Armenian Jerusalem
2,000 years of glorious history

The church has always dominated the Armenian Jerusalem landscape. Throughout its

troubled history, it has always been the priestly brotherhood that has provided the

Armenians with the impetus and inspiration to forge ahead. Priests invented the Armenian

alphabet, they were in the vanguard of armies on the march, they gave Jerusalem its first

printing press and its first photographic studio, they copied and illustrated manuscripts,

their convent sheltered the battle- scarred flock in the Old City of Jerusalem.

       The   ranks   of   the   Armenian   clergy   have   traditionally   been   refurbished   by infusions   from   neighboring   countries:   Syria   and   Lebanon   before   the   1967   six   day war,    and    recently    the    motherland.    No    candidates    for    the    priesthood    are accepted from the local community.            The   aspirants   are   housed   in   a   seminary   endowed   by   American   Armenian philanthropist   Alex   Manougian.   Some   of   them   come   from   distant   villages   in   the mountains   of Turkish Armenia,   bearing   outlandish   names   that   have   no   connection with   their   ancestors   and   hardly   knowing   a word   of   Armenian.   Some   come   seeking   a refuge   and   a   haven   from   the   endless   battles in    and    around    the    Middle    East,    leaving behind    friends    and    families,    dreaming    of the    day    they    will    be    invested    with    the "veghar"       (the       unique,       cone-shaped Armenian   churchmen's   head-dress)   and   have the     right     to     call     themselves     Vartabed (literally, teacher).          In     preparing     young     men     for     the priesthood,     the     Armenian     Patriarchate fulfils   an   indispensable   role   in   the   service   of   the Armenian   church:   while some   of   the   priests   ordained   in   Jerusalem   remain   to   serve   St   James, others   are   sent   overseas   to   fill   vacancies   that   arise   in   the   ranks   of   clergy serving    diaspora    churches    which    rely    primarily    on    Jerusalem    for resupply.      The   seat   of   the Armenian   Patriarchate   in   Jerusalem,   a   member   of   the troika    of    "guardians"    of    the    Holy    Places    along    with    the    Greek Patriarchate   and   Latin   Custodia,   is   located   in   the   convent   of   St   James, named     after     the     cathedral     there.    The     compound     also     provides accommodation   for   pilgrims   who   come   to   the   Holy   City   in   quest   of spiritual    rejuvenation    and    reaffirmation    of    their    faith,    transforming Jerusalem into a boundless fount of faith for generations.      As   I   tread   the   cobble   stoned   alleys   of   the   Convent,   I   am   taken   back   more   than   a   thousand years   into   the   distant,   idyllic   past   of   my   forefathers   who   laid   down   the   foundation   stone   of our present existence, for all generations to come.        The   convent   itself   occupies   the   southwestern   corner   of   the   Old   City   and   is   situated   on the   site   of   the   encampment   of   the   Xth   Legion   of   Rome   which   was   to   storm   the   Jewish   Zealot stronghold   at   Masada.   Together   with   its   adjoining   outcrop,   the   Armenian   Quarter,   which skirts   the   northern   edge   of   the   Convent,   the   Armenian   compound   was   once   home   to   over 25,000 people at its peak.        When   you   first   enter   through   the   huge   iron   gate   of   the   convent,   you   come   face   to   face with   an   ancient   marble   water   fountain,   which   was   placed   there   centuries   ago   to   provide   a cool,    refreshing    drink    for    pilgrims,    in    compliance    with    the    customs    of    Middle    Eastern hospitability.   [The   fountain   is   dry   now,   the   introduction   of   running   water   to   the   homes   of Jerusalem residents sometime during the British Mandate, making it redundant].        Behind   and   above   the   fountain,   a   marble   plaque   embedded   in   the   wall   and   engraved   in flowing Arabic   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 Chaqmaq.      A   few   paces   away,   to   the   left,   is   another   ancient   iron   gate   that   leads   to   the   vestibule   of the   Cathedral   of   St   James. A   magnificent   edifice   that   ranks   as   one   of   the   most   awe-inspiring in   all   of   the   Middle   East,   the   Cathedral   is   bedecked   with   centuries-old   "gantegh"s   (oil   lamps), dangling   from   the   soaring   vault,   and   tallow   candies   dotting   the   three   altars.   The   oil   lamps are   still   in   use   today,   lovingly   tended   by   altar   boys   who   replenish   them   with   pure   olive   oil   at regular   intervals.   The   candles,   made   by   the   Patriarchate's   own   candle-maker,   try   vainly   to dispel    the    elemental    darkness    that    pervades    the    church    and    that    impart    mystical significance to Armenian church rites.        This   mystical   presence   has   been   graphically   expressed   by   an   Armenian   poet   who   speaks thus   of   the   ambience   of   Armenian   churches:   "Gay   rainbow   sunlight   [cascading   down   a   high dindow] . . . golden threads entwined in mists of velvet incense . . ."        The   Cathedral,   which   has   been   built   on   the   site   of   the   tombs   St   James   the   Lord's   brother and   St   James   the   Lesser,   has   in   the   past   also   served   as   a   bomb   shelter.   During   the   1948 Arab- Israeli   war,   the   only   sanctuary   from   the   daily   bombardment   of   the   city   that Armenians   could find   was   within   the   solid,   reassuring   confines   of   their   Cathedral,   with   its   one-meter   thick walls.   During   one   particularly   memorable   night,   over   1,000   shells   of   all   kinds,   including   the dreaded   mortar,   landed   on   and   around   the   Cathedral   -   but   no   single   casualty   did   they   claim. Many   believers   would   later   swear   that   they   had   seen   a   mysterious   figure,   dressed   in   white, standing   vigil   on   the   roof   of   the   Cathedral,   and   with   his   hands   warding   off   the   shower   of missiles. It was none other than St James, believers assert.        At    the    entrance    to    the    Cathedral,    a    large    plaque    marks    the    site    of    the    grave    of Jerusalem's   94th   Armenian   Patriarch,   the   late   Archbishop   Guregh   Israelian.   One   of   the   city's most   popular   and   charismatic   men   of   the   cloth,   Israelian   died   in   1949   of   a   broken   heart, after   witnessing   the   intolerable   sufferings   of   his   war-ravaged   flock,   caught   in   the   crossfire between   the   Arab   and   Jewish   armies.   More   than   once,   he   would   cradle   in   his   own   arms   the shrapnel-shredded   body   of   an Armenian   who   had   been   the   latest   casualty   in   the   unrelenting war, his eyes brimming with tears.        I   remember   the   day   an   uncle   of   my   father   and   another   distant   relative   were   blown   up   by a bomb as they stepped outside the church.      Israelian was visibly shaken as he came to share our pain with us.        "If   you   step   outside   your   house   and   there   is   a   wild   dog   there,   it   will   bite   you,"   he   said   to us.   "Those bombs are like wild dogs - keep away from them, stay inside,"  he pleaded.      Another   lonely,   unpretentious   grave   sits   forlornly   under   an   archway   a   few   paces   away,   at the   other   end   of   the   vestibule. This   one   is   the   last   resting   place   of   Jerusalem's   first Armenian Patriarch, Abraham, a contemporary of Saladin. 
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 Hagopian
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 Hagopian

St James Cathedral

St Archangels church

St James convent