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Jerusalem’s Armenian Quarter

A profile of Jerusalem’s Armenian community.

The sun-burnt bricks and cobblestone passages of Jerusalem’s Armenian Quarter are etched with the tempestuous history of Christianity in the Holy Land. To this community of Christians, history is not merely a collection of tales told about faraway places. For Armenians in Jerusalem, the history of Christianity is still being told – it is inextricably tied to the trials of their everyday life.

Inside the walls of the Old City, Armenian Christians have created a thriving, modern community bound to an ancient mission – witnessing and preserving the work of Christ.

But the Armenian Apostolic Church’s role as a guardian of Christendom’s history in Jerusalem is once again being put to the test. The Armenian community now finds itself fighting to preserve a newly discovered vestige of one of its earliest churches in Jerusalem.

Late last year, mosaics with Armenian inscriptions were uncovered near the Damascus Gate to the Old City. As the bulldozers continued to plow through layers of earth to build a new road through Jerusalem, it became clear that the mosaics contained references to Christ. Archaeologists and church officials determined they were part of a sixth century Armenian monastery.

Shortly after parts of the site were uncovered, George Hintlian, the Armenian patriarch’s secretary, said, “This was without a doubt a monastery and burial ground for Greek and Armenian monks.” And though the Armenian community exalted at the discovery, they were helpless to protect the ruins.

A few days after Christmas, Christians in the Holy City were struggling with both dismay and anger. Israeli officials informed them that a group of ultra-Orthodox Jews had splattered one of the mosaics with indelible black paint. Then they buried the remains of the Armenian monastery under a pile of rocks.

The ultra-Orthodox Jews believe that the cemetery on the site may actually be a Jewish burial place. And they became enraged at what they saw as the defiling of Jewish graves to excavate Armenian mosaics.

But Christians in Jerusalem were also enraged. The heads of every Christian body in the Holy Land issued a statement demanding that Christian sites be protected and threatened to appeal for international protection unless Israeli authorities preserved Christian holy places.

Israeli authorities then unearthed the mosaics and brought them to the Israel Museum for safekeeping. The Armenians protested, claiming the mosaics as a treasure of its history in Christendom’s holiest city – a history they say dates back more than 1,500 years.

This Armenian presence in Jerusalem dates back to Armenia’s conversion to Christianity in 301 A.D. This presence, and the mandate extended to the community by the Arabs in the 7th century, saw the Armenians and Greeks jointly possessing the majority of the Holy Places.

Today, the Armenian Church’s Brotherhood of St. James still maintains some of Christianity’s holiest sites, including the Monastery of St. Savior and the Church of the Holy Archangels, which lies at the east end of St. James Monastery.

The Monastery of St. Savior is located just outside the Old City’s Zion Gate and is believed to be the site where Jesus was kept for one night before being sent to Pilate. In Arabic, the place is called Deir Habs el-Masih, or “The Lord’s Prison.”

According to tradition, the Church of the Holy Archangels also has a connection to Jesus’ Passion. It was built on the site of the house of Annas, the father-in-law of Caiaphas. It is believed that Jesus was brought to this house from Gethsemane and bound to an olive tree in the courtyard. An olive tree still stands in the courtyard, allegedly an offshoot of the one to which Jesus was bound.

“Many people say the fruit of this tree can perform miracles,” Hintlian said, offering a sprig from the tree.

The Armenian Quarter is a treasure house of living history. It is a thriving community of about 2,000 people, with their own churches, schools, library, recreation centers, shops and health clinic.

“We live in the Armenian Quarter, but we are very much a part of the city,” Hintlian said. “We are conscious of our history and of the history of Jerusalem.”

“The first printing press in Jerusalem was in the Armenian Quarter in 1833,” Hintlian continued. “And the first photographic workshop here was founded in the Armenian Quarter in 1855.”

The community’s Gulbekian Public Library is an impressive building that boasts more than 80,000 books with an extensive collection of periodicals dating to 1795. The nearby Library of Manuscripts contains a rich collection of original Armenian documents detailing Armenian and world history.

The towering Cathedral of St. James is the heart of this community. Twenty priests, members of the Brotherhood of St. James, are entrusted with maintaining the cathedral –considered one of the five principal sites of pilgrimage in Jerusalem. The cathedral lies deep in the Armenian Quarter, enclosed by massive black-iron gates that open onto a quiet, cobblestone courtyard. Its mammoth doors are adorned with mother-of-pearl, tortoise shell and ivory. Inside the vaulted, cavernous church lies the tomb of St. James the Lesser, the “brother of the Lord,” who was also the first bishop of Jerusalem. The head of another James, the brother of John, is also enshrined in the cathedral.

The central part of the cathedral dates to the 12th century. Antique chandeliers light the interior, with the help of 350 silver lamps imported from Armenian towns. Eight thousand blue, white and yellow tiles, also imported from Armenia, panel the cathedral’s massive pillars. The floors are covered with exquisite carpets from Turkey and Armenia.

“The last time this church was expanded was in the middle of the 12th century,” Hintlian said. “And the decorations were redone in the early 17th century. Behind all the canvases, there are 14th century frescoes,” he added.

The cathedral’s artwork, especially the ornate gilded crosses, reflect the Armenian Church’s dogma, Hintlian observed. “It is not associated with the death and torture of Christ, but with the joy of his resurrection.”

“Generally, the crosses do not portray Christ on the cross.” The Armenian Apostolic Church does not dwell on the theme of Jesus’ passion and death.

“We believe that he was both human and divine,” Hintlian said. “Even when Jesus was acting as a human being, the divine nature was present.”

The Armenians have survived some difficult times in their history, but none more tragic than in the early 1900s when thousands fled to Jerusalem to escape slaughter.

Our Pontifical Mission’s Jerusalem office maintains a close relationship with Patriarch Torkom Manoogian. The Pontifical Mission’s financial administrator is a consultant for the patriarchate as it converts its administrative and accounting procedures onto computer.

The office is also cooperating with the patriarch’s plan to renovate the priests’ quarters, seminary and homes for the laity living in the monastery.

They came to Jerusalem in 1915, “after the genocide,” Hintlian declared. He recounted how an estimated one million Armenians were killed in Turkey as the Turks tried to stamp out the campaign for an Armenian homeland.

“My grandfather and my uncle were killed in the genocide,” stated Hintlian, “the genocide that the Turks continue to deny.”

A two-story villa inside the Quarter serves as a museum with startling photographs documenting the atrocities committed against the Armenian people. One in particular shows hundreds of bodies heaped in giant piles inside a black pit.

But the museum also serves as a testament to the rich culture of the Armenian people, their will to survive and their zeal to guard the Christian treasures in Jerusalem.

Though the Armenian Church has contributed greatly to Jerusalem’s rich heritage, Armenians living in the Old City are not citizens of Israel.

“We have Israeli identity cards,” Hintlian said, “but Jordanian passports.” In some ways that is an advantage. Jordanian passports allow Armenians to travel freely throughout the Arab world, which they would not be able to do with Israeli passports.

Armenians in Jerusalem try to maintain good relations with Arabs and Israelis, but they do not deny that their community has been affected by tensions in the city. The recent controversy over the mosaics only exacerbated the anxiety many Christians say they feel living in Jerusalem.

In the past two decades, Armenians have been leaving Jerusalem in record numbers because of the economic and political woes that trouble the city.

“In 1948, there were 15,000 Armenians in Palestine,” Hintlian said. Today in all of Israel there are only 4,000, including those on the West Bank.

“Since 1967, the number of Armenians in the area has dropped by 40 percent,” he continued. “At first, many went to Lebanon, but now they are going to the United States and Canada.”

“We are very concerned about this trend,” Hintlian added. “We are trying to persuade people to remain.”

Despite their dwindling numbers, Hintlian and other Armenian leaders are confident Jerusalem’s Armenian community will remain vibrant.

“There always will be a nucleus of people who refuse to leave,” he concluded. And the world’s Christians will owe them a great debt. Through the example of tenacious Christians like the Armenian community, the presence of Christianity will remain in the land of Jesus’ birth.

Joyce M. Davis is Middle East editor on the Foreign Desk of National Public Radio.

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