Jerusalem n the 1930’s
Armenian Jerusalem
This project has been supported by the Gulbenkian philanthropic Foundation, the Armenian Patriarchate of Jerusalem, and members of the worldwide Armenian community. Reproductions of the genealogical documents [domar’s] are courtesy Photo Garo, Jerusalem. © Copyright 2007 Arthur Hagopia

In the early 17th Century, a world traveller from Poland, who is known to us as Simeon,

made a stopover in Jerusalem, and wrote about it in a book called “The Travel Accounts of

Simeon of Poland.” Jirair Tutunjian, a Vanketsi journalist living in Canada, who has

also travelled extensively, has contributed the following intriguing review on the

rare tome which has been translated by historian George Bournoutian of Iona

College, NY.

Recently, historian George Bournoutian of Iona College in N.Y. visited Toronto to talk about the exciting chapter of the New Julfa merchants, who travelled across Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Burma (Myanmar), Thailand, Hong Kong, Singapore, Dutch Batavia and to the Philippines before Europeans monopolized the East-West trade. After the speech, I bought from Mr. Bournoutian a rare copy of "The Travel Accounts of Simeon of Poland." Mr. Bournoutian had annotated and translated the book from Armenian. Reflecting the times, the Armenian Simeon used was replete with Turkish, Kipchak, Persian, Arab words. Mr. Bournoutian has translated it so that we can understand the polluted Armenian. As you know, after the fall of Ani and the Seljuk invasions, many Armenians--starting with merchants, migrated to the shores of the Black Sea, to Crimea, Ukraine, Bulgaria, Rumania, Moldavia, R u s s i a and to Poland. At one time we had thriving communities in these cities before we were finally assimilated assimilated because of poverty, oppression, racism, and war. Simeon of Poland (his parents were from Crimea) was born in Zamosts, Poland, in 1584. A few years younger than Shakespeare. He was well educated and was fluent in Armenian. In his early '20s, he undertook a 12-year journey (partly pilgrimage) to Constantinople, Asia Minor, Venice, Rome (where he met the Pope), Egypt, Jerusalem, Aleppo, Mush, etc. He kept a detailed diary of his travels. When he returned to Poland, he got married and joined the clergy. Nothing is known about him after 1636. I thought you would like to put in your archives some of the facts he wrote about Palestine and Jerusalem of the early 17th century. He is occasionally inaccurate (an amateur reporter on the run), but over all, his book is an accurate, precious and rare record. He devotes about 60 pages to the Holy Land. Here are some interesting facts from the book: "From Gaza to Ramla took half a day on horseback. Ramla was the main port. "From there to Jerusalem were two small crossings. Those pilgrims who journey by sea also come ashore in Ramla. They gather in one place and wait until the arrival of interpreters of the prelate (Patriarch) of Jerusalem to escort them. There were large, but empty churches and no yerets. There were a few Greek and five to six Armenian households." "From Ramla to Jerusalem the route is covered only with cliffs and rocks. At the foot of that mountain, there was an Arab village, where they collected a quarter [kurus] from every person. On top of the mountain was the tomb of the Prophet Samuel." Simeon describes his entry to Jerusalem in these words: "Meanwhile, the entire brotherhood of the Church, bishops, vardapets, and kahanas put on their robes and, with all the parish priests carrying torches and lamps, censers, banners, incense, and candles come out to greet the pilgrims. All the kahanas and clergy are given chasubles and albs as they are then enter the city, singing joyous sharakans and religious songs. When they come to the doors of the church, the patriarch comes out and escorts them inside the church. Bowing to the grown before the altar, they then kiss the right hand of the patriarch. He then gives them, according to their rank, a place to stay: one gets a separate room; another is placed with two or three others. They do the same with the beasts of burden. "In [the Monastery of] Surb Hagop there are 365 cells, built from stone and lime. By the cathedral, there are also two small churches, that of Surb Toros and Surb Arakel. The monastery has two large stables, enough for 1,000 horses, and three gardens and mills that are operated by horses. "The houses have two storeys, with lower and upper floors. The monastery has forty wells; it is surrounded by a high and wide stone wall with large iron gates, which resemble those of a city. Beyong the gate is the three-storey mansion of the Patriarch. Each street has a different name. "I witnessed great order there, both in the church and on the outside; for there were fifteen abeghas, two vardapets, three bishops, as well as an expert server of the Mass, who invariably conducted daily services in all the churches. There were janitors in the monastery who sat during the day [by the gates], locked the gates at night, and gave the keys to the Baron-Der (Grigor IV, patriarch). "The Patriarch has to feed all the pilgrims for three days, even if there are 1,000 of them. On the first day they give every pilgrim two large wax candles; one is left in Surb Hagob, the other they take to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. Every man, depending on his means, gives one or two kurus; some give two or three kurus. After three days the housing dues, as much as they can afford: they take much from the bishops, vartabeds, and the wealthy, little from the poor, much from the rich and little from the poor. Not only the monks but even the poor had to donate something. They then ask everyone what he had promised or vowed to do: a karasnits, a Mass in memory of the dead, or an animal sacrifice [which they have to pay for]; or whatever they have promised; a cross, a chasuble, or something else, has to be donated." (By the way, in the years preceding Simeon's visit to Jerusalem, the Patriarchate was in deep financial trouble. To pay the various taxes imposed by the Turks, the Patriarch had borrowed 40,000 kurus from local merchants and handed precious religious and historic object as "raheen." Finally, a dozen Armenian merchants, led by an Aleppo merchant and New Julfa merchants, raised the money that was due. The Patriarch handed over the money to the people who were owed the huge debt. The religious and historic objects were returned). "To enter the Holy Sepulcher, pilgrims had to pay one para. . . The Church of Holy Sepulcher is larger than Hagia Sophia. Its dome is covered with tin. They say it was covered with gold before, but the infidels removed it. . . Surb Prkich Monastery Monastery, which was surrounded by a wall and which had sixty new stone rooms." "The terrain surrounding Jerusalem is very rocky, with cliffs, and no water. The earth is not visible at all, but the land is very fruitful and abundant with fruits and produce. The mountains and plains are totally covered with olive trees. The fruit is so sweet and tasty that you cannot find similar fruit anywhere else. There are large and superb melons and watermelons, very large pomegranates, good figs and quinces, sweet and tasty...There is also a very large variety of grapes and they are in large clusters. There is great blessing and abundance here: white bread, white honey, delightful butter, and according to the saying of spies . . . the roses have an unbelievable scent and rosewater is taken from land to land as a nice gift and donation. They have only white wine, there is no red--it is cheap and strong, so that one cannot drink it without diluting it with water...the tastiest bread of all is the flat bread baked on hop pebbles. Milk, yoghurt, clotted cream, and butter are very tasty and available throughout the year, for it is always summer there, there is no winter. The animals give birth twice. They sow and harvest the crops twice a year. On holidays they serve lamb, but the meat of kid goat is by far tastier. We were amazed by its taste. Cucumbers, roses, and barley ripen by Easter; the same is true of other crops." "There are twelve local Armenian families in holy Jerusalem. They are all poor and are weavers and belt-makers. They make collars and waist girdles for pilgrims, as well as linen for shrouds. There are twenty to thirty Coptic families. There are also Greeks, but they too are poor..." "The other nations do not have places or a monastery like the Armenians; their pilgrims come and stay in inns. Meanwhile, the Armenian Monastery of Surb Hagob is large and spacious it can accommodate even 10,000 souls, for it resembles a city. Praise the Lord!" About the Dead Sea: "There, we saw the land of Sodom, where the stones burned like wood and they cooked food on them. They burned and turned black as charcoal." About the River Jordan: "The river is large and speedy, like the Khotyn. The group broke up by the river and undressed. Those who could swim jumped into the river, others bathed, holding on to tree branches and the shore; others tied themselves to ropes. The old gathered the water in cups or poured it over their heads. Despite all of this, two were carried away by the swift waters of the river." After the Patriarch paid the church's debts, Patriarch Grigor "first renovated and improved many Armenian churches in the city and its environs, twelve in number. In the monasteries of Surb Hagop, Hreshtakapet (Archangel), and Surb P'rkich, he built rooms for guest and the sick, stone cells for the brothers, nice gates and proportional refectories, orchards, vineyards, flower garden, and other buildings. He renovated the 365 cells in Surb Hagob and its church. During his time, the Armenian Patriarchate thrived; in fact, it became rich and magnificent. " "He constructed vaulted cloisters and fenced them with impregnable walls with well-built, magnificent towers. They include: Surb Prkich, Surb Hreshtakapet, Surb Toros, Surb Arakel, Surb Sarkis, and others." There's a great deal of other interesting information in the book. Although the Jerusalem-Hold Land section is generally positive, Simeon doesn't hesitate to criticize Armenians in other communities for their lack of faith, for corruption, for lack of proper patriotism. He has no problem attacking wayward clergy, no matter how high their position. (By the way, he financed his 12-year pilgrimage (1610) by copying holy books in Constantinople, Jerusalem . . . I believe he was paid per page. We owe a great debt to Simeon--now lost in history, together with our communities of Eastern Europe, and to Mr. Bournoutian who has translated the book.