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Armenian Mosaics of Jerusalem

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The Armenian Mosaics of Jerusalem

Associated Content Producer (The People's Media Company) November 20, 2007

By Norman A. Rubin

The history of Christian Jerusalem would not be complete without mention of the Armenian Christian presence, the door to which has been thrown open by the discovery of seven mosaic pavements. With their Armenian inscriptions, these are evidence of wealth and influence of the Armenian community that flourished in the early years of the Christian era.

In the latter half of the fifth century, the Armenians were defining their national traditions and religious customs. Under the patriarchate of Sahak, an Armenian alphabet was created. St. Mesrob and St. Sahak, leading figures of the early Armenian Church, translated the Bible into the Armenian script. Evangelization was intensified and an Armenian literature developed.

Thus, the fifth century is regarded as the golden age of Armenia. The Armenian Christian Church secured rights to the Holy Land's religious sites surrounding Jerusalem. The newly created Armenian script was no doubt an important means for expressing their possession of a site.

During the sixth century, Jerusalem and its environs had numerous Armenian churches. In AD 570 an anonymous pilgrim noted the Mount of Olives was covered with monasteries and churches. Two other documents confirmed it; one is the list of Armenian monasteries and churches by the monk-historian Anaste in the seventh century and the other the Commemoratorium de Casis Dei (AD 808).

It is generally assumed that many of these buildings were destroyed during a succession of invasions beginning with the Persian at the beginning of the seventh century. This was followed by the return of the Byzantines in AD 628 and then the Moslem conquest of Jerusalem ten years later, and in AD 653 Armenia became an Arab protectorate.

Through the discovery of the seven mosaic floors, archaeologists have been able to verify the presence of these religious buildings and to ascertain their construction and design. Within the Convent of James, in the Armenian quarter of Jerusalem, two fragmentary mosaics have survived. Both are decorated with trees and animals.

Of the other surviving mosaic pavements with Armenian inscriptions only three merit historical and artistic discussion. They are part of a group of funerary chapels inscribed with the names of the deceased notables who patronized the churches and had seen to their upkeep. Two are within the compound of the Russian Convent of the Ascension on the Mount of Olives. The earliest of these two decorated floors, the Atravan mosaic is preserved in the Russian convent's museum: The inscription reads, "this is the tomb of the blessed Susanna, Mother of Atravan."

The design of these mosaic pavements is composed of alternately of interlaced roundels and squared bordered by a braided motif. The medallions enclose many birds among which are pheasants, flamingoes, ibises, doves, ducks and hens. Interspersed within the mosaics are medallions decorated with leaves and fruit. Within is a centerpiece with a symbolic lamb.

The third and the most impressive was discovered in 1895 is in the Musrara quarter near the Damascus Gate. This sumptuous mosaic, measuring 6.5 by 4 mtr., decorated the funerary chapel of St. Polyeuctos, an officer of XXII Roman Legion and a third century soldier-martyr. The mosaic has the same style of workmanship as those from the Mount of Olives, with the same plaited borders as a frame to the decorated central panel. Christian motifs are stressed; the vine scrolls appear to imply life after death, the bird in the cage signifies the incarnation of Christ within the human body; the peacocks drinking from an amphora is and another symbol of life after death. The pavement has an Armenian inscription at its base, which reads, "To the memory and salvation of the souls of all Armenians whose names are known by God alone."

The Jerusalem mosaic pavements provide indisputable evidence of considerable Armenian presence in the early years of the city. It is a rich legacy of the past, which attests to the deep faith of the Armenian Church and its followers, the Armenian people.


NOTE:

1) During recent archaeological excavations carried out in the Musrara quarter, Jerusalem, four Armenian inscriptions were discovered: one on a mosaic floor, two tombstones, and one graffito on a large pottery bowl. See: http://micro5.mscc.huji.ac.il/~armenia/newmos.html

2) There is no precise data as to when the Armenian Church began to build in Jerusalem. Nor is it known whether their fifth and sixth century's religious edifices were different from those of the Greek Orthodox Church. However there is enough evidence to indicate that both the Armenians and Greek monks shared the same monasteries. An example is the remains of the monastery of the Armenian St Euthymius and his Greek disciple St. Saba.

3) In the Old City of Jerusalem lies the Armenian quarter with the Armenian Patriarchate of St. James, a sprawling convent and monastery complex. The Gulbenkian library in the quarter boasts fifty thousand volumes, of which twenty thousand are in Armenian. The former seminary was transformed in 1979 into a museum, which welcomes visitors to its rich display. The St. James printing press, the first in the Holy City, was established in 1833; most of its output is in the Armenian language. Yet it undertakes work in other languages, including Arabic and Hebrew.


More resources: Armenian Patriarchate of Jerusalem: http://www.armenian-patriarchate.org Armenian Studies Program at Fresno State University: http://armenianstudies.csufresno.edu/arts_of_armenia/frescoes_mosaics_ceramics.htm

The author is a former correspondent for the Continental News Service (USA), now retired, busy writing short stories and articles in all genres.


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