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 Apostolic 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.
This control is frequently shared with others, including the Greek Orthodox and the Roman Catholic churches. But the prominent control by the Armenians, an ancient but small national group with an equally small national church, is extraordinary.
Matthew Karanian—a Pasadena, Calif. 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 the fifth in a series about the Jerusalem Armenians that Karanian has written and photographed for Asbarez.
Sharing Control Of The Birthplace Of Jesus
A group of Armenian clerics watched intently as a Greek monk carried a folding ladder into one of the chapels at the Church of the Holy Nativity in Bethlehem.
The monk opened the folding ladder and set it on the center of the floor. He slowly ascended the rungs. Once he had reached the top he extended a long-handled mop. And then he started to clean the ceiling.
According to a century-old agreement negotiated by the Holy Land’s once-sovereign Ottoman Turks, the Greek Church owns the ceiling of this chapel. And so once each year, the Greeks clean it.
Each sweep of the monk’s mop reached farther from the ceiling’s center. But the four corners were beyond his reach. The monk strained and stretched.
And then, with quiet deliberation, this Greek monk descended the ladder and launched an international incident. He moved the ladder.
The same century-old agreement that guarantees to the Greek Church ownership of the ceiling—the so-called “Status Quo” agreement that was reached in 1852—also grants ownership of this floor to the Armenian Church.
Moving the ladder—using the floor—without permission from the Armenians is a breach of the agreement. Voices were raised. Chaos ensued. The Palestinian police intervened. By the time peace was restored, several monks had been injured.
The physical altercation was unusual.
The religious communities that control the holy sites co-exist peacefully on most days, says Aris Shirvanian, an Archbishop of the Armenian Patriarchate of Jerusalem. “But once in a while things flare up,” he says.
“There was, let’s say, a fight,” he added with a shrug of one shoulder.
These flare-ups are usually provoked.
“There is a basic principle in the Holy Land,” the Archbishop told me during my recent visit to Jerusalem. “A spot that you clean belongs to you.” He implied that the Greek monk was improperly asserting ownership by moving the ladder on the floor owned by the Armenians.
I asked if there is a lesson to draw from this principle. “Yes,” he said. “If we don’t stand up against violations, we will lose. And we could lose everything.”
The Archbishop is right.
Although these provocations do not occur frequently, they have been occurring for centuries. Holy site privileges have been lost and gained as a result.
The Status Quo Agreement was intended to put an end to these battles by guaranteeing one thing: the Holy Site privileges and ownerships that existed in 1852 would be frozen and would forever remain undisturbed. The Agreement remains in effect to this day, and is enforced by the Israelis in Jerusalem and by the Palestinian Authority in Bethlehem.
The Tomb Of St. Mary
The sun had been rising above East Jerusalem for barely an hour and the dry heat was forcing people to slow down almost before their day had begun.
Father Koriun, wearing the black vestment and hood of the Armenian priesthood, arrived at the Tomb of St. Mary. His reverent pace befitted the heat. His arrival signaled the endurance of another tradition of the Armenian Church.
Each day at this hour, a priest from the Armenian Patriarchate of Jerusalem arrives to perform the Badarak—the Liturgy—of the Armenian Apostolic Church. The priests serve in rotation. Today was Father Koriun’s turn.
Using care to avoid tripping on his ankle-length robe, he climbed down some 50 stone steps to the Armenian chapel that rests atop the tomb, far below ground level, and a seeming eternity from the sun and heat above.
Father Koriun was following a tradition that is more than a century old. Long ago, a church was built on the site of the Tomb of St. Mary—the final Earthly resting spot of the Mother of Jesus, located just outside the walls of the Old City of Jerusalem. As with most of the region’s holy sites, the ownership of this one has been contested over the centuries.
The Status Quo Agreement of 1852 ended the dispute over the Tomb of St. Mary and confirmed a shared ownership of the site by the Armenian Apostolic and the Greek Orthodox churches. And so, each morning after the Greeks have prayed and have left, an Armenian priest arrives to perform the Liturgy.
Before starting the Liturgy, Father Koriun met with me and discussed the history of the chapel. “All is shared equally with the Greeks,” he says. For every Armenian lamp that hangs from the ceiling, there is also a Greek lamp. There are two walls covered with framed paintings. On one wall, the paintings are Greek. The paintings on the other wall are only Armenian.
All is equal, except for the prominence of the Armenian altar. The altar of the Armenians sits directly in front of the altar of the Greeks’. “So when people come in, ours is the first altar they see,” says Father Koriun, with just a hint of pride.
The altar of the Armenian chapel boasts more than a merely prominent location. The altar is also located directly above Mary’s tomb. The tomb, however, is empty. “As with the tomb of Jesus, the body is not physically present because it ascended to heaven,” says Father Koriun.
Two Armenian deacons arrived in the grotto-like chapel and interrupted the history lesson. It was time for the Liturgy to begin. Father Koriun excused himself. He removed his black robe so that he could be fitted with the colorful and jubilant vestment that is traditionally worn by priests when they perform the Liturgy.
A cleric added oil to one of the Armenian lamps that would be illuminated during the service. An offering plate containing a dollar bill and a couple of shekels and euros was set out on a table. Father Koriun would begin the church service in a moment but now he glanced around the empty chamber and paused.
There’s another tradition, he says. “On most days, no one is here to observe the service,” he says.
Pilgrims And Tourists
The paucity of celebrants at the Tomb of St. Mary is explained, in part, by its location outside the walls of the Old City. For most, getting to the Tomb of St. Mary requires a cab ride.
By contrast, a visit to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher—the site of the crucifixion of Jesus—is a culmination of almost every pilgrim’s walk along the Via Dolorosa within the Old City walls.
The Armenian Church controls part of this site, too, alongside Catholics, Coptics, and Greeks. It’s almost impossible to visit the major Holy Sites in Jerusalem without also seeing the clergy of the Armenian Church.
Seeing Armenian pilgrims and tourists, however, is less of a certainty.
His Beatitude Archbishop Torkom Manoogian, the Patriarch of the Armenians in Jerusalem, is 92 years old. When he was younger, and a more active leader, he would greet Armenian pilgrims and tell them not to make just one pilgrimage to the Holy Land.
Instead, he would tell them they must make seven pilgrimages. By this admonition he was hoping to restore what had become a tradition of pilgrimage that had become moribund.
Archbishop Torkom still greets pilgrims today. Indeed, my recent audience with the Patriarch in Jerusalem was interrupted so that he could greet a group of 40 pilgrims from Armenia. Armenian pilgrimage and tourism appears to have begun to make a tepid and tentative resurgence.
There’s a once-weekly flight between Yerevan and Tel Aviv now, and this has caused the number of Armenian pilgrim groups from the homeland to begin to exceed the number of Armenian groups from the Diaspora.
Despite this, the number of visitors of Armenian ancestry is still very low, considering how many Armenian sites there are. One doesn’t hear much talk about seven pilgrimages anymore.
Today, getting an Armenian to visit the holy sites of the Armenian Church in Jerusalem just once is an accomplishment.
“Tourists stopped coming, especially after the second intifada” in 2001, says Father Koriun. The perception of political unrest in the region, as well as the actual unrest itself, has kept away many pilgrims.
Ignorance also plays a role. “People just don’t know about the Armenian heritage of Jerusalem,” says Father Koriun.
He begins to recite the Holy Sites that are operated or owned, at least in part, by Armenians. They include the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, the Tomb of St. Mary, the Church of the Holy Ascension of Christ at the Mount of Olives, the Church of the Holy Nativity, in nearby Bethlehem, and the Mt. Zion location just outside the walls of the Armenian Quarter where Jesus had his Last Supper.
There are more, but Father Koriun has made his point.
As the world’s first Christian nation, the Armenians were making pilgrimages to Jerusalem as early as the Fourth Century. They were among the first on the scene, and so they acquired control over many sites.
“When one considers [the large number of] Christians in the world today,” says Father Koriun, “it is truly remarkable that the Armenians have so much influence and control over so many holy sites.”
We’re a small nation, he says. “But we have a big heritage in Jerusalem.”
Read more from Karanian’s Armenians in Jerusalem Series
- Armenians in Jerusalem: Working and Creating in the Holy Land
- Armenians in Jerusalem: Religion in the Holy Land
- Armenians in Jerusalem: The Politics of Survival in the Holy Land
About the Autor
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 law professor at the American University of Armenia in Yerevan. He is also the co-author 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 Traveller, 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 queens.