STORY & 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.
POLITICS OF SURVIVAL IN JERUSALEM
Armenians have 17 centuries of history in the Holy Land, and they share or own most of the major Christian sites, including the sites where Jesus was born, crucified, and buried.
There’s also a distinct geographical area in the historic walled city of Jerusalem known as the Armenian Quarter.
This should be enough to make any Armenian feel proud. But after I had spent several days living among the Armenians of this sacred Armenian place, those 17 centuries of history instead felt like they were crushing down on me. I felt as weary as if I had been breathing too much church incense.
The Holy Land induces awe and inspiration for some. I felt this, too. I was awed. And I was inspired.
But as I became increasingly aware of the greatness of the Armenian legacy here, I also became increasingly aware that the survival of this legacy is in peril.
George Hintlian is a Jerusalem historian and a prominent member of the Armenian community. He had been my introduction to the Armenian community when I arrived earlier this year.
He sensed that I had become weary, rather than uplifted, by all that I was seeing and learning about the Armenians of Jerusalem. “This place doesn’t work only by prayer,” he said. “There’s a lot of politics.”
Unfortunately, the politics appear to be working against the Armenians. This “politics,” I feared, could one day turn the Armenian Quarter into another Aghtamar—another sacred gem of Armenian culture that is now just a “museum” that’s owned and operated by others.
WHAT’S AT RISK
The walled Old City of Jerusalem has a dense population of nearly 40,000 living in an area of less than one square kilometer.
The Armenian Quarter occupies one-sixth of this tiny walled-city, yet it has a population of only about 500 Armenians. As a result, the Quarter is a highly coveted piece of real estate. The other quarters are bursting with residents who need more room. This is especially true for the Jewish Quarter, which is adjacent to the Armenian Quarter.
“The Israelis want to take over the Armenian Quarter,” says Hintlian. Worshippers headed to the Western Wall—sometimes also called the Wailing Wall—often pass through the public streets of the Armenian Quarter. “Every day they see what we have,” he says. “They want it.”
These worshippers frequently walk directly past the home and office of Kevork Nalbandian, an attorney with a law practice in the Armenian Quarter.
Nalbandian says he is also concerned about the future of the Armenian community. “We already live in a museum,” he says, alluding to the dwindling Armenian population. “Twenty years from now, how many of us will there be?” he asks.
There had been 35,000 Armenians—some say more—in the region prior to 1948. There are about 2,000 in the region today, of whom 500 live in the Armenian Quarter of the Old City.
The population decline has several causes. Finding work is difficult, especially for educated professionals. This forces many of the most highly educated Armenians to leave Israel. Job prospects are better for an Armenian who wants to operate his own office, or work as a merchant.
So, an Armenian can make a living selling jewelry or ceramics, says Hintlian, but careers in the professions are scarce. This is because the politics of the region dictate that Arabs hire Arabs and Jews hire Jews, he says.
There’s also the intangible difficulty of simply living in Jerusalem. “People are psychologically crushed,” says Hintlian. Israeli policies—Hintlian calls it “harassment”—work to encourage Armenians to leave. And, government policy also prevents immigration to Israel by Armenians, he says. The “Law of Return,” the law that guarantees to Jews anywhere in the world the right to immigrate to Israel, also prevents immigration by non-Jews. The result is a community that cannot sustain itself, and that can only shrink.
ARMENIA’S LINK TO THE HOLY LAND
For centuries, groups have competed for control of the region’s holy sites.
These groups, including the Armenian Church, have fought—sometimes literally—for the right to hold religious rites at places such as the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, and at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. These are the sites where many in the Christian community believe that Jesus was born, crucified, and buried.
In an effort to impose law and order on the religious groups, the Ottoman Empire negotiated a so-called “Status Quo” agreement with them back in 1852. The Ottomans were sovereign over Jerusalem and much of the Middle East at the time.
This agreement dictated that the ownership and rights status that existed for each of the holy sites in 1852 would be the set of rights that would exist in perpetuity. This agreement remains in effect today and is enforced by the Israelis in Jerusalem, and by the Palestinians in Bethlehem.
Negotiating this Status Quo agreement was one of the benevolent acts of the Ottomans during their four centuries of rule in the Holy Land. It has been effective in allowing the Armenians to continue to control or share ownership of most of the major Christian holy sites today. The Greek and Catholic churches are the only other religious groups that rival the Armenians in their extent of ownership and control of Christian Holy Land shrines.
Father Goruin is a member of the St. James Armenian Brotherhood. He became a priest in the Armenian church at age 23, and this year, at age 30, he was elevated to the rank of Vartabed.
The Armenian Church is able to maintain control of these sites because it has been strong over the centuries, says Father Goruin. “And the church can only be strong if there is a large community,” he says.
There are today about 100 students enrolled in the Quarter’s Armenian elementary school. This school, Saint Tarkmanchatz, or The Holy Translators, was established in 1929 and the success of its pupils is one of the keys to the survival of the community, he says.
If the community survives, it will be able to help the Armenian Church maintain its co-stewardship of sites such as the Tomb of St. Mary, as well as the Church of the Ascension, the Church of the Nativity, and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.
Each of these shrines is built upon the site of a significant event in the life and death of Jesus.
The Tomb of St. Mary is where the Virgin Mary was laid to rest before she ascended to heaven.
The Church of the Ascension is built on the hilltop outside the city walls of Jerusalem where Jesus ascended to heaven.
The Church of the Nativity is built atop the site in Bethlehem where Jesus was born.
And the Church of the Holy Sepulcher occupies the sites within the Old City of Jerusalem where Jesus was crucified and was anointed and laid to rest.
The Armenian Church either shares ownership of these sites, or shares the right to hold religious services there, with either Greeks, or Catholics, or both. “When you consider how few Armenians there are in the world, and how many Latins [Catholics] there are, it’s extraordinary that our rights are the same or greater than theirs,” says Hintlian.
There are several additional significant religious sites that are owned or controlled by the Armenian Church, as well.
At the moment, the more immediate focus of the community is on preserving the building and the sacred relics of the St. James Cathedral, which forms the heart of the Armenian Compound within the Armenian Quarter.
The current edifice of St. James dates back to the twelfth century, and it contains a treasure trove of artwork and priceless antiquities. The monastery of St. James is even older, having been established in the fourth century by St. Gregory the Illuminator.
It was here, on a recent afternoon, that Archbishop Nourhan Manoogian of the Armenian Patriarchate presided over the elevation of four priests—four members of the St. James Brotherhood—to the rank of Vartabed. The cathedral was alight only with the flames of candles and oil-fed lamps. The mood was mystical, and the community had turned out in large numbers to witness this rare and sacred rite of the church.
Thirty students from the St. James Convent, all of them young men, filled the gallery and sang hymns from the pages of books that were lighted only by candles. There was no other music—no organ, no choir—except the singing and chanting of these 30 young men.
Back in the 1930s, the military governor of Jerusalem, Ronald Storrs, had famously stated that the Cathedral of St. James “embodies the misery and the glory of the Armenian nation.” On this evening, I understood only the glory.
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.