Armenian Jerusalem
One thousand and four hundred years ago, an obscure Armenian priest knelt by the entrance to his cell, in a sprawling convent outside the walls of the Jerusalem, and composed a humble plea. The words he used were simple, but there was nothing unpretentious in the medium he chose to convey his message: a magnificent floor mosaic of five variously colored concentric circles, measuring eight feet by 10 and studded with pert red petals. Within the protective embrace of the smallest circle, he inscribed these memorable lines: "I, Yevsdat ( Eustacius) the priest, laid down this mosaic. You who enter this room, remember me and my brother Ghugas (Lucas), unto Christ." Centuries passed, and Jerusalem fell under the sway of an assortment of overlords who took a perverse delight in leveling the city, again and again. In the process, Yevsdat's prayer collapsed under the rubble of what archaeologists concluded must have been the first Armenian monastery to be built in the Holy Land. As is almost always the case where archaeology is concerned, the mosaic was discovered by a fortuitous accident - had it not been for the pick of a laborer excavating for a new highway, the site might have been consigned to oblivion, and the Armenian nation lost one of its most precious relics, of which there are known to be only six others in the world. The "medallion" lay across the road from the beautiful Armenian bird mosaic in the Musrara Quarter of Jerusalem unearthed a century ago. It was only in November 1991 that laborers stumbled upon it, their picks and shovels stirring up not only the dust of centuries, but also relics of a people steeped in Christian history, lore and endurance. Among the other finds on the site were three other Armenian inscriptions, two tombstones, and one graffito on a large pottery bowl. These join a number of other significant Armenian inscriptions recently found in the Holy Land, the most interesting of which are graffiti from Nazareth and the Sinai, which date from the first part of the fifth century, within decades of the invention of the alphabet. I was in my office in the Armenian Patriarchate when news of the discovery reached us. An elated Patriarch, Archbishop Torkom Manoogian, made prompt arrangements for a site inspection and accompanied by three other members of the priestly Brotherhood of St James, we trooped to Musrara. We stood there, on the lip of the excavation, gazing down in silence at the immaculately preserved work of art, each absorbed in his own thoughts of wonder. None could bring himself to touch it - so full of awe were we all. This was another uncontroverted proof of the permanence of the Armenians presence in Jerusalem: this was the prayer of one of our priests, and these were the bones of some of our ancestors. As if prompted by some inner call, the Patriarch raised his head and began to intone a prayer for the repose of the souls of the dead. And when his companion priests joined in singing "iy vereen Yerusaghem" (upwards, towards the Upper Jerusalem, towards the dwelling of the angels," I found it hard to stop the tears. Archaeologists have been thrilled at the discovery of the medallion, viewing it particularly important for the light it throws on the series of mosaics bearing Armenian inscriptions discovered in Jerusalem from 1873 to the early twentieth century. The Yevsdat plea, written in impeccable Classical Armenian, has been virtually completely preserved. The two names mentioned in the mosaic are clearly Armenians form of their Greek counterparts. According to the leading Israeli armenologist Professor Michael Stone, even the full form "Eustathius" is very rare in Armenian usage. "No form of this name occurs in the manuscript colophons down to 1200 (Mat‘evosyan 1988), or in the indexes of proper names in the catalogues of the Mashdots Matenadaran, Institute of Ancient Manuscripts in Erevan, Armenia and of the Patriarchal library in Jerusalem," he said. "From the fact that both names are Greek and Christian, it is perhaps possible to infer that both brothers were clerics, for it was the customary for clerics to take biblical names, or those of saints of the Church," he added. "The mosaic was uncovered in a carefully executed excavation and can be dated, on archeological grounds, to the second half of the seventh century, which is extremely important. This date is established by coins discovered embedded in the mortar in which the floor was laid. In the mortar five coins were found, the earliest of which is of the Fourth Century and the latest is a Byzanto-Arab coin of the middle of the Seventh Century." Stone believed the last coin is the most important since it provides a terminus post quem for the laying of the mosaic floor with the inscription.