom as the house of Mary, mother of John, called Mark, the Evangelist. The little church it shelters even boasts a portrait of the Virgin Mary reputedly painted by St Luke the evangelist. Only years after its erection, the church was destroyed by the Roman emperor, Titus when he conquered the city, only to rise phoenix like from its ashes, and to be rebuilt, over and over again, the last time a century and a half ago. For the Orthodox Syriac community, a tiny but vibrant element that has played a key role in the unravelling history of Jerusalem, this is the last remaining enclave left to their church which has lost everything else it owned in the city. Although the convent has been renovated and refurbished, it now houses only a mere handful of clergymen, their sharp decline paralleled by the attrition in the numbers of members of the Syriac community. There used to be a school, and a scout club, but the school is now a Jewish housing development and the club has been boarded up. But the survival instinct of the die-hard remnants of these proud descendants of the Babylonians and their grim determination to endure and to maintain their home and their standing in the Old City, has become markedly evident with the advent of the new head of the church in the Holy Land, Archbishop Mar Swerios Melki Murad. Deacon Khader Khano And one of his first achievements was to launch a building reconstruction and renovation program to stem the ravages of time and re-establish a residential compound to cater to the needs of an increasing number of pilgrims. But his most momentous accomplishment has been the fast-tracking of the ordination of a new priest, native-born Father Boulos Khano, the first time such an event has occurred in over a century. The ordination took place in Bethlehem where a sizeable community of Syriacs live, and has become a milestone in the annals of this church, spawning widespread euphoria not only in the Holy Land, but all over the world where their compatriots have put down roots. I got to know Khader Khano when he was still a deacon, and preparing for the priesthood. It was early in the day in the Old City of Jerusalem, and virtually no one was up and around. It would be some time before the serenity of its streets and alleys was disturbed by the tread of heavy feet and the babble of many voices. After an abbreviated breakfast of "ka'ek" (the elliptical bread roll cocooned in sesame seeds) and "falafel," I stood before the ornately decorated gate of Deir El Sir-yan, the Syriac convent of St Mark. I had gone there filled with an unusual expectation: to hear a language first spoken in this part of the world 2,000 years ago by a man who changed the history of the world. The gate was open, and I stepped in. In the ghostly, candle-lit semi-darkness punctuated by velvety clouds of billowing incense, the sound of the priest intoning the Lord's prayer, echoed across the nave, an astringent but soothing balm. "Avvon d-bish-maiya, nith-qaddash shim-mukh," (our FathThe ordination of Father Bouloser, who are in heaven, hallowed be Thy name). It was Aramaic, the lingua franca from the times of Jesus of Nazareth, still vibrantly alive in the liturgy of the Syriac church, faithfully preserved down the centuries to the present day. I listened rapt to the modern reverberations of the ancient tongue, feeling the haunting inflections of the guttural, mellifluous singing penetrate into the consciousness and overwhelm the soul, taking the imagination back through time and space, to hover within the presence of the man from Galilee. "Tih-teh mal-chootukh," Tthy kingdom come). They were the same words uttered two millennia ago by the man who preached that the kingdom of god is within ourselves. It was a lesson young Khader Khano had taken tenaciously to heart. The service over, we were sitting in the secretariat which was being manned by this earnest 21-year-old man acting for Archbishop Malki Murad during his absence abroad. Within the space of months breaking a 100-year drought, and putting St Mark forcefully back on the Jerusalem map again. For centuries, the convent had languished in relative obscurity, its visibility and accessibility hindered by its uninviting external architectural disposition. But all that changed with the 1948 discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls in the salty caves of Qumran by an itinerant Bedouin sheepherder. Through circuitous and mysterious routes under the gathering clouds of war between Arab and Jew, the scrolls finally reached Jerusalem and were kept for a brief spell at St Mark, before surfacing on the shores of an astounded world. The Syriacs of the Holy Land are better known by the Arabic appellation "Sir-yan," but in other parts of the world they, or their derivatives, also refer to themselves as Assyrians, Ashourayeh, Ashouri or Suryoyo. Traditionally, the Syriac church used to replenish the ranks of its clergy from the youth of Ashouryah colonies in neighboring Arabic countries, particularly Iraq. But the political upheavals unleashed by the 1967 Six Day War forced that gateway to close. I was there to touch base with the Syriac church and gain its support for a major film project for which I had been invited to act as consultant. But I was no stranger to it for I had been married there 40 years ago. Khano bubbled with scarcely concealed enthusiasm, caught up blissfully in the gentle breeze of faith and conviction.The miraculous jar "I have thought very hard and very long over my decision to become a priest, and I have found that there is nothing more important to me than to serve God in this way," he told me. "All the books I have read, all the lessons I have studied have prepared me just for this. I have no other interest in life other than to become a priest." I took my leave of Khano and a short time later, I was in Bethlehem to meet Saliba Tawil, a member of the Bethlehem Syriac community. We were old friends, and at one time taught class at the St George Boys school in Jerusalem. We sat down for lunch at the town's premier eatery, Abu Ely's. We had kebab - I shall never forget the exquisite taste of the minced meat balls grilled over the bed of real charcoal. A pseudo vegetarian, I convinced myself to make allowances for the occasional skewer, but this was the most delectable dish I had ever tasted. The meat almost literally melted away in my mouth. As we reminisced over the good old days, a watchtower straddling the the sprawling security wall Israel has erected, a few feet away, glared at us menacingly. But as we dug into the delicious meal, that eyesore was momentarily forgotten. Tawil is a career educator, with a wide ranging interest in community affairs. He has been instrumental in furthering negotiations for a twinning agreement between Bethlehem and the French city of Grenoble. Like all members of minority groups, he is zealous in his pursuit of the aim to see his children gain and retain a mastery of their native tongue. And like them, he is worried about assimilation and the loss of ethnic identity. But he also has a pragmatic turn of mind. "We are all destined to live here together in the Holy Land," he said. His fondest wish is for his children to grow and appreciate not only their ethnicity, but also the wider world community. And his priorities, as those of their fellow Syriac community members, are halting any further slippage among their number and ensuring their children complete their higher education. And he believes the only way this can be achieved is when peace reigns in the land. Saliba has already earned his 15 minutes of fame, albeit indirectly. He is married to a grand-daughter of the Syriac merchant, Kando, who was involved in the convoluted process of the extraction, revelation and the transportation of the priceless Dead Sea scrolls. The wily old merchant passed away in 1993, most of his secrets buried with him. Whether Tawil or his wife Suzy, became privy to any of them, remains another secret. They do not talk about it. Saliba still teaches in Jerusalem. To reach his classes, he has to use private transport since no regular government buses plying his route. Although he carries a permit, he still has to endure the daily hassle at the Israeli security checkpoints along the way. "It's part of our daily existence," he said philosophically. "We live for the day. Tomorrow is too far away," Saliba said, adding, "We are steadfast in our faith and the faith of our ancestors. We are here to stay." During the Jordanian administration of Jerusalem, members of Bethlehem's Syriac community would commute to St Mark aboard one of three Arab village buses, taking the indirect, tortured, and often perilous, route that skirted the hills around the western approach to Jerusalem. (What was then an hour long journey was summarily truncated to a few minutes following the Six Day War and Israel's conquest of the West Bank). The guests would spend most of the day in and around the Syriac compound - the highlight of their stay a pilgrimage to a little known cavern underneath the church. For deep within the bowels of the convent, lies a rare treasure gathering dust. It perches forlorn in a dark, dank corner, in the dimly lit enclosure. A lidless earthen jar, its sides unvarnished and unadorned. A nondescript, crude amphora, a modest clone of its more glamorous Greek cousins. I had lived for years within a stone's throw of the church and had never known of the cave's or vessel's existence. Until my recent return visit to Jerusalem and my encounter with Father Boulos. As I rose to shake his hand and take my leave of him, he gave me a quizzical smile. "How well do you know the Old City?" he asked. A strange question. I wondered what it was all about. "I was born here and spent my childhood in the Armenian compound." "Have you ever been to the cave under the church?" he asked. I did not know there ever was a cave there. "Come along, I'll show you something that will make your day." We trudged down the stone stairs into the dimly lit cavern. At first, all I could see was a simple chapel, apparently newly renovated, an altar, and a couple of lanterns hanging down from the ceiling. "Look in the corner," the young priest said, a playful smile bathing his youthful features. There was nothing there except this unpretentious lidless jar, with two handles either side. "A sacred vessel?" "More than that," he replied. "This is one of the jars that contained the wine that Jesus had converted at the wedding in Cana." Time stood still. I could not bring myself to kneel down and examine the jar - I would not touch it. Somehow, I sensed it would feel like sacrilege. I am no archaeologist or antiquarian, but there was no doubt I was standing before an ancient artifact. Whether it bears the seal of authenticity or not is immaterial. What is important is the provenance - the inspiration, the invitation not only to believe in the possibility of touching the verge of an aura of the miraculous and sacred, but of also bearing witness and participating in a transcendental experience. Because if you take all this away, if you start doubting, then Jerusalem is lost, its mystique, and its golden hope crumbled, its message ground into dust. "How did it get here?" I wondered. "No one knows," the priest told me. "It's been there forever." The encounter highlighted a marked resurgence in faith both among the dwindling Syriac community of the Holy Land and their diaspora cousins, mostly in Europe. Archbishop Melki Murad's advent has signaled an unparalleled rejuvenation, breathing new life into the somnolent, minuscule presence: the convent's outlying sadly dilapidated properties have been spruced up, providing accommodation for hundreds of eager tourists and pilgrims who have been descending on Jerusalem in growing numbers.