Armenian Jerusalem

The late 1920s were a watershed in the history of the

Armenians in the Holy Land. It was during this seminal

epoch that the Armenian community laid the

groundwork for a school of its own, the Tarkmanchatz,

which has given the world more than its quota of

luminaries (including Ohan Durian, the great

composer) as well as a large library, both institutions

gifts of Calouste Gulbenkian, who was known in oil and

financial circles as Mr Five Percent, a reference to his

stake in the Iraq Petroleum Company.

     The library ranks as one of the most important in the Armenian diaspora. It boasts close to 100,000 volumes, of which less than half are in Armenian. The rest are mainly in English, French, and German, as well as quite a few dead languages, including hieroglyphics. The library subscribes to almost every single Armenian-owned publication in the world, making it an invaluable repository of Armenian culture and literature. Almost every single Armenian-owned newspaper and magazine published anywhere in the world is represented here. Among the rare treasures on display in the library, are an Armenian bible printed in Amsterdam in the middle of the 17th Century, and a delightful facsimile of the Egyptian Book of the Dead, which includes the haunting litany from the papyrus of the Royal Mother Netchemet, with its perennial refrain: "I have done no hurt unto man, nor have I wrought harm unto beasts . . . I am pure - I am pure - I am pure." And hidden under a veil of dust, away from prying eyes, you will come across a curious tome, titled the "Vetz Hazariah" (the six thousand) to which access is denied to all but a handful. From what little we knew about it, it is a treatise on magic and the occult. One man we know who had read the book used to dress entirely in blue, dangle a sword from his belt, and take long walks across the roofs of the St James convent, like one possessed. He never talked to anyone. Perhaps because no one dared approach him. They were all afraid of what he might say or do: what secret knowledge or power he had gleaned never actually came to the test. For years, the library had been out of limits to everyone except scholars and the clergy. It was only when Father Anoushavan Zeghchanyan, a linguist who knew more than a dozen languages, became curator that he threw its doors wide open. One of his dreams was to compile a comparative grammar, as he called it, encompassing Armenian, English, French and a host of other languages, but he did not live to realize it. It was this self-effacing clergyman who also introduced us to the delights of French at the Tarkmanchatz school. The education proved invaluable to me when I later went to the College Des Freres high school, run by friars belonging to the Catholic De La Salle order. A few minutes walk away, through the labyrinthine alleys of the Convent, the tiny chapel of St Thoros stands guard over some of the Patriarchate's most precious treasures: a trove of over 4,000 illustrated manuscripts. For nearly all his adult life, the late Archbishop Norayr Bogharian had lavished special care and attention on these priceless relics, his ceaseless efforts resulting in the compilation of a dozen grand catalogs listing every one of the manuscripts, with occasional excerpts culled from them, and a full physical description, as well as a brief summary of the contents of each. The manuscripts are inaccessible to the general public. However, bona fide researchers who meet the stringent scholarly demands of the Patriarchate, may be allowed to study the manuscripts, on the premises. The Queen Keran gospel (1272), a masterpiece of miniature illustration, the work of Thoros Roslin, one of the Armenian nation's greatest medieval artists, occupies place of honor among the panoply of manuscripts that include not only sacred tests but also homilies and treatises on medicinal herbs. I am one of the privileged few who had been granted access to this incomparable marvel. I had never had a chance to get up real close and personal to the manuscripts before, while I was working as press officer and secretary to the Patriarch, but on my latest return to Jerusalem from Sydney where I live, that opportunity presented itself. I gazed in speechless wonder as the library custodian carefully opened pages of the manuscript for me to photograph. She touched each of the sheets with an almost religious awe and trepidity, fearful of leaving a smudge there, and thus desecrating this priceless masterpiece. The colors, agelessly pregnant with pigments several centuries old, seem alive, vibrating with an intensity of passion that strikes the soul. The manuscript gospel, along with hundreds of others, have lain in undisturbed solitude for centuries, shaken out of their desultory concealment only occasionally to enjoy a brief respite from obscurity for the express purpose of delighting the eyes of some visiting high- ranking dignitary, or a bona fide researcher. But if the Armenian Patriarchate's Grand Sacristan, Archbishop Nourhan Manoogian, succeeds in realizing his dream, Queen Keran will shed her veil of obscurity and be reborn in her vaunted glory. He confided his dream to me as we stood in his office leafing through the facsimile of an ancient manuscript, a gift from the Pope. "This is what I'd like to do," he said. "Reproduce the Queen Keran gospel in brilliant facsimile, in all the glorious illustrations of Toros Roslin, a memorable treasure for libraries, museums and researchers around the world." Although Nourhan realizes that a an exact facsimile will be an expensive exercise, he is comforted by the expectation of intense demand for it from discerning collectors, museums, and others. Experts note that the technology is certainly available in such a highly advanced IT location like Israel, but believe costs might be lower abroad. The manuscript, perhaps the most elegant produced during the Mediaeval ages, contains, in addition to canon tables and richly decorated headpieces, thirteen full-page miniatures illustrating the main events in the life of Christ and a hundred and three marginal miniatures. But the most remarkable aspect of the manuscript is the inclusion of portrays of members of the royal family: Queen Keran herself, her husband King Levon III and their five children, are portrayed as supplicants, with the Virgin Mary and St John the Baptist shown interceding on their behalf. Scholars attach particular importance to these illustrations as they cast a light on the fashion of the royal court of the age.      
Gulbenkian library