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The Armenian Quarter is one of the four quarters of the Old City of Jerusalem. It might appear that the Armenian quarter would be a part of the Christian Quarter, since virtually all Armenians residing in Jerusalem are Christians, yet for historical reasons the Armenian quarter has remained separate and has not suffered the same disruptions as the other quarters over the last thousand years. Although the smallest of the four quarters, with the fewest residents, the Armenians and their patriarchate remain staunchly independent and present a vigorous presence in the Old City. The story of the Armenian quarter, its growth and decline, its assets and community, is one often overlooked in studies of Jerusalem.
The Armenian people and their establishment in Jerusalem: 95 BC–640 AD
The Armenians are an ancient people who have inhabited parts of Turkey, Iran and the Caucasus for more than three thousand years. The first known instance of an Armenian to come anywhere near Jerusalem arrived in the 95 BC under King Tigranes II of Armenia. The Armenian armies traveled to several cities in Judea before leaving the Holy Land. It was at this time that Jews may have come to trade with Armenia and settle in that far away land when likewise some Armenians came to know of the lands around Jerusalem and may have traded with the Herodian Jewish state. Following the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D the Romans imported "Armenian traders, artisans, Legionaries and government administrators". At precisely this time Thaddeus and Bartholomew, both Christian apostles, arrived in Armenia to preach to the Armenians and the small Jewish community there. Subsequently Christianity spread to the higher echelons of Armenian royalty. In 301 A.D Armenia was proclaimed a "Christian state" under its King Terdat III(Father. Norayr). During this period it is believed Armenian pilgrims were already making their way to and from Jerusalem on pilgrimages. Armenian folk history also tells that already a small "upper room" of a house on Mount Zion was being used as a church, thus the later Armenian claim to a quarter near Mount Zion where the St. James Cathedral would later be built.
The Edict of Milan in 313 AD made Christianity an acceptable religion in the Roman Empire. From this time forward it became easier for Armenian Christians to settle and build homes in Jerusalem. Empress Helena came to the Holy land in 326 AD and began to excavate holy sites, including Golgotha, The Nativity in Bethlehem and the birthplace of Mary. At this time the Church of the Holy Sepulchre was built. Between the fourth and eighth centuries Armenians built as many as seventy monasteries throughout the Holy Land, although how many of them might have been in Jerusalem is open to debate. By the 6th century A.D Armenian Bishops were located in Jerusalem around what they called "Mt. Zion", indicating that a substantial Armenian community existed in the city and that the community was settling continuously in a particular area.
The invention of an Armenian alphabet in 405 certainly helped the Armenian community by allowing them to keep records in their native language. This alphabet has helped spawn the more than four thousand ancient manuscripts kept by the Armenians in the St. Toros Church next to the St. James Cathedral. In the 19th century when breaking ground for the Russian Monastery on the Mount of Olives, six mosaic floors were uncovered to reveal Armenian writing, once again testifying to the presence of Armenians in and around Jerusalem from that period. A similar mosaic was uncovered in the Musrara neighborhood (200 meters from the Damascus Gate) and was purchased by the Armenian patriarchate in 1912.
One of the central reasons for the existence of an Armenian quarter is the religion and ethnicity of the Armenians. Armenians, unlike the majority of Christians in Israel, are not Arab, rather they are ethnically and religiously Armenian. The reason for their ethnicity does not need to be elaborated on except to say that they have remained a homogeneous group, intermarrying over the years and keeping their culture intact.
The reason for the development of a separate Armenian Church is slightly more complicated. At the time Armenia converted to Christianity there was only one church. However in 431 AD the Third Ecumenical Council at Ephesus split the church between Nestorians (today’s Assyrian and Chaldean Christians) and the rest of Christianity. Then in 451 the Fourth Ecumenical Council split Christianity again into Monophysites and Dyophysite. The Armenians thereby joined the Coptic, Ethiopian and Syrian churches in the Monophysite movement, whereas the Byzantine/Orthodox Church (Greek Orthodox, Russian Orthodox etc) became Diophysite. It would take until 1054 for the Latin (Catholic) Church to break from the Orthodox Church and then until the Reformation in the 16th century to split the Christian Church into the factions one sees today in the old city.
Byzantine emperor Justinian (527–565) persecuted the Monophysite churches and the Armenians found themselves speaking on behalf of the Ethiopian, Syrian and Coptic Churches, a leadership role the Patriarchate still assumes. Thus from 451 AD the Armenian church became separate from the other Christian churches in Jerusalem, a fact that would have major ramifications in the ensuing struggle with fellow Christians during the Crusader and Ottoman periods.
The First Muslim Period 638–1099
The Persian conquest and sacking of Jerusalem in 614 and the subsequent Islamic conquest in 638 found the Armenians under siege from their Byzantine masters and they therefore welcomed the invaders as a way to get back the Church property confiscated under Emperor Justinian, and which they had been forbidden from entering. The Armenians now became subject to the Pact of Omar and they became Dhimmis. They would pay a special poll tax called Jizya, sometimes be forced to wear special clothing including Blue Turbans, and not be allowed to construct new Christian buildings. For this they were ‘protected’ which is to say they didn’t suffer the fate of pagans, that of being killed or enslaved.
The Armenians lived under different Muslim dynasties between 638 and the coming of the Crusaders in 1099. The Umayyads based in Damascus were followed by a smooth transition to the Abbasids (750–1258) based in Baghdad, and the subsequent more destructive and intolerant reigns of Fatimids in 969 and finally the Seljuk Turks who pillaged the city in 1071.
The Crusader Periods 1099–1187, 1229–1244
In 1009 the Fatamid ruler Al-Hakim bi-Amr Allah demolished the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, an act that would help light the spark of the Crusades. Pope Urban II called on Christians throughout Europe to unite and drive out the Seljuk "infidels" who had been harassing and suppressing the Christians trying to live in and pass through the Holy Land. The Pope's call was taken up and the heavily armored crusaders set off across Europe, through the Balkans, past the Byzantine Empire and even wandered in sight of the Armenian Kingdom of Cilicia on their way to Jerusalem. Although the Catholic crusaders did not eliminate their co-religionists they brought a mandate that Jerusalem would be "Latin". The Armenians at this time had acquired much of the land in today’s Armenian quarter and by 1165 had finished constructing St. James Cathedral which became the most important building of the quarter and remains so today. It was about this same time that the Church of the Holy Sepulcher was given its modern shape.
The Armenian quarter itself, centered around St. James, also included housing and one holy Christian site, the prison of Jesus. Only the southern part of the area described as the Armenian Quarter today was actually inhabited by Armenians at this time. At this time the Quarter became dominated by non-Armenian churches including the Church of St. Thomas in the southern area, a Greek Church in the north part of the quarter, the Church of St. James Intercisus in the extreme north near David’s Street and the Church of St. Mark bordering today’s Jewish Quarter. As yet another testament to the steadfastness of the Armenian community is that the only church still remaining in the hands of the same owners from this time is the complex of St. James Cathedral. The majority of the other churches from the Crusader period have become mosques, houses or been turned over to other Christian orders. At the same time the Armenians came to possess for a short time the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, leaving the Patriarch Abraham IV’s (in office 1205–1218) name carved on the front door of the church.
One must remark that the Armenians proved themselves more welcome in Jerusalem due to their not being belligerents in the wars against the Muslim powers of the day. The Crusades had been a Catholic affair. Likewise the continuing war against the Orthodox power of Byzantium and the inheritor of that power, the Russians, meant that Muslims were suspicious of the Catholic and Orthodox interests in Jerusalem. However Armenia had long before ceased to be independent, so although a million or more Armenians lived in eastern Anatolia (modern Turkey) they posed no political military challenge to the Muslim Mamluks or Ottomans.
1260–1517—The Mamluk period
The coming of the Slave Army of the Mamluks in 1260, replacing the short lived late Muslim Ayyubid rulers (1244–1260) had little effect on the Armenians but great effect on the other Christian communities, many of whom were viewed as being part of the Crusader mentality. The Armenian Patriarch Sarkis I(1281–1313) met the Mamluke governor and subsequently returned to his community in Jerusalem, hoping to usher in a period of peace for his people after the convulsions of the crusades. The community at this time had a significant community in Egypt and it happened that Patriarchs would travel to Cairo from time to time to meet with the Mamluke rulers and their constituents. The result of these contacts can be inferred by the fact that in the 1340s the Armenians were permitted to build a wall around their quarter. This was a significant sign that the Mamluke rulers felt the quarter did not pose a threat, since the tearing down of walls had been a staple of Mamluke governance as a way to ensure the crusaders did not return. The Mamluke government also engraved the following declaration in Arabic on the western entrance to the quarter:
- The order of our maser Sultan Jaqmaq which stipulates that the taxes levied recently by the town governor regarding the payment by the Armenian enclosure be cancelled and it has been requested that this cancellation be recorded in the Honored Books in the year 854 of the Hijra (1451). Anyone who renews the payment or again takes any tax of extortion is damned, son of the damned, and the curse of Allah will be upon him.
The Armenian quarter in this period kept creating "facts on the ground" by the constant small expansions and solidifications. In the 1380s Patriarch Krikor IV built a priests' dining room across from the St. James Cathedral. Around 1415 the olive grove near the Garden of Gethsemane was purchased. But all was not achievements, for in 1439 Armenians were removed from the Golgotha chapel, but the Patriarch Mardiros I(1412–1450) purchased the “opposite area” and named it second Golgotha; this remains in the Patriarch's possession to this day. In the same period, in 1311 the first Armenian Patriarch was appointed. This Patriarch augmented the other Armenian Patriarch in Armenia and together with the two Supreme Patriarchs (one for Lebanon/Cyprus/Syria and one for Armenia/Jerusalem and everywhere else) made up the highest officials in the church.
The Ottoman Period 1517–1917
Under the Ottomans Jerusalem would become a cosmopolitan city where religious tolerance to some degree functioned well and a corrupt but reasonable Ottoman administration functioned to sort out religious differences between the rival Christian churches and between the rival religions.
The most important aspect during this time was the increase in the Armenian demographics of their quarter and the struggle for control of the holy sites. Ottoman Jizya or tax records for 1562 and 1690 are the most accurate because they are confirmed to have actually been updated in those years to reflect the actual people living in Jerusalem rather than passed down from former tax records. Further work was done on the records, since they originally only contained the numbers of non-Muslim adult men who were not registered as full time "religious" people, which is to say monks and priests. In the 1562–63 record only 189 Armenians are counted, whereas 640 are counted in 1690, an increase of 239%. Some have attributed this demographic ballooning to a "process of urbanization" experienced by the Armenians and other Christians in particular. Thus Armenians came to make up 22.9% of Jerusalem's Christians by 1690, becoming the second largest Christian community.
Armenians were overwhelmingly engaged in the occupation of craft making at this time, with smaller numbers engaged in trade and services. One must recall that the Armenians who were engaged in religious activities exclusively are not recorded in these records of occupation since they were exempted for reasons of being completely pious in nature. When one examines the actual tax rates of the Armenians we find that they made up the highest numbers of those in the "medium" tax bracket while their rivals for control of some of the holy sites made up the "lower" tax bracket. This financial situation, heavily buttressed by Armenians donations from their home country, certainly contributed to the communities demographic and financial clout in the old city. This is certainly yet another reason that the community was able to expand and control an entire quarter of the city. The other myriad Christian communities at this time were meanwhile living in their historic areas around the Church of the holy Sepulcher.
Outside the Armenian quarter and its residential neighborhood and imposing St. James cathedral the Armenians vied for control of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. Armenians are described as the "second most important shareholder" of the Church, the Greek Orthodox being the most important. The Armenians controlled the Chapel of Parting of the Raiment, St. Helena's Chapel, the Chapel of St. John and the Chapel of the Three Marys, as well as the second floor above the main entrance . The Church itself then was divided between the Greek Orthodox, the Armenians and the Franciscans (Catholic) sects of Christianity.
Following the Peace of Karlowitz in 1699 the Ottoman Empire devolved into the "sick man of Europe" and "the question of the Holy Sites started transforming from an internal Ottoman problem, to an external diplomatic one". This was to prove a major disadvantage since Western Armenia had been gobbled up by the Ottomans and then in 1828, the Eastern half was swept into the Russian empire. Whereas most of the other Churches had patron nations, such as France for the Catholics and Russia for the Orthodox, the Armenians now found themselves alone among Christian giants. The subsequent decline during this period of the Egyptian Coptic and Ethiopian church holdings in the city were also part of this sequence of events that deprived the Monophysite churches of powerful nation-state backers.
Despite the setbacks the Armenians hung on, tenuously and doggedly to their quarter. The treatment of the Christians in Jerusalem was not always good and certainly was not always respectful. For instance their were many complaints surrounding the "inspections" whereby Ottoman "officials" would come into the Holy sites, particularly the Holy Sepulcher and say "You have added to your churches and monasteries. In these (places) or adjacent to them are mosques. Therefore pay us large sums of money, or else we will carry out inspections and report you."
These were no idle threats for various Churches and synagogues were seized after parts of them had collapsed or been damaged and the "masses" would riot claiming that the non-Muslims were building "new" sites. It was likewise common practice for Muslims to "find" holy sites near non-Muslim buildings and to build mosques as close as possible to them. Later the Muslims would conveniently claim that the Church was encroaching on the mosque. Nevertheless although Armenian church holdings may have suffered this degradation, the Armenian quarter remained largely un-encumbered by the minaretization of Jerusalem, most likely owing to the Armenian far sightedness in self containing their quarter as much as possible, so that outsiders were not able to suddenly claim they required a Mosque in that area. While the Church of the Nativity was forced at this time to house Muslim travelers due to the Pact of Omar, the Armenians retreated inside their quarter, safe to most extents from the harassment and daily travails of not being the master of your own land.
The Armenian Patriarchate itself became politicized at this time by struggles within the Armenian church. Suffice it to say that the Armenian Patriarchate, due to its proximity to the Holy places and isolation from the main Armenian population, played an important role in the schism that began to affect the Armenian leaderships in Constantinople and Etchmiaddzin (seat of the Armenian church). Significantly Bishop Eghiazar, assumed the Patriarchate of Jerusalem and in 1644 declared himself "Catholicos" ("Leader") of all the Armenian church. These types of struggles within the church hierarchy diminished the amount of the time the Church could spend on similar struggles with the Greek Orthodox and the Holy Sites.
Struggles over the Holy sites
The Struggle over the Holy sites had little effect on the buildings themselves, save the fact that all the churches ended up agreeing in the end to split the costs of renovations. Nevertheless the Armenians and the Greek Orthodox waged a war in the Ottoman courts during the 17th century for control of worshipping practices and ownership at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher and at the Church of the Nativity. The major outcome of this was that the Armenian church lost any chance to gets its hands on the former Ethiopian holdings at the Holy Sepulcher, including the St. Abraham Monastery, the Chapel of Derision and the Chapel of Christ’s Prison. Compromises today regulate everything from prayer times to renovation costs date back to the mid-17th century when the Ottoman courts tried their utmost to sort out the conflicts between the Greek Orthodox, the Armenians, and the Franciscans (Catholics) over who would control aspects of the Holy Sites.
As time wore on and the Ottoman empire weakened the issues facing the Armenians of Jerusalem remained mostly unchanged. One of their concerns regarded the pilgrims coming and going from Jerusalem. These pilgrims were forced to pay a certain tax upon entering the Church of the Sepulcher, and this tax perversely was used to pay for the Muslims to recite the Qur'an daily at the Dome of the Rock. The same waqf that today administers the Muslim holy sites was in charge of taxing the Christians during the Ottoman period. Due to the fact that the Christian buildings could not be enlarged and the abuse of the pilgrims by "fake" tax officials the pilgrimage numbers declined. With this decline the Ottomans began to lose money and the waqf began to lose money. Subsequently the Christians explained that in return for being allowed to modify and enlarge their buildings the pilgrims might be encouraged to return.
Thus in the 17th century the Armenians were allowed after much pleading to enlarge the St. James Monastery. At the same time the Armenian Patriarch Hovhannes VII purchased a "large parcel" of land south of the St. James cathedral called “Cham Tagh” . One interesting issue regarding the Armenian residential areas in their quarter was that upon purchasing houses they traditionally would tear them down and then rebuild them. This was due to a Muslim custom that allowed a Muslim to redeem a sold possession within three generations. Thus Armenians had found out that property bought in the 7th century was redeemed in the 8th by the seller's descendants. To circumvent the tradition the original dwelling was demolished and replaced, voiding the descendants' claim to the property. By 1752 the Hagop Nalian was busy renovating the entire quarter, and in 1828 further renovations took place after an earthquake. In 1850 the Seminary complex at the south end of the St. James convent was completed.
Other changes to the Quarter in this period included the walls of Suleiman the Magnificent finished in 1527. These walls along with the internal walls built by the Armenians came to determine the outline of the quarter. The Ottoman period created what is known as the "status quo" for Jerusalem. This idea meant that certain statuses for the Holy Sites would be kept and were recognized as being permanent or at least the way things should be. The City was divided into four quarters. The Temple Mount became a Muslim holy place, and the Church of the Holy Sepulcher as well as other various Christian sites were recognized as belonging to the Christian world. Despite the arguments over who would control what aspects of these sites the status quo has remained from the 17th century to the present largely intact. Although claims that this status quo was being violated led to viscious rioting in 1929, it has not been changed, and the quarters and areas remain roughly how they have been inside Suleiman's walls.
Armenians had embraced the modern era with high hopes. As the Armenian diaspora spread throughout Europe and America they came into wealth as never before. Their status as craftsmen and traders and their dispersal allowed them to excell in international trade and business. Thus the oil man Calouste Gulbenkian, known as "Mr. 5 Percent" for his dealings, came to endow the Gulbunkian Library in the Armenian quarter, today holding one of the great collection of ancient Armenian manuscripts including endless copies of the various Firmen’s or Ottoman edicts that granted the quarter protection and rights under Muslim rule. In 1833 the Armenians established the city’s first printing press and opened a theological seminary in 1843. In 1866 the Armenians had inaugurated the first photographic studio and their first newspaper in Jerusalem . Also in 1908 the Armenian community built two large buildings catty-corner on the north-western side of the Old City along Jaffa Street. Armenians themselves began to brave life outside the walls, but one young husband petitioned the Patriarch, complaining “It is impossible for me to outside the Old City and leave my children in the hands of Turks and troops and other strange people."
With the outbreak of World War One the Armenians found themselves cut off from their sources of support among the western powers. In 1915, using the excuse that the Armenians were allied with the Russians, the Young Turks ordered all Armenians to be "expelled from Armenia" in north eastern Turkey. The Soviets meanwhile marched into Russian Armenia and annexed it as a Soviet Socialist Republic. Armenians may have been influential in the communist movement, among them Anastas Mikoyan, but these atheistic types would prove no help to pious Armenians of Jerusalem. Thus the Patriarch in Jerusalem seemed orphaned, a church without a homeland. Then one day towards the end of the minor Jewish holiday of Hanukkah, in December 1917 the Union Jack was run up outside the old city, as the Turks fled the British and General Allenby entered the city. For the first time in almost 800 years a Christian power (although a power with different customs of Christianity than Armenia) had returned to the Holy Land. Unfortunately for the Armenians it was not to last, and it was to be another 80 years before an independent Armenia would play a role in the church again.
In 1905 the Armenians represented about 2.7% of the Christians in Jerusalem, around 840 people. In the beginning of 1831 Jerusalem’s 9,000 residents celebrated the coming of Mohammad Ali and his Egyptian army. The Armenian community, reduced along with the rest of Jerusalem due to the poverty and neglect of the Ottomans also celebrated. Numerous sources mention the individual nature of the Armenian quarter in this period, its “distinct ethnic with its particular language and culture, intent on retaining its separate identity and unity, minimizing the contacts with Arabs and the Ottoman authorities”.
The British Mandate Period—1917–1948
The British authorities, with their spit-shined boots and years of colonial experience (often bad colonial experience, such as the Sepoy Mutiny in India and the American Revolution) were quick to embrace the Status Quo, despite Balfour Declaration to create a Jewish Homeland. The British looked to the Status Quo of 1852 for guidance, keeping the four quarters of the Old City while at the same time allowing a major building program outside the city walls.
In the 1920s most of the Armenian quarter by this time had “European style gable roofs” as opposed to the domes preferred in the Muslim quarter. In 1922 Armenians made up 8% of Jerusalem’s Christians, bring their total number to about 2,480 people. It is also noted that non-Armenians found comfort in the protection of the walled Armenian "compound". As events moved at a fast pace outside the city and the dark clouds of World War Two gathered and were then cleared away, the Armenian quarter changed little in this period. The shock of the loss of Armenia to the Soviets and the destruction wrought by the Armenian Genocide left the Patriarchate with financial backing to be found mostly in the wealthy American diaspora community. The quarter was renovated at this time, but the various Christian communities could not come to an agreement on the renovations at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. Meanwhile, during the war, Adolf Hitler had massacred the Jews, and one result was a clamor among surviving Jews to migrate to Palestine.
The 1948 War and Jordanian Rule 1948–1967
Millions of Jews migrated to Palestine, and Arabs felt their land was being trampled upon. The British decided that they had enough of the Mandate, and so they referred the question to the new United Nations. In 1948 the British were set to leave Palestine, the U.N agreed to partition Palestine and Israel declared her independence. Arab countries, including Jordan, promptly struck with their armies. Under the U.N. resolution Jerusalem was planned to become an international city, but the invasion of the Jordanian legion made this plan impossible. Later historians such as Rashid Khalidi would stress the “de-sectarian nature” of the Palestinians, exhibiting Christians such as George Habash as model Arab terrorists. Yet for the Armenians, who were neither Arab or Jewish, they were Armenian and had no "dog in the fight" using the parochial expression of the American South. Thus although the Armenians deployed a small militia to protect their quarter they closed their gates and hoped for the best, while the Jordanians shelled the Jewish areas and the Jewish defenders tried their best to relieve their comrades, under siege in the neighboring Jewish Quarter.
On August 2, 1948 the Armenians petitioned Count Bernadotte to help negotiate a protection for the holy places, but it was to no avail. The Count would later be assassinated, and the shelling of the Jewish neighborhoods by the Arab Legions dragged on through September. The Armenian quarter was hit several times in this period. The numbers of Armenians residing in Jerusalem and in Palestine in 1948 is disputed. One source cites a total population “never exceeding” 10,000 and a total of 8,000 in all of Palestine/Israel at the time. One must remember that as recently as 1870 only 14,000–22,000 people lived in Jerusalem, making even a small Armenian presence a significant minority of the population.
Jordanian rule was not as equal and tolerant as modern day historians like to imagine it. Rather Jordanian law required the Armenians and all Christians to “give equal time to the Bible and Qur'an” in private Christian schools as well as restricting the expansion of church assets. Nevertheless in 1962 the Armenians agreed with the Catholics and Orthodox to begin renovating the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. The renovations continue to this day. As the Armenians were now separated from their holdings in Israel, the Patriarch began to lease these buildings out to the Jerusalem municipality and to developers.
The 1967 War and Israeli Rule—1967–present
Israel became concerned about military activities of Arab countries in 1967 and began a pre-emptive strike - a war so overwhelmingly one-sided that it was known as the "Six-Day War" - in which Israel gained Jerusalem and other territories. The 1967 war is remembered by some in the Armenian community as a "miracle" due to the fact that two unexploded bombs were later found inside the Armenian monastery. Nevertheless it is also believed, absent of hard statistics, that more than 20,000 Armenians lived in Israel and Jordan before the 1967 war. Jews were now in charge of Jerusalem's Old City, and they were also tolerantly minded; however, Armenians chose to leave the Armenian Quarter and Israel/Jordan anyway. Today the number has declined to 15,000, but this is after reaching much lower numbers in the intervening decades. The fall of the Soviet Union has opened the doors to an independent Armenia. Today more than 3,000 Armenians live in Jerusalem. The Armenian quarter is home to roughly 500 of them, some of whom are temporary residents studying at the seminary or serving the church in various functions. The entire quarter is owned by the Patriarchate, as well as the other "valuable" assets in West Jerusalem and elsewhere. Finances for the quarter are helped by the prosperous Armenian communities in America. In 1975 a seminary school was completed inside the quarter.
Following the 1967 war the Israeli government gave compensation to repair and churches or holy sites damaged in the fighting, regardless of the who had caused the damage. In 1980 a source claims 1,500 Armenians resided in the city of Jerusalem.
In 1987 Naomi Shepherd reported that “The Armenian and Syrian Orthodox clergy are present and correct, but not on speaking terms.” At this time she also reported that only 14,000 Christians lived in the city of Jerusalem .
The Armenian Patriarchate still owned its “valuable property in West Jerusalem and in the area West of the Old City walls”, much of which is leased to the JNF or developers. Subsequently Armenian Archbishop Shahe Ajamian sold the properties west of the Old City walls to Israel to allow for the current picturesque landscaping.
The Armenian community is but a smaller example of Israel as whole, of a community's ability to survive and persevere for such long periods against long odds.
Dividing Jerusalem: Armenians on the line of confrontation
(Source: AIM Vol. 11, No. 10, October 2000, pp. 40-44)
The Armenian Quarter in the Old City of Jerusalem has become one of the most talked about issues in the ongoing Palestinian-Israeli negotiations over the final status of the city that is sacred to Christians, Jews and Muslims. At the Camp David II talks in the US in July , it was proposed that the Old City be divided into two sections: Israeli control over the Jewish and Armenian quarters and Palestinian control over the Christian and Muslim quarters.
'The Armenian Quarter belongs to us and we and the Armenians are one people,' said Yasser Arafat, Palestinian Authority President in contradicting reports that he had agreed to Israeli annexation of the Armenian section.
The leaders of the Christian churches in the Holy Land -- the Armenian, Greek Orthodox and Latin Patriarchs -- were not briefed about the talks on Jerusalem at Camp David. When the issue was made public, the church leaders were indignant. They sent a strongly worded letter to US President Bill Clinton, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and President Arafat.
They told the negotiating leaders to have representatives of the churches at the summit "so that our collective presence here -- with its history of rights and expectations -- is maintained unequivocally and safeguarded fully."
And the clerics added, "We regard the Christian and Armenian Quarters of the Old City as inseparable and contiguous entities that are firmly united by the same faith." The Armenian Government supports the position of the Armenian Patriarch, too, that the Christian sections of the city be kept together.
The church leaders have remained united on this position, which is not a new one. In 1994, in a formal Memorandum issued by the three Patriarchates and nine other churches in the Holy Land, they noted that they are not part of the disputes nor the negotiations, but have their legitimate concerns. They demanded international guarantees for their rights, protection of their lands (Christians own some 35 percent of the Old City), permission to build on their properties and tax exemption as non-profit organizations, as has been the practice for centuries. These demands are significant to Armenians as well.
Since Camp David, President Arafat and Israeli Acting Foreign Minister Shlomo Ben Ami have held regular meetings with the Christian leaders to hear their views and opinions on Jerusalem. "I believe that the voice of Christians is beginning to be better understood," said Patriarch Michael Sabbah to reporters after meetings with Minister Ben Ami, adding, "This meeting was designed to assert that Jerusalem is a Christian question and during the discussions on the holy sites, the Christians must be present."
AIM spoke with two high ranking clergymen at the Armenian Patriarchate, but they did not wish to elaborate. "In view of the ongoing negotiations among the parties, we do not have anything to announce publicly," said one clergyman. "This is a very serious and difficult issue. All the churches have made their points clear to the parties and it is not proper to divulge information at this critical juncture of the negotiations," added the other.
In a telephone interview with AIM, Kevork Hintlian, a historian of Jerusalem and a resident of the Armenian Quarter, explained that the legal status and rights of the Christian churches are guaranteed by international agreements.
"Throughout Ottoman rule, the rights of the Armenian Patriarchate, along with the Latin and Greek Patriarchates, were confirmed in the Paris Peace Conference in 1856, then in the Congress of Berlin in 1878 and later guaranteed in Versailles in 1919. These rights are supported by all international conventions," said Hintlian. "As such, in all church-state matters and politics, there is coordination among the churches, whose centuries-old presence in the this City precedes Israeli rule."
Hintlian added that the Armenian Patriarchate has "semi-diplomatic status," as one of the three guardians of the Holy Places. "We are not a parochial community," he continued, "but custodians of the holy places, ranking second in importance after the Greek Orthodox and the Franciscans."
Moreover, "Our interest in Jerusalem is not only spiritual, but we are also a community with assets and properties. The 28-acre (150 dunum) Armenian section represents one-sixth of the Old City; and the final status talks (about the one-square-kilometer plot of land that has become the most complex and contentious issue in the Middle East for over 50 years) are very important for us."
While members of the St. James Brotherhood in Jerusalem are generally reluctant to publicly express opinions on their experience under Israeli rule for more than 30 years, US-born Father Ghevont Samoorian, a member of the Brotherhood serving in the Eastern Diocese of the Armenian Church in America, was more outspoken. Samoorian studied at the Armenian Patriarchate from 1962 to 1968 and was ordained a priest the same year Israel occupied the Old City of Jerusalem.
"I witnessed the Six Day war  and the subsequent months," Samoorian told AIM. "Regardless of any and all decisions concerning the fate of Jerusalem, under no circumstances should the Armenian Quarter ever be placed under Israeli sovereignty," he said matter-of-factly.
He enumerated a long list of grievances including attempts by the municipality of Jerusalem to appropriate Armenian properties "such as the large plot adjacent to the Patriarchal palace known as goveru bardez (cows’ field) and the repugnant behavior of young Israeli soldiers and rabbis."
Like the Muslims before them, the Jews have discriminated against Armenians in land-use matters, at least in the Old City of Jerusalem. Another lay resident of the Armenian Quarter and a former lecturer at the Patriarchal seminary, who did not wish to be identified, speaking to AIM from Jerusalem added, "Based on decades of experience, we know that Israelis' eyes are on Armenian properties. In fact the only direction for Jewish territorial expansion inside the Old City is in the direction of the Armenian Quarter." (The Old City is hemmed in by its walls and is densely packed, like many ancient cities are.) He said for years Israeli authorities have refused building permits to the Armenian community. "Whatever is not a Jewish undertaking, there is a freeze on it. On top of this, the authorities confiscated lands illegally or Jews 'bought' properties, such as some 70 Arab homes located within the Armenian section."
The system of ownership of properties in the Armenian Quarter is likely unfamiliar to numerous Israelis (or to a certain British economic magazine), and sales of Armenian Quarter properties could (accidentally) resemble the "purchases" that Europeans made of land from Native Americans in the 17th Century. The same lay resident that had been talking in the earlier paragraph, for example, refuted assertions made in a recent article in The Economist claiming that Armenians sold properties to Jews. The Economist had claimed: "With money from rich benefactors in America, [the Jews] have made offers that some Armenians have been unable to resist. One result is that Jews now own 71 of the Armenian quarter's 581 properties." As all properties in the Armenian Quarter are owned by the Patriarchate, the lay people living in these homes do not have the legal right to sell them. However, some Armenians have received "key money" or sold the right to live in these properties. But the Patriarchate remains the legal owner of these dwellings, he explained. The Armenian Patriarchate, then, is in the unique position of being landlord not only to a monastery where some 50 monks and clergymen reside, but also the residences of some 600 to 700 lay people who live within the walled complex. These families are allocated rent-free living quarters by the Patriarchate, passed on for generations.
For centuries, Armenian pilgrims who came to the Holy Land from various parts of Armenia and the Diaspora lived in these quarters. There are also Armenians living on properties owned by the Patriarchate outside the walls of the monastery, but still within the Armenian Quarter. They, too, do not pay rent, but unlike those living inside the monastery who are exempt, they pay municipal taxes. These Armenians are locally known as kaghakatsis, or natives, whose ancestry goes back centuries. Those living inside the monastery are known as vanketsis, or "those from the convent." In any case, none of them are new arrivals. And they’re all proud of their deep local roots.
"We did not parachute here," Albert Aghazarian told AIM from Jerusalem. Aghazarian is Director of Public Relations at Birzeit University in the West Bank and was an adviser to the Palestinian negotiating team at the Madrid Peace Conference. "The Armenian presence in Jerusalem has been an unbroken pattern since the 5th century. I do not know of any place, maybe other than Armenia, where there has been Armenian presence in a land since the fifth century. This is very significant. While, true, many Armenians came after the genocide -- my parents came in 1918 -- the kaghakatsis have been here for centuries bearing the traditions of this community."
The problem of closures and access
Armenians living in the Quarter argue that the possibility of divided sovereignty over the City presents serious difficulties to the 2,000 Armenians living in Jerusalem. About half of them live in the Christian and Muslim sections. They fear that the division of the city would in effect divide the Armenian community itself.
Under the "Camp David scenario," the Armenians would also be on the border dividing the Israeli and Palestinian sections of the Old City -- "on the front line of future confrontations," says one resident. "Even though there would be traffic between the two sections, it is almost sure that there would be days, or even weeks, when the 'border' would be closed due to troubles between the two sides, as has happened so often." Most Armenians who live in the Armenian Quarter work in the Muslim and Christian sections and would not be able to go to work or run their businesses "on the other side of the border."
Another problem is Armenian education. As students living outside the Armenian Quarter attend the school inside the St. James compound, parents fear that interruptions or closure of access points to the Armenian Quarter would undermine their children's education. Community leaders are concerned that such an eventuality could lead parents to send their children to non-Armenian schools, putting the viability of the Armenian school in Jerusalem in question. They point out that already the number of students at the Tarkmanchats (Holy Translators’) school has gone down to 150 and any further decline of numbers is untenable.
But most crucial for the Armenian Patriarchate is free and uninterrupted access to the Holy Places where daily religious services are conducted. Based on the Status Quo — a shorthand reference to the situation resulting from the 1852 Ottoman decree settling the contested rights of the churches and guaranteeing the role of the Christian Churches in the Holy Places -- Armenian priests perform daily services at various locations, which would be under Palestinian control. "We would not be able to punctually perform our obligations at the holy places if the city is divided," says Hintlian.
While a divided city might be feasible on paper, Armenians are not sure it will work in practice. "We are afraid the Old City would be like Nicosia or Berlin, it would be divided and might be inaccessible," says the former seminary teacher. "The Palestinians and the Israelis might be satisfied living within their particular sections, but the Armenians need free access to the other side, as they have economic and social ties, and most important, obligations at the holy places."
Putting it more dramatically, he says, "It seems that the Armenians are going to pay the price for peace. Besides, we are not landed immigrants. We are indigenous people and have been here for hundreds of years, long before Israelis came." And in case the Armenian Quarter is placed under Israeli sovereignty, he bursts, "Why should we be obligated to become Israeli citizens and lose our right to travel to Arab countries -- especially Jordan, Lebanon and Syria — where we have so many ties."
Indeed, Israel has refused to allow Jerusalem-born Armenians who live in Jordan or other countries to settle in Jerusalem, just as is the case with Palestinians. "Despite the fact that they were born in Jerusalem, have relatives or family in Jerusalem, Israel refused residency permits or identity cards."
Elderly Armenians, just as elderly Arabs, have more immediate concerns. They would like to see a continuation of Israeli rule over the Armenian section, fearing that a change in status could jeopardize their social security and free health insurance.
What are the choices?
Although during the negotiating process no one asked the Armenians about their preferences, they clearly have them. The first choice of the Armenian community is international status for Jerusalem under the control of such bodies as the UN or a combination of multinational entities. This preference is not new. It goes back to the UN's 1948 decision on the partition of Palestine (which in turn has deep roots in religious history). The Vatican — particularly Pope John Paul II -- has also called for a "special status" for Jerusalem.
If they cannot have their first choice, the second is joint Palestinian-Israeli sovereignty, but with international guarantees. For example, the presence of an international court or arbitration system to which churches could appeal in case of disagreements with the rulers.
One of the tireless spokespersons of the "Christian perspective" on Jerusalem is Harry Hagopian, a lawyer and Executive Director of the Middle East Council of Churches' Jerusalem office.
In a recent paper on the issue, he presents legal arguments for a "creative solution," which combines both the "special status" and the "joint sovereignty" models. He admits that it is difficult to achieve such a solution, but he believes it would work "if both Palestinians and Israelis disinvest themselves of absolutist solutions and become willing partners in a more pragmatic solution."
In the meantime, Armenians have stepped up their efforts, along with the other Christian churches, to make their views heard, with the hope that the negotiators will be responsive. "The negotiating power of the Armenian community, headed and represented by the Patriarch, comes from the unified stand of the leaders of the churches with respect to the Status Quo," says Saro Nakashian, who resides inside the St. James compound and is a lecturer and chairman of Business Department at Birzeit University. While the Patriarch is the legally recognized representative of the Armenians in Jerusalem, with its centuries-old rights and functions in the holy places, the community’s continued presence in this holy city is also a source of legitimacy. "The Armenian presence in Jerusalem is not something en passant; we have been part of the landscape of this land for centuries," underlines Aghazarian, pointing out that Armenians cannot be ignored in the ongoing process of negotiations over Jerusalem.
Being the oldest living Diaspora community outside the Armenian homeland (and one of Jerusalem's oldest ethnic neighborhoods), the Jerusalem community has roots that go back to the early centuries of the first millennium. Its precious treasures, artifacts, ancient manuscripts, and vast assets accumulated over the last 1,500years make the Armenian Patriarchate of Jerusalem the richest and, arguably, the most historically important living Armenian institution in the world.
The first Armenians reached Palestine in the wake of the Roman legions, as legionnaires, administrators, traders and artisans. More came in the middle of the first century BC, when the Armenian King Tigranes reached as far as Acre on the Mediterranean in his conquest of the region. But it was during the Christian era that the Armenians in the Holy Land established permanent roots. Armenian monks were among the first founders of desert monasticism in Palestine. Indeed, during the crusades (1187-1291) Queens Arda, Morphia and Melisend of Armenian princely families were the first three Crusader queens of Jerusalem.
After the Genocide in the Ottoman Empire hundreds of refugees and orphans were housed in the Armenian Quarter. Many of the orphans studied in the Armenian seminary; some of them became prominent religious leaders, including former Patriarch Yeghishe Derderian. Later after the Arab-Israeli wars, more Armenian refugees were housed in the St. James convent and the number of Armenians living inside the Armenian Quarter reached around 8,000. Historically, the community has not numbered more than 20,000, living mainly in Jerusalem, Jaffa, Haifa and what is now the West Bank -- Bethlehem, Ramallah and Gaza.
The Armenian Quarter is a small "enclave" within the southwestern corner of the Old City and is the headquarters of the Armenian Patriarchate of Jerusalem. It has residential dwelling areas, an infirmary, a 150-student high school, a 100,000-book library, an ancient manuscript library of 5,000 -- the second largest after the Matenadaran in Yerevan -- a printing house dating from 1833, a museum, and other facilities — all situated in a compound enclosed within three-foot thick walls. The central building inside the Armenian Quarter is the 12th century St. James Cathedral.
Armenians from Jerusalem
These are Armenians who were born or who have lived in Jerusalem: