Armenians in Jerusalem: Religion in the Holy Land

STORY AND PHOTOS BY MATTHEW KARANIAN

The Armenians of Jerusalem form one of the oldest Armenian communities outside of Armenia.  The Armenian Quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem may be one of the most Armenian places in the world, too.

But this community is more than just old and Armenian. The community also controls, through the Armenian Church, at least a part of every major Christian Holy Site in the region, including the birthplace and crucifixion of Jesus, and the Tomb of the Virgin Mary.

With such a rich cultural legacy, one might guess that the Armenians of Jerusalem are strong and thriving. They are not. If the Old City were divided up today, the Armenians might barely command one street. They certainly would not lay claim to an entire Quarter, as they have for centuries.

The survival of the community is today in peril. The population is dwindling. Armenian property rights are under attack. Even Armenian pilgrims are fewer in number.

Matthew Karanian—a Pasadena lawyer and the author of several books about Armenia—traveled to Jerusalem earlier this year as part of a research and photography project. Karanian is the co-author, with Robert Kurkjian, of the best-selling travel guide Armenia and Karabagh: The Stone Garden Guide. This article is one in a series about the Jerusalem Armenians that Karanian has written and photographed for Asbarez.

The Armenian Catholic Community of Jerusalem

Hundreds of Christian pilgrims walk past Our Lady of the Spasm, the Armenian Catholic Church in Jerusalem, on a typical day.

And beginning at about 4 o’clock each morning, Father Raphael, the pastor at Our Lady of the Spasm, is awakened by their singing.

“The window to my bedroom is right there,” he says, pointing to a third-story window directly above the spot where Jesus is believed to have first fallen under the weight of the cross.

Father Raphael lives in the Armenian Convent that is adjacent to the church. And this Convent just happens to have been built directly atop the Third Station of the Cross. The Fourth Station of the Cross is also on the church’s property.

Our Lady of the Spasm, therefore, occupies a prominent location on the Via Dolorosa—also known as the Path of Sorrow or the Way of the Cross—in the Old City of Jerusalem.

And so on most mornings Father Raphael is awakened by the sounds of the pilgrims who have gathered before sunrise at the Third Station to sing the Lord’s Prayer. The words that are sung are in English. Or Italian. Or Spanish. “But it’s never in Armenian,” Father Raphael says. “I wish to hear one day ‘Our Father’ in Armenian.”

His wish is reasonable, but hearing Armenian spoken or sung on the cobbled streets of Jerusalem is becoming less likely. There are only an estimated 2,000 Armenians living in the Jerusalem region today—and some estimates put the figure even lower. By contrast, roughly 35,000 or more Armenians had lived in the region prior to 1948.

Waves of Armenians left in 1948, upon the establishment of the state of Israel. Still more left in 1967, after Israel captured the Old City of Jerusalem, the West Bank, and the Gaza Strip. The second intifada of 2001 also resulted in an exodus of Armenians.

For most of the Armenians who leave Jerusalem, their departure is a one-way ticket. Many choose not to return because they believe the prospect for employment in the professions is poor for a non-Jew in Jerusalem.

Some choose to leave because they are treated poorly as non-Jews in a Jewish state. Those who wish to return are not encouraged. The government of Israel for its part says it is not obligated to repatriate any non-Jew who emigrates. The “law of return” applies only for those who are Jewish, and not for non-Jews who were born in Jerusalem and who then left and want to come back.

This combination of emigration, of immigration restrictions, and of poor prospects for employment, have all resulted in diminished numbers for the Armenian community of Jerusalem—and a diminished likelihood that the community, after nearly two millennia, will be able to survive for another generation.

Still, Father Raphael is hopeful, despite the dwindling population of the community. “I hope to see Armenians here as pilgrims and also as tourists,” he says.

The Armenian Church in Jerusalem

The Armenian Catholic Church is a newcomer to Jerusalem, having been established only in the 17th century. Our Lady of the Spasm was built on the site of the Third and Fourth Stations of the Cross after an Ottoman Sultan gave the prime property to the Catholic Armenians.

The Ottoman Empire ruled Jerusalem at the time and sometimes used favors, such as the gifts of properties, to accomplish its political objectives. Father Raphael is more circumspect. He says the property was given to the church at a time when there was a “dispute” among the Armenians.

Today the church has about 250 members. Many members of the parish have moved away to places such as San Diego, Calif., says Father Raphael. The decline saddens him. “We’re Armenian. We’re passing through a very dark time of faith,” as a result of the community’s declining population, he says.

As a result, “there’s a risk that others outside the community will try to take advantage of us,” he says.

The perception of being at risk is palpable in the Armenian Quarter, which is located on the other side of the Old City of Jerusalem.

When the streets are clear of pilgrims and tourists, one can walk from Our Lady of the Spasm—which is located in the Muslim Quarter—to the Armenian Quarter in about 15 minutes. At other times, though, the walk can take three times as long.

The Armenians of the Armenian Quarter, in contrast to the Catholic Armenians, are not newcomers to Jerusalem. They have a recorded history of about 1,700 years.

The origins of the Armenian community are traced to the fourth century, AD. And there was a formally designated geographic region known as the Armenian Quarter as early as the fifth century. By the seventh century there were already some 70 Armenian convents and churches in Jerusalem. Most of them have been destroyed, but the St. James Cathedral, located in the heart of the Armenian Quarter, is one of the sacred survivors.

The Cathedral is the focal point for the Armenian community, and the heart of the Armenian Quarter. On a recent evening, four priests from the St. James Armenian Brotherhood were elevated to the status of Vartabed—the rank of a high priest—during a ceremony at this Cathedral. Archbishop Nourhan Manoogian of the Armenian Patriarchate presided over the ceremony, which was lighted only by candles and oil-fed lamps. The entire community seemed to have attended the event.

Later that week, one of the new Vartabeds walked down a public street in the Armenian Quarter with a couple of members of the Armenian community. The hour was late, but the sun had not yet set. I was with the group.

As we walked, a Haredi Orthodox Jew walked toward us. Without breaking stride, he spat at the feet of Father Norayr, the Vartabed.  Father Norayr urged us to ignore the assault, and to keep walking. “If we confront him, we’ll be deported,” he said.

This was my first introduction to the so-called “spitting phenomenon” of Jerusalem. Orthodox Jews spit on the Christians—mostly the Greek and Armenian Christians—partly out of contempt, and partly because they wish to assert their dominance, according to members of the Armenian community.

This “phenomenon” was described in a front-page story in the magazine section of the Jerusalem Post in November, 2009. The Post quoted a local Rabbi as saying that for Christian clergy in the Old City, being spat on has become a part of life.

There are many in the Armenian community who see the spitting as merely an indicator of the decline of the status of the Armenians. The community is weak, and in peril. Some also see the spitting as a metaphor for how the community is treated by Israel. Others say the incidents are isolated, and committed by a fringe of fanatics, without any deeper meaning.

Regardless of the interpretation, however, the community agrees that the Israeli leadership of Jerusalem is either unable or unwilling to end the assaults.

Facts on the Ground

Just outside the gates of the Old City, George Hintlian, a Jerusalem historian and a resident of the Armenian Quarter, tells the story of the discovery of a priceless floor of historic Armenian mosaics from the sixth century.

Back in 1894, as Hintlian recounts, an Armenian named Dikran Koligian was visiting Jerusalem on a pilgrimage. At the time, excavations were underway for a small apartment building just outside the Old City. The excavations had revealed a strange mosaic floor, with unusual lettering.

Koligian heard about the discovery and traveled to the site. He immediately recognized the historic significance of the find. He purchased the floor for 1,200 gold coins, and donated it to the Armenian Patriarchate of Jerusalem. The owner of the construction site then continued to erect the apartment building above and around the preserved floor. The building still stands today, and, thanks to Koligian, the Armenian Church owns the room that stands above the old mosaic floor.

The lettering on the floor is Armenian. Hintlian translated it for me while I photographed the event. It reads “In memory and for the salvation of all Armenians whose name only the Lord knows.”

“So,” says Hintlian, “this is one of the earliest monuments for the unknown soldier.” And the presence of the floor today is physical evidence of Armenians in Jerusalem in the sixth century.

Is any of this important for Armenians? I had just seen an Armenian Vartabed get spat upon in the Armenian Quarter. This 1,500 year-old tile floor seemed rather remote by comparison.  Hintlian disagreed.

“We have an international presence here. We have a physical presence covering one-sixth of the world’s highest-profile city. We should care” about saving all of this, he said.

“This is gold for our history,” said Hintlian. “It’s not just story telling. It’s facts on the ground.”

Matthew Karanian traveled to Jerusalem earlier this year as part of a research and photography project documenting the Armenian community and the Old City’s Armenian Quarter. His Jerusalem photography will be included in a large format photography book to be released in 2012 with co-author Robert Kurkjian.

Karanian practices law in Pasadena, Calif., and is a former Associate Dean and member of the law faculty at the American University of Armenia in Yerevan. He is also the co-author with Kurkjian of several books about Armenia, including the best-selling photo-based travel guide Armenia and Karabagh: The Stone Garden Guide. This book is available from Borders, from Armenian booksellers in Glendale, and from the online bookseller Amazon.com.

Karanian’s photography has appeared in such magazines as CNN Traveler, Photo Life, and Photo District News (PDN). He has photographed leaders such as former Presidents Bill Clinton and Robert Kocharian, in the Oval Office of the White House, and several Miss Armenia beauty queen.

_______________

Matthew Karanian traveled to Jerusalem earlier this year as part of a research and photography project documenting the Armenian community and the Old City’s Armenian Quarter. His Jerusalem photography will be included in a large format photography book to be released in 2012 with co-author Robert Kurkjian.

Karanian practices law in Pasadena, Calif., and is a former Associate Dean and member of the law faculty at the American University of Armenia in Yerevan. He is also the co-author with Kurkjian of several books about Armenia, including the best-selling photo-based travel guide Armenia and Karabagh: The Stone Garden Guide. This book is available from Borders, from Armenian booksellers in Glendale, and from the online bookseller Amazon.com.

Karanian’s photography has appeared in such magazines as CNN Traveler, Photo Life, and Photo District News (PDN). He has photographed leaders such as former Presidents Bill Clinton and Robert Kocharian, in the Oval Office of the White House, and several Miss Armenia beauty queen.

_______________

See Part I of the Armenians in Jerusalem Series: Armenians in Jerusalem: The Politics of Survival in the Holy Land

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9 Comments

  1. Elar said:

    Why is there a focus on the Armenian Catholics of Jerusalem. They are irrelevant. The main owner of the Armenian sector is the Armenian Apostolic Mother Church. Armenian Catholics are just servants of Rome and just help build the treasury of the pope. How can they reconcile that the pope does not recognize the Armenian Genocide?????

    • Mariam said:

      Elar,we should turn our focus on the main issue,which is the failure of the heads of our churches,and communities around the world to for once match their own interests, with that of the nation. I was a young woman in Jerusalem when lands that belonged to our church for 1700 years where sold illegaly by then Patriarch Derderian,and Bishop Ajamian ,I hope on future articles Mr.Hintilian could elaborate more on that,these types of scare tactics and rumors of immanent danger on Armenian property in Jerusalem means one thing, that it’s O.K to sell,looks like bad days are ahead.

  2. Nareg Seferian said:

    Catholic Armenians are just as Armenian as any other kind of Armenian. There is nothing “irrelevant” about them. I suppose the contribution of the Mekhitarist Congregation (Mkhitarian Miapanoutiun) to the culture and literature of the Armenian people means nothing? Besides which, it is not for no reason that the traditions and rites of Catholic Armenians are almost indistinguishable from those of the Armenian Apostolic Church.

    The reason for the existence of such a community involves a complicated history, certainly having to do with the politics of both European powers and the Ottoman Turkish Empire, stretching back to the Crusades, and even earlier. Suffice it to say, however, that the Armenian Catholics are not to be dismissed as mere “servants of Rome”. And please have a look at the Vatican City Communiqué about the Armenian Genocide, available at http://www.armenian-genocide.org/current_category.7/affirmation_list.html.

    I am glad that this series about the Armenian community of Jerusalem devoted one part to the Catholic Armenians. I hope future installments will provide an overview of the Protestant Armenians as well, and also of Armenians from Armenia who have made it to Jerusalem over the past two decades.

  3. John said:

    Elar,

    Your comments are totally offensive to Armenian catholic community of Jerusalem. Despite having dogmatic and patristic differences they still consider themselves as larger part of the Armenian Nation. You should just go and open some history books in order to learn the pioneer work that has been undertaken by the Armenian Catholic Priests in the Armenian National Revival in the 18th and the 19th century. Good Luck with exploring History 101:)

    ADM (A Devout Monotheist)

  4. Varojan said:

    I just don’t understand, how is that we have promoted tourism all over the world that includes Tukey by some no brainers, and dare to neglect history we own in Jerusalem at a staggering cost, in fact we have national treasures in cyprus as well as in India waiting for a responsible committee by the government to come and take the appropriate measures to update, preserve and serve the interests of the Armenians, and the potentials are so great…

  5. Norin Radd said:

    Elar, I’m glad someone finally pointed to the big pink elephant in the middle of the proverbial room. As an Armenian, I find it funny and hilarious that there actually are Armenians that belong to the Catholic church or the Evangelical church instead of joining their own which precedes as well as supersedes both of those religious bodies in both historic and theological relevance.

    Armenians practiced Christianity long before either of these groups emerged in history, the Armenian Apostolic Church with its roots that reach much further back than any Christian institution or sub group on the face of the planet, has a deeper and much more intricate (not too mention accurate) understanding of all the aspects of Christian principles that exist today. Yet, you find some lost and clueless Armenians joining Catholic congregations, Jehova’s witnesses, or even fanatical Evangelical sects either out of ignorance of their own roots, or some other motive.

    It’s also extremely important for all Armenians worldwide to note that our religious practices are also under attack by other Churches via aggressive “drafting” through delusional promises of grandeur. Often times, it is not uncommon to find an older Armenian couple being lured into one of these groups under the guise of “come attend our church” by foreign Churches that attempt to draw them away from their Apostolic roots into these post-modern parishes that owe their existence to the very same Armenians that they try to draft out of our Apostolic Church. Some of them actually also have the nerve to critique the Armenian Apostolic Church via slander and unfounded lies in an attempt to cast a bad light and draw Armenians away from their religious roots.

    The Armenian Apostolic Church and Armenians worldwide should draw strict lines and in order to protect no only our cultural way of life but our theological one as well, both in the Diaspora and the more vulnerable Armenia in which Armenians in desperate need of economic aid may turn to foreign Churches’ offers of monetary aid. None of these Churches would dare walk up to Jewish synagogues or Jewish populations in an attempt to convert them, Armenians too must keep such firm ground against these types of religious advances that have escalated as of late.

    We are devout Christians already, these Churches should go sell craziness somewhere else!

  6. Rita Hosepian said:

    Elar what kind of human being are you?? It is not just Armenian Catholic, the Armenian church they are mainly speaking of is the Armenian Orthodox. The Armenian Patriarch of Jerusalem of Armenian Orthodox. You should not talk nonsense when you are ignorant to the subject

  7. Seb said:

    Good article but with flaws in it.

    -The four priests were elevated to the status of Vartabed at the St.James Armenian Apostolic Church.
    Calling it St. James Armenian Brotherhood is incorrect.

    – The Patriarchate and the Cathedral belongs to the Armenian Apostolic Church. Never mentioned.

    A concerned Jerusalemite

    • Appo said:

      Seb, I think the article says that the priests are members of the St. James Brotherhood, and that the ceremony was at the St. James Cathedral. Everyone here calls it a Cathedral, too. So the article got it right.

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