Captivating UCLA Conference on Armenian Jerusalem

By Vartan Matiossian

LOS ANGELES–There are few places in the diaspora today where Armenia’s have had such a central role as in Jerusalem. The fact that any serious study about the Holy City cannot avoid reference to the Armenia’s is in itself evidence of this special position. The Arab-Israeli conflict and now the death of Yassar Arafat have made the UCLA conference on Armenian Jerusalem–November 6-7–all the more timely and captivating.

"Armenian Jerusalem and Armenia’s in the Holy Land" was the fifteenth in the conference series on Historic Armenian Cities and Provinces organized by Professor Richard Hovannisian–AEF Chair in Armenian History at the University of California–Los Angeles (UCLA). Beginning in 1997–the first twelve conferences dealt with Western Armenia and the once-Armenian-populated regions of current-day Turkey: Van/Vaspurakan to Constantinople–Smyrna/Izmir–the Black Sea communities–and Caesarea. Hovannisian has already edited and published the first five volumes in this series–Van/Vaspurakan (2000)–Baghesh/Bitlis-Taron/Mush (2001)–Tsopk/Kharpert (2002)–Karin/Erzerum (2003)–and most recently Sebastia/Sivas and Lesser Armenia (2004)–each between 300 and 450 pages and with many relevant photographs.

The last two conferences–devoted to New Julfa and the other Armenian communities of Iran–moved the focus of the series to areas outside of historic Armenia. The conference on Jerusalem continued this exploration. Its honorary president was His Beatitude–Archbishop Torkom Manoogian–Armenian Patriarch of Jerusalem–with co-sponsorship by the UCLA International Institute–Center for Near Eastern Studies–and Center for European and Eurasian Studies.

The Conference and an Azeri News Agency

Before describing the conference–it is instructive to note an episode of the continuing anti-Armenian distortions–this one so ridiculous as to be pathetic. The Azeri "Assa-Irada" news agency–in a release dated November 9–hastened to "honor" the conference with its attention by issuing a brief report. According to that news item–a "well-informed source" let it be known that a member of the Institute of History of the Armenian Academy of Sciences–Dr. Albert Kharatyan–had referred to Armenia’s as "the first inhabitants of Jerusalem and that the city was a part of "Great Armenia." Of course–there was nothing remotely resembling such a statement by the Armenian historian–and this disinformation can only be ascribed to the Armenophobic imagination of the "well-informed" source.

With this–we might also call on the Armenian media to be more circumspect in judging and taking at face value what the Azeri and Turkish press write about individual Armenian scholars or others. And it would be most desirable that the Armenian media be present or have reporters at such important conferences at the UCLA series to give first-hand accounts and descriptions.

The Opening Session–November 6

When Professor Hovannisian opened the conference on Saturday morning with his introductory presentation on the history and significance of Armenian Jerusalem–the UCLA Court of Sciences Auditorium–which seats more than 450 persons–was filled to capacity and this strong attendance continued to the end of the day. On Sunday afternoon–despite the inclement weather–most of the auditorium was again occupied.

The paper of Professor Nina Garsoian (Columbia University–Emerita)–read by Dr. Sergio La Porta–dealt with the seventh century text of the Vardapet Anastas–who wrote that while in the Holy Land he had visited 70 Armenian monasteries and communities. Although some scholars have considered this text to be a fabrication or else greatly exaggerated–Garsoian uses Greek and archeological sources to demonstrate that the basic text regarding the Armenian and Caucasian Albanian presence in the Holy Land in the sixth and seventh centuries is sound.

Dr. John Carswell (Malaga–Spain–formerly University of Chicago and AUB) described with many personal anecdotes and color slide projections the Armenian mosaics and ceramics of Jerusalem. While conducting his field work in Jerusalem–he photographed some 2,000 examples–some of which were published in his two-volume study. He also discovered two eighteenth-century chronicles that describe the events in Constantinople and Jerusalem at the time.

Professor Abraham Terian (St. Nersess Seminary–New York)–a native of Jerusalem–described the rich man’script collection of St. James Monastery. The collection of some 3,900 man’scripts has now been catalogued in eleven volumes by the late savant–Archbishop Norayr Bogharian. Stating that first written source about Armenia’s in Jerusalem is from the sixth century–the speaker described the important translations that have taken place and the rich tradition of man’script production.

Dr. Claude Moutafian (University of Paris) discussed the relations between the Armenian lords and the kings of Jerusalem in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. He related how Armenian princesses of Cilicia–such as Arda–Morphia–and Melisande–through marriage became the queens of Jerusalem. It is likely that they sponsored or supported Armenian initiatives such as the twelfth-century restoration of St. James Monastery. He also attempted to date the scepter that has been ascribed to the Cilician King Hetum and to determine whether this belonged to Hetum I or Hetum II–both of whom lived in the thirteenth century.

Professor Sergio La Porta (Hebrew University of Jerusalem) explored the relationship between the Armenian Patriarchate of Jerusalem and Greater Armenia in the fourteenth century. The accommodation of certain Roman Catholic rites by the Catholicos of All-Armenia’s–who then resided at Sis in Cilicia–caused a strong reaction from among the traditionalist bishops in the east. Resistance was also shown by the Armenian clergy of Jerusalem. The prelate–Bishop Sarkis–refused to accept the compromising stance of the church council at Adana in 1307–and in 1311 broke with the Holy See in Cilicia–formally establishing the Armenian Patriarchate in Jerusalem under the protection of the Mamluk sultans. Steadfast allegiance to the traditional Armenian faith subsequently resulted in the election of Jerusalem Patriarch Boghos Garnetsi as Catholicos of All-Armenia’s in Sis in 1418.

From Medieval to Modern Jerusalem

The afternoon session on November 6 began with the presentation by Dr. Roberta Ervine (St. Nersess Academy) on one of the most dynamic leaders of Jerusalem–Patriarch Krikor Baronder (Grigor Paronter)–who reigned from 1613 to 1645. During his tenure–the Ottoman Empire was in crisis–which also impacted the Armenian people and Armenian Jerusalem. Even before entering into religious service–Baronder–a native of Gandzak in Eastern Armenia–had campaigned to eliminate the burdensome debts of the patriarchate. He was able to secure major contributions–not only from Van–New Julfa–and Aleppo but also from places such as Amida–Urfa–and Bitlis–virtually encouraging their competition to erase the debt. During his thirty-two-year patriarchal reign–Baronder–expanded the Armenian presence in Jerusalem–acquiring new properties–organizing pilgrimages–and creating a spiritual atmosphere within the monastery.

Dr. Albert Kharatyan (Institute of History–Yerevan)–speaking in Armenian–reflected on Armenian-Greek church relations during the second half of the seventeenth century. The period was characterized by sharp disagreemen’s and competition relating to the respective rights of the churches in the holy places as well as to issues such as the liturgical calendar. For a brief time–in 1657-1658–the Greeks were even able to take control of St. James Monastery by bribing the Turkish officials. The difficulties were compounded by the turmoil within the Armenian Patriarchate of Constantinople–which at that time had jurisdiction over Jerusalem. Ultimately–it was Krikor the Chain-Bearer (Grigor Shkhtayakir–1715-1749) who delivered the Jerusalem Patriarchate from debt and restored it to its previous position.

Professor Christina Maranci (University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee) gave an illustrated talk on the sixth century Armenian mosaic floor that was discovered near the Damascus Gate in 1894. The large mosaic has given rise to scholarly debates regarding the depiction of various birds and animals and their significance. Linking the mosaic with similar (but different) Greek and Jewish models–the art historian speculated that it could possibly be associated with death rituals.

The Modern Period

Following an intermission–the conference moved on to the modern period. Dr. Emma Kostandyan (Institute of History–Yerevan)–speaking in Armenian with an English summary–examined the linkages between the beloved Armenian church leader–Khrimian Hayrig and Jerusalem. Khrimian visited Jerusalem in 1852–based on which he wrote in the well-known "Hravirag ergrin Avediats" (Passage to the Promised Land). While Khrimian was the Armenian Patriarch of Constantinople–he communicated frequently with Jerusalem–and these letters have become an important historical source. Then in 1890–the Turkish authorities exiled him to Jerusalem where he remained until he was elected Catholicos of All-Armenia’s in 1892–after which he continued to show deep concern for the welfare and activities of the Patriarchate of Jerusalem.

Dr. Robert Krikorian (George Washington University) spoke about the Armenian volunteer movement and the Armenian Legion during World War I. The Armenian Legion played a significant role in the liberation of Palestine under the joint Allied command of General Allenby. The Armenian volunteers distinguished themselves in the hard-fought battle of Arara–which was a turning point that brought the end of Ottoman rule in Palestine. Interestingly–Armenian volunteers hastening to Artsakh in 1988 and thereafter were inspired by the volunteer movement and the example of the Armenian Legion–whose feats were related by natives of Musa Dagh who had repatriated to Armenia.

Professor Vahram Shemmassian (California State University-Northridge) reported with facts and figures on the Armenian deportees and survivors of 1915 who ended up in Palestine during World War I. After the British occupied the region–some 4,000 of these people were transferred to Port Said. By the fall of 1919–most of them had been able to return to their native towns and villages–at least for the time being.

The conference continued on the UCLA campus on Sunday afternoon. Dr. Vartan Matiossian (Del Salvador University and Hovnanian School) spoke on the two driving forces during a "golden age" (1921-1939). These were the successive patriarchs Eghishe Turian and Torkom Kushagian. The presentation began with reflections on the establishment and the history of the Armash Seminary where Turian was the dean for a long time and Kushagian was his student and successor. During their Jerusalem years–the two dedicated patriarchs were able to revive the traditions of Armash–making Armenian Jerusalem the spiritual and cultural center of the Diaspora and the workplace of such noted intellectuals as Hagop Oshagan and Shahan Berberian.

Columbia University PhD candidate Bedross Der Matossian–a native of Jerusalem–used charts and graphs to synthesize the history of the Armenian community of Palestine from 1917 to 1948. By the time of the Arab-Israeli war in 1948–the number of Armenia’s in Jerusalem–Jaffa–Haifa–Bethlehem–and elsewhere had grown from 3,000 to more than 15,000. This gave to the community a new and different cultural–educational–athletic–and political life.

Professor Osheen Keshishian (Glendale College)–also a native of Jerusalem and editor of the "Armenian Observer," spoke about the literary life of Jerusalem–discussing the work and activities of a number of important cultural figures–such as Turian–Oshagan–Berberian–Eghivart (Archbishop Eghishe Derderian)–Shen-Mah–Anel (Dr. Garo Garabedian)–Vahram Mavian–and others. His presentation included first-hand observations and impressions.

Professor Nurith Kenaan-Kedar (University of Tel Aviv) made her presentation by video–in which she described the Armenian ceramic art in Jerusalem–which was brought to the Holy Land by masters from Kutahia. With beautiful visual images and illustrations–she described the history and production of the Balian–Ohannesian–and Karakashian families. The tradition of the Kutahia tiles has being perpetuated and embellished by three generations of the Balian and Karakashian families. Marie Balian in particular has caught the eye of Israeli and Palestinian society and has dedicated a large recent creation to the elusive vision of peace.

Contemporary Jerusalem and Its Challenges

The final session on Sunday focused on the contemporary situation in Jerusalem. Sylva Natalie Manoogian (UCLA) described with power-point projections the plans for renovation of the Patriarchate’s Gulbenkian Library–a project that has been in progress since 1995. She has personally been involved in the work and hopes that before too long the library will again be open for use by students and scholars.

Dr. Sossie Andezian (National Center of Scientific Research–Paris) has been conducting research on the Armenian community of Jerusalem for the past five years. She stressed the importance of Jerusalem for Armenia’s worldwide. The events of the past years have made that role all the more critical. The local Armenia’s–because of the absence of pilgrims in recent times–have become something like "permanent pilgrims." She explained that there is tension and mutual dissatisfaction between the lay and religious components of the community. The Patriarchate has been firmly situated for centuries and the holy character of the city has safeguarded the position of the Armenian Church. But things have been changing during the past decades as the result of more stringent state policies. The state police can now even enter within the walls of St. James Monastery–and Armenian properties can be expropriated if deemed necessary for considerations of national defense. It is interesting that Armenia’s who lost all their properties as the result of the 1948 Arab-Israeli war have seldom complained about this injustice–but they are outraged and ready to mobilize when the issue comes to the holy places and properties belonging to the Armenia’s collectively. The speaker concluded that Jerusalem–as the holy city of three great religions–is an international area–where issues require an international political settlement–and–therefore–the internationalization of the city can stabilize and improve the Armenian condition.

Kevork/George Hintlian (Christian Heritage Research Institute)–who was scheduled to speak on new directions of research on Armenian Jerusalem and the Holy Land–instead opened the floor to a discussion about the current situation. Having served as the secretary of the Armenian Patriarchate for many years (like his father before him)–more recently he has become an unofficial spokesman for the community. During his intense half-hour exchange with the audience–Hintlian spoke cautiously yet with urgency about the prevailing conditions. "We are facing an extremely fateful situation regarding the Armenian quarter of Jerusalem. Negotiations will be conducted during the next ten years. We need to enlist international lawyers. The challenge we face is a global solution that can be imposed on us. The defense [of Armenian rights] cannot be left to seventeen members of the St. James brotherhood. People of middle age have left. But there are still thousands of people who are bonded with Jerusalem." In reply to questions about disturbing reports about difficulties encountered by the Armenia’s and especially the Armenian clergy–he stated: "What we are observing is not an anti-Armenian attitude but rather an anti-Christian one."

The Armenian Jerusalem conference was an extremely important milestone in the UCLA series organized by Richard Hovannisian. In his concluding remarks–Professor Hovannisian noted the difference between this conference and many of the preceding ones was that Jerusalem still has a living–although weakened–Armenian community whereas many of the cities and provinces of historic Armenia have been completed denuded of their Armenian element. He announced that this series will be interrupted so that on the occasion of the ninetieth anniversary of the Armenian genocide an international conference may be organized at UCLA on April 2-3–2005.

The twenty conference participants were honored by the Srpots Tarkmanchadz School Alumni Association at an opening dinner reception on Friday evening–November 5–and by Mr. and Mrs. Alec and Alenoush Baghdassarian of the Armenian Educational Foundation on Saturday–November 6.

Immediately following the end of the conference on November 7–many of the participants attended a reception on the UCLA campus marking the thirtieth anniversary of the Society for Armenian Studies (SAS). The program honored the founders of SAS: Nina Garsoian–Richard Hovannisian–Dikran Kouymjian–Avedis Sanjian–and Robert Thomson. The master of ceremonies for the event was UCLA Narekatsi Professor Peter Cowe. Hovannisian gave a synopsis on the formation of the Society thirty years ago–and additional commen’s were made by the current SAS president–Professors Barlow Der Mugrdechian of California State University-Fresno–Robert Hewsen–Rowan State University (emeritus)–UCLA librarian Gia Aivazian–and R. Hrair Dekmejian (USC).

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