Armenian Quarter

Guest Blog by anonymous

Jerusalem’s Old City has as many hidden places and mysteries as it does religious denominations and identities. There is perhaps no better illustration of this than the Armenian community tucked into its own quarter of the Old City – one of the oldest uninterrupted communities of Jerusalem. A few weeks ago, we were guided through the thick black door of the closeted little town that is the Armenian convent, in the south-west corner of the city, by historian George Hintlian whose story-telling fizzed, ducked and dived. It was a verbal rollercoaster with no seat belt provided. The Armenian convent was no less disorienting to the outsider: a maze of windings stairs, ancient rooms, and step-through half-sized doors. Here is a self-contained village with homes, monastery, cathedral, school, and community centres.

A courtyard in the Armenian Quarter

Armenia was the first country to adopt Christianity as the state religion in the year 301 CE and pilgrims and monks soon came to Palestine, set up the Armenian community and took up residence in some of the first monasteries in the desert nearby, and on the Mount of Olives. As a community often in the minority, it was an easy target when the powers that be were scraping around for money. George led us up to the ancient refectory overlooking the street, all beautiful blue and white tiles, bare walls and fine arched ceilings, with a table laid for dinner. Behind a small wooden door lay an escape hatch, where a rope-drop would lead you away from attackers and down to the street below. The threat must have been real enough to warrant an escape hatch in the dining room!

We went onwards to the Cathedral of St James, said to have been built on the spot where he was beheaded on the orders of King Herod, and some say is buried here. It’s a beautiful candle-lit church, its foundations built in 430 CE, and as we enter the priests are stood on the carpeted floor, in black hoods and green cloaks, singing warm choral pieces that echo around the richly decorated walls. We peer at the thousands of tiles; the same as those made by Armenian craftsmen for the Dome of the Rock, with crosses added for good measure. Doors to shrines are decked out in gold leaf, tortoise shell, and mother of pearl. As a priest pads around the church snuffling out candles with a long pole, we see gold jewellery hanging from paintings – thanks given for prayers answered. George opens up a wood-panelled painting to reveal a hidden corridor behind, leading up to two secret chapels – another escape route!  Here he shows ornate decorations inscribed with the names of Armenian towns that no longer exist, all lost to the Armenian Genocide: the mass murder of over 1 million Armenians in 1915. It was this catastrophic event that led thousands of survivors to flee to Palestine and Jerusalem; these “vanketses” took up sanctuary offered by the old “Khagakatse” Armenian community already here.

Priests singing in the Cathedral of St James
Gold jewellery hangs from a painting
An elaborately decorated shrine in the Cathedral
A secret door and an escape route

Walking out of the Cathedral, and winding through alleyways and courtyards, past holes in a wall cut to help male students talk to girls, George explains the experiences shared by Armenians and Palestinians. In 1948, when the British mandate ended, many Armenians became refugees, leaving behind their lives and homes in Haifa, Jaffa, and West Jerusalem. The Armenian Quarter was heavily shelled during the fighting between the Jewish and Jordanian forces. 40 Armenians were killed. Five babies were born in one night of shelling, one nicknamed “Mortug” after the mortars raining down at the time of the birth. We walked into a very warm and welcoming community hall where a new book on the Armenians of Palestine was being launched.

The Cathedral entrance

There are only around 10,000 Palestinian Christians still living in East Jerusalem, including the Old City. They suffer the same pressures under occupation as all Palestinians do, the same contortions of identity that come with being a “resident” rather than a citizen of your own home, the same disconnections between East Jerusalem and the rest of the West Bank, Gaza too. The Armenian population is dwindling under the pressure, and needs to see a just and peaceful resolution of the occupation to breathe new life into the Christian presence in the birthplace of Christianity. But in the meantime, the community that remains seems determined to hold on to its unique place as a “tile in the mosaic of Jerusalem”. Let’s hope it does.

The book “A Palestinian Armenian” by Varsen Aghabekian, provides a fantastic picture of the Armenian community in Jerusalem, past and present, and is available at the Educational Bookshop on Salah Al Din street.

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