Armenian Jerusalem
It is early in the day in the Old City of Jerusalem, and virtually no one is up and around. It will be some time before the serenity of its streets and alleys is disturbed by the tread of heavy feet and the babble of many voices. After an abbreviated breakfast of "ka'ek" (the elliptical breadroll cocooned in sesame seeds) and "falafel," I stand before the ornately decorated gate of Deir El Sir-yan, the Syriac or Assyrian Convent of St Mark. I have come here 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 is open, and I step 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, echoes across the nave, an astringent but soothing balm. "Avvon d-bish-maiya, nith-qaddash shim-mukh," (our father, who are in heaven, hallowed be thy name). This is 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 listen 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," (thy kingdom come). They are the same words uttered two millennia ago by the man who preached that the kingdom of god is within ourselves. It is a lesson Khader Khano takes tenaciously to heart. The service over, we are sitting in the secretariat which is being manned by this earnest 21-year-old deacon who is acting for Archbishop Mar Sweiros Malki Murad during his absence abroad. Within the space of weeks, Khano will be making history of his own when he is ordained celibate priest, the first time in over 100 years a Holy Land native-born aspirant is invested with the habit by the Syriac church. The occasion has spawned widespread jubilation among the local Christian churches, particularly in Bethlehem where a sizeable community of Khano's compatriots are gearing up for the ceremony. For centuries, St Mark 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 in the convent of St Mark, before surfacing on the shores of an astounded world. Khano's ordination may not count as a comparably momentous eventuality, but there is no mistaking the euphoria that has gripped the Syriac church, for this too is another milestone in the glorious history of these proud descendants of the Babylonians. The Syriacs of the Holy Land are better known by the Arabic appellation "Sir-yan," but in other parts of the world they also refer to themselves as Ashourayeh, Ashouri or Suryoyo. Traditionally, the Syriac church used to replenish the ranks of its clergy from the youth of Ashouri colonies in neighboring Arabic countries, particularly Iraq. But the political upheavals unleashed by the 1967 Six Day War forced that gateway to close. Khano bubbles with scarcely concealed enthusiasm, caught up blissfully in the gentle breeze of faith and conviction. "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 tells 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." He will be ordained in Bethlehem but will come back to serve, under his new name, Father Boulos (Paul) at St Mark, which was the first Christian edifice ever built anywhere, according to a 6th Century inscription unearthed in 1940. This was the house of Mary, mother of John, called Mark, the Evangelist. The church boasts a portrait of the Virgin Mary reputedly painted by St Luke the evangelist. Alas, the monastery compound, located at the periphery of the Armenian Quarter, is the last remaining enclave left to the Syriac Orthodox Church who has lost everything else in the city. It is now home for a mere handful of clergymen, their sharp decline paralleled by the attrition in the numbers of members of the Syriac community. The little is gone too, and the social club has been boarded up. Only years after its erection, the church was destroyed by 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. I take my leave of Khano and a short time later, I am in Bethlehem to meet Saliba Tawil, a member of the Bethlehem Syriac community. We are old friends. We sit for lunch at Abu Ely's restaurant. A few feet away, the monstrous security wall Israel has erected, glares at us menacingly. For the moment, that eyesore is forgotten as we dig into the incredibly soft and delicious shish kebab, a house specialty. 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 says. His fondest wish is for his children to grow and appreciate not only their ethnicity, but also the wider world community. And he believes the only way this can be achieved is when peace reigns in the land.