Armenian Jerusalem

Jerusalem, city of gold, city of hope. For nearly two

thousand years, this has been the spiritual home of the

world's three great monotheistic religions: Judaism,

Christianity, Islam. No other place on earth evokes

stronger passions or more fervent hopes than this tiny

city. It has been called the most sacred spot on earth.

Few people would refute that.

     The city has been home for a vibrant community of Armenians for over one and a half thousand years. In fact, Armenians have been living here continuously ever since the beginning of the 4th Century CE. In 301 AD, Armenia declared Christianity its state religion and soon afterwards Armenian pilgrims began trekking to the Holy Land on a spiritual journey that would rejuvenate their faith and reinforce their commitment to the new religion of peace and love.      A large number of the Armenian pilgrims chose to remain in Jerusalem and it became their new home. They built houses, churches and convents some of which are no longer standing, and settled in what is now the Armenian Compound, which comprises the Armenian Quarter and the Convent of St James. This became in time, the largest single concentration of Armenians, and represented the demographic and spiritual core of the newly-established colony.      The Compound occupies nearly one-sixth of the total area of the Old City of Jerusalem. The Convent forms the core of the Armenian presence, with the Armenian Quarter running around its perimeter.      As one treads the cobblestoned alleys of the convent, one is taken back, more than a thousand years into the distant, idyllic past of our forefathers who laid down the foundation stone of Armenian Jerusalem, for all generations to come.      The Armenian Compound is home for about 2,000 Armenians. Another 2,000 are scattered in various other parts of the Holy Land.  But there was a time when the Armenian presence in Jerusalem numbered 25,000-strong. That was before the big exodus of 1948 when thousands emigrated to Armenia. Following the Arab-Israeli war, many more left for the West, to America, Canada, Australia, to begin a new life there. For half a century now, the Armenian community in Jerusalem has been steadily dwindling, prey to a relentless attrition that has brought their number drastically down.      Nevertheless, Armenians have continued to be a dynamic presence in the sacred city. The numerical factor is irrelevant. Armenians are in a unique situation in Jerusalem. Their Patriarchate enjoys a semi- diplomatic status. It is one of the three major guardians of the Christian Holy Places (the other two are the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate and the Franciscan Custodian). Among these sites are the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in the Old City, the Church of the Ascension on the Mount of Olives, the Tomb of the Virgin Mary in the Valley of Gethsemane, and the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem.      The Cathedral of St James is the jewel in the convent's crown. Described as the most magnificent Christian edifice in the entire Middle east, this unique church forms the core of the Holy See of Jerusalem.      Because of its location in the very city where Christ lived, taught and was crucified, the Jerusalem Patriarchate occupies an enchanted, almost mystical significance in the aspirations of Armenians worldwide. While Holy Etchmiadzin remains the spiritual home of the Armenian nation, Jerusalem the Golden becomes the Eucharistic fount that rejuvenates and regenerates the soul of the Armenian believer.      As the visitor enters through the huge, heavy iron gate of the Convent, he comes face to face with an ancient marble water fountain (a "سبيل" in Arabic), placed there centuries ago to provide a cool, refreshing drink for pilgrims, in compliance with an ancient custom, typical of the hospitable Middle East. But the fountain is dry now, its spigot blocked. The introduction of running water, sometime during the British Mandate, has made the custom redundant.      Behind and above the fountain, a marble plaque embedded in the wall and engraved in flowing, interlinked Arab script, proclaims the privileged status of the Armenian Patriarchate, and calls down horrendous curses on the heads of those who would violate these privileges, granted by the Mameluke Sultan Chakmak.     Just across the entrance, on the other side of the road, sprawls the L-shaped structure that houses the Theological Seminary. This is undoubtedly the raison d'etre of the Armenian Patriarchate of Jerusalem - had it not been for this institution, the Armenian church would have been in crisis and the Armenian presence in the Holy Land a mirage.      The building is a gift of the Armenian philanthropist couple, Alex and Mary Manoogian. It is here that Armenian youths from all over the world, including the USA and Armenia, come to study and prepare for a priestly vocation. When ordained, after several years of intensive study, they will be posted to various churches or parishes in the Holy Land and overseas, and help infuse new blood among the ranks of Armenian clergy.      The Seminary, which ranks as the most important institution of higher learning in the Diaspora preparing Armenian youths for the priesthood, is on the verge of a new era, in the wake of the election of Archbishop Torkom Manoogian as Armenian Patriarch of Jerusalem.      The Patriarch, himself a graduate of the Seminary (it was housed in a different building in his days), is intent on pulling all stops in an all- out effort to transform this institution into a modern center of learning, able to cope with the constantly expanding horizons of the Church in view of our expanding universe.      One of the first projects he launched after his election was the recruitment of leading Armenian academics from Yerevan to teach at the Seminary. Not content with merely upgrading the caliber of its faculty, the Patriarch set to work revamping the Seminary curriculum in order to bring it up to date with modern undergraduate requirements.      Basically, a candidate for the priesthood has to undergo a six-year introductory course of education before he can attain the first order in the priestly hierarchy, that of Deacon. Another four years of higher studies are mandated before a Deacon, who will by now have earned an academic status equivalent to a Bachelor's Degree, can be ordained a priest.      In modern times, most of the candidates for the priesthood have been drawn from the ranks of the youth of neighboring Arab countries, but following the independence of Armenia and the easing of travel restrictions, there has been a steady infusion of young blood from the Motherland itself. In addition, several young people from the USA and Latin America have also shown an interest in taking religious vows and have been studying at the Seminary.      The Seminary can accommodate up to 100 students at a time, but its present occupancy stands at about 60, almost exclusively from Armenia.      They come from the capital Yerevan, from outlying towns or villages with unfamiliar, exotic names. Some of them were orphaned by the December 1988 earthquake. All eager to participate in the preparation involved in becoming a priest.      It is not easy for a young child of 12 to be separated from his siblings or parents, from friends or relatives he has known all his life. Giving everything up and making the trek into the unknown new world of the Middle East is not easy. But they have made it to Jerusalem, and they intend to stay here until they are ready to take on their rightful place within the Church.      To compensate for the huge sacrifice these seminarians have had to make, the Patriarchate lavishes care, attention and affection upon them. Over and above the rigorous solid education they obtain in Jerusalem, the prospective priests are encouraged to develop their individual talents in whatever extra-curricular field or activity that may be.      The result has been an outpouring of energy and accomplishment, from major theatrical productions to the formation of a modern guitar band.      Under the direction of members of their own group, young seminarians have gleefully staged farces, spectacles and extravaganzas, to the delight of Jerusalemites. But their most ambitious theatrical undertaking has been the production of a play on St Vartan Mamigonian and the crucial battle of Avarair. There were few dry eyes as the curtain came down that night on the destruction and havoc caused by the Persian invaders in the 5th Century, and the grim determination of the besieged and outnumbered Armenians, to survive.      Another extremely gratifying activity has been the archaeological excavation program introduced by Patriarch Manoogian, with the assistance of and under the guidance of America's famous Harvard University. Seminarians have participated in a number of digs, in far- off-places they had never heard of before, gaining valuable historical knowledge and background about the intriguing history of the Holy Land.      During the summer holidays, seminarians enjoy weekly outings that are intended to make them familiar not only with every nook and cranny of the Holy Land, but also with all aspects of life here.      The school year which begins in September, is packed with a curriculum that is intended to provide the Seminarians with the best education possible, at the hands of the best teachers available.      Although snowed under by the overwhelming amount of work on his desk, Patriarch Manoogian, known for the paternal interest he takes in his charges, finds time to meet with the seminarians on a regular basis.      Among them is a group of deacons who are approaching the final stages of their education. The group has organized itself into a society, complete with Chairman and Treasurer, and holds weekly meetings, chaired by the Patriarch, during which he gives them instruction in the finer points of theology. These sessions are the highlight of the diaconal life, because they provide not only the proper perspective and background for the deacons in their understanding of theology, but also the experience of the superior wisdom of their Patriarch.      During the week, the seminarians are fed a rich diet of literature, mathematics, sciences, languages and theological studies and, in order to enable them to come to grips with the demands of the technological age, a course in computer literacy, at the hands of a computer expert expressly hired for the purpose. The students are introduced to DOS and Windows, and go through the fundamentals of programming, word processing and data base management. (Of course, when the teacher is not looking, there's always the temptation to try their hands at a game of Solitaire or Galactic Wars).      The total aim of all this is to prepare neophyte, immature youths for the grand vocation of a priest, a "vartabed," the religious teacher and leader of his community or parish whose example they will follow, whose blessing they will seek and whose intercession they will treasure.      This is why the theological seminary of the Armenian Patriarchate occupies perhaps the most important position in its rung of priorities since it is the repository of the Armenian church, the source of its continued existence and perpetuation, the backbone of its expansion.      Throughout the history of the Armenian nation, the defense of the country has invariably devolved upon the church and its leaders. It was these heirs of Saint Thaddeus and Saint Bartholomew who rallied their countrymen to the heroic battle for survival, a battle Armenians, unlike other ancient races who have disappeared down the alleys of history, have won.      "The making of an Armenian priest therefore is nothing more than a simple act of survival, and if we are to survive, we must continue the task of providing a steady supply of these spiritual catalysts," Patriarch Manoogian said.      Without its church, then, the Armenian nation would have perished long ago.      The task of preparing seminarians for the priesthood is not an easy one. The annual cost of educating, feeding and clothing one seminarian has been calculated at US$5,000. At present, the Theological Seminary houses 30 students (although it can easily absorb 100), and the total cost is US$150,000, a princely sum that the Patriarchate can raise only with the active support of donations from abroad.      The Patriarchate's major concern is to ensure a steady supply of seminarians to combat the inevitable attrition among their ranks; because it is a well-known and well-established fact that not every seminarian who signs up, goes on to become an ordained priest.      Unfortunately, the traditional recruitment sources in the neighboring Arab countries have dried up to all intents and purposes. Importing students from Turkey, another major sources, is replete with difficulties. Armenia now offers the best hope, but there are logistics and human problems to contend with.      Following his election Patriarch Manoogian initiated a bold new approach to attract young Armenians from the verdant pastures of the West, and his persistent efforts have begun to pay off. Several Armenian American students, eager to retrace their roots and reinforce their faith, heeded his call and came to Jerusalem to study at the Seminary and to absorb the special atmosphere the Holy City has to offer. The Jerusalem experience, dubbed an "internship" programmed, has had a tremendous effect on these motivated people, and it is hoped that their apprenticeship in Jerusalem will propel them towards a priestly vocation.      The "internship" programmed introduced the young hopefuls to a busy schedule of studies and activities. Every one of the "intern"s possessed some special qualification or expertise, and the Patriarchate capitalized on their skills by encouraging the "intern"s to pass on the experience they had gained.      The result was the introduction of the seminarians into a different but vibrant perspective on life, the American way.      Patriarch Manoogian has been particularly eager to raise academic and educational levels at the Seminary and with this in mind, he has invited some of Armenia's leading academicians to Jerusalem to teach.      Under a special arrangement hammered out with the Armenian Republic's Ministry of Education, the Patriarchate obtained the services of several brilliant doctor-professors whose presence has enhanced the prestige of the theological seminary and enriched the lives of the students. In addition, their contacts with members of the local community have resulted in a timely, much-needed impetus, a shot in the arm for the hapless Armenians of Jerusalem whose ranks are being decimated by a relentless brain drain.      Students who complete a full course at the theological seminary will have gained an education equivalent to undergraduate university entrance requirements. Although accreditation is not a principal aim of the seminary, it is intended that when a candidate reaches ordination, he will be considered to have acquired a Bachelor's Degree.      The subjects taught at the seminary include:      * Four languages: Armenian, English, Arabic and Hebrew      * Theology and philosophy      * Liturgy and music      * Patrology      * Armenian language and history      * Sciences      * Mathematics      * Arts and crafts      * Computer science.      The seminary students enjoy a healthy, active and stimulating environment, both mentally and physically. They have access to some of the best medical and dental care available. In short, they are made to lack nothing.      But over and above all, it is the paternal care and affection which Patriarch Manoogian lavishes upon them that makes the difference.      "They are the hope of the future, these young blossoms that will someday burst into bloom, and dissipate the dark phantoms that hover across the horizon of our church," Patriarch Manoogian said.