Lamenting Jerusalem: The Armenian Quarter In The Old City

BY TAMAR BOYADJIAN – 30/3/13

For the last two millennia, Jerusalem has been represented as a space of desire – a place that has been perennially occupied and lost, and an area of which the borders are contested until today. Jerusalem – as both a spiritual and secular space – has over the years attracted the attention of many different groups of people, including Armenians. Armenian presence in Jerusalem dates back over 1,500 years, with documented evidence from the 5th century. The Armenian Quarter in Jerusalem, which encompasses one-sixth of the Old City, is unique in that Armenians are the only people to have a quarter in the Old City along with the three monotheistic faiths: Christianity, Islam, and Judaism.

My own interest and fascination with the city of Jerusalem comes from the desire to examine the ways in which both Armenians and other cultures represent the city in their medieval literary traditions. On Friday the 8th of February, I had the pleasure of delivering a paper about Armenians and the city of Jerusalem in the crusader period, at a symposium entitled, “Armenian Jerusalem: Past and Present.” The event, organized by the Armenian Studies Program at California State University, Fresno, in cooperation with the non-profit organization Save the ArQ (Save the Armenian Quarter of Jerusalem), also featured presentations by my colleagues – Dr. Bedross Der Matossian (University of Nebraska, Lincoln); Dr. Sergio La Porta (California State University, Fresno); and Prof. Barlow Der Mugrdechian (California State University, Fresno). The lectures on the program covered a rich array of topics, such as: the history of the Armenian community of Jerusalem from the early period to the contemporary; issues that relate to the negotiations between the sacred and the secular; pilgrimages to the city; and the current political and social events taking place in the Armenian Quarter, including the election of the new Armenian Patriarch of Jerusalem in January of this year. Archbishop Nourhan Manoogian succeeded the late Patriarch Torkom Manoogian, becoming the 97th Armenian Patriarch of Jerusalem.

Conversations during this symposium were also interspersed with personal experiences of both living and traveling to the Armenian Quarter in Jerusalem. These types of intimate familiarities were significant in that, alongside providing an outline of the vital role Armenians have played in the far extended history of Jerusalem, these experiences also brought to the forefront one of the main goals of the symposium – raising awareness about the Armenians currently living in Jerusalem’s Old City .

Currently, the Armenians in Jerusalem face many types of difficulties, due to socio-economic and political factors impacting the region. While much of the connection between Armenians and Jerusalem has been and continues to be religious in nature – and more specifically related to pilgrimage – a strong and prominent secular dimension also exists. Armenians in Jerusalem have made significant contributions to the history and development of the city from the period of early Christianity to the present. Moreover, in order to better understand the current condition of the Jerusalem Armenians, one must look at the historical transformations that Armenians in general experienced under the 19th-century Ottoman Empire, and later under British Mandate, Jordanian rule, and the current administration of Israel. In order to elaborate upon these historical complexities, I find it useful to briefly draw upon the highly valuable work of my colleague, Dr. Bedross Der Matossian, Professor of Modern Middle Eastern History at University of Nebraska, Lincoln.

The collapse of the Ottoman Empire and the Armenian Genocide during World War I led to the mass migration of Armenians from Cilicia to Jerusalem, with thousands of Armenians pouring into the Armenian Quarter. At this point, the Armenian Patriarchate of Jerusalem detached itself from the authority of the Istanbul Patriarchate and the Armenian National Assembly, to which it was subordinate during the period following the Armenian National Constitution in 1863. During the period under British Mandate, the Patriarchate kept amicable relations with the British authorities, who largely maintained the Ottoman millet system and allowed administrative matters concerning the Armenian refugees and local population to be handled by the Patriarchate. Following the Arab-Israeli war of 1948 and the subsequent withdrawal of the British, the Jordanians and the Israelis had disputes over Jerusalem; and subsequent to the Cold War, Jerusalem became a contested space for the Holy Sees of Echmiazin and Cilicia. In the 1970s and 1980s, the Patriarchate pursued a subtle policy with the Israeli government, but with the breakout of the first Intifada in 1987, the position of the Patriarchate towards the Palestinian authorities and the Israeli government relatively cooled, and dozens of Armenian families began to leave Jerusalem. In fact, the population of Armenians living in Jerusalem has greatly declined since then. During the British Mandate period, over 10,000 Armenians lived in greater Jerusalem. Today, that number is under 1,000.

The decline in population is just one of the many challenges that Jerusalem Armenians face today. These current difficulties are multifold; and as Armenians, we should be aware of these circumstances to help maintain this historically significant and long-standing Armenian diaspora community. The first obstacle Jerusalem Armenians face pertains to their citizenship status. Most Armenians are considered Jordanian citizens and fall under the legal category of “Eastern Jerusalemites.” For this reason, many of them have difficulty obtaining travel and marriage documents. They also face obstacles when attempting to bring spouses or other family members into Jerusalem. The depressed economic environment discourages and makes it difficult for Armenians to open up and maintain businesses in Jerusalem. Housing also remains one of the biggest obstacles facing the Armenians in the Old City. Not only is space limited because of overpopulation in the Old City, but real estate is very expensive. Most Armenians, given their current income, simply cannot afford to maintain their primary residence there. Moreover, Armenians living in East Jerusalem would find it virtually impossible to obtain a house in West Jerusalem, due to exorbitant costs and their citizenship status.

Armenian education in the Old City also faces serious challenges and needs the aid of Armenians in the diaspora. The Armenian Sts. Tarkmanchatz Secondary School has adopted neither the Israeli nor Palestinian education systems. Rather, the school follows the system that was put in place under the British Mandate. As a result, children graduating from this school are having difficulty both being accepted and transitioning into Israeli and Palestinian universities. Amidst these challenges, sweeping reforms and renovations have been implemented under the supervision of Rev. Father Norayr Kazazian, the current Dean of Sts. Tarkmanchatz Secondary School. Similarly, Mihran Der Matossian, the director of the school’s education system, has undertaken the task of radically restructuring the school’s curriculum and education program. These reforms have been put in place to prepare students graduating from the school to enter institutions of higher education in Israel and abroad.

In face of these challenges, what are some of the things we can do as Armenians living in the diaspora to help the Armenian community in Jerusalem? One way to get involved is through the aforementioned non-profit organization, Save the ArQ, co-founded by Mary M. Hoogasian and Bedross Der Matossian, which has an Executive Board and supporting members. The organization’s mission is to create awareness of the significant religious, cultural, and historical presence of Armenians in Jerusalem and to encourage the revitalization of the Armenian Quarter in the Old City. The organization engages in both short-term and long-term projects to help sustain the Armenian Quarter’s future. One of its key objectives is to build housing units to re-populate the Armenian Quarter in the Old City. The organization’s other projects are devoted to bettering the community’s life by supporting education at Sts. Tarkmanchatz Armenian School; renovating the compounds within the Armenian Quarter; building a park and playground in the Quarter; renovating sections of the Helen Mardigian Museum of Armenian Art and History; organizing academic workshops, conferences, and seminars at the Gulbenkian library; and aiding the Armenian clubs in the Quarter. One of the most recent contributions of the organization is the donation of lab equipment to the school to enhance students’ study of the sciences. The organization also intends to set up a program at the school, whereby teachers living abroad will be invited to teach there and provide the latest tools and technologies necessary for educational advancement. The school is also in desperate need of up-to-date textbooks and school supplies, which could be donated by both schools and individuals in the diaspora.

Another way Armenians living abroad can help the Armenian community of Jerusalem is by making a “pilgrimage” to the Armenian Quarter. One need not be convinced of the historically significant and highly stimulating experience of visiting a place like Jerusalem. Though many Armenians abroad may fear traveling to Israel because of the current political climate, Save the ArQ will begin organizing tour groups for Armenians interested in visiting the city. There are also a number of non-Armenian and Christian tour groups which arrange frequent trips to the Holy Land. These visits will both morally and financially support the Armenian community in the Old City, along with being a rewarding experience for the visitors themselves.

One final component that needs special attention pertains to the preservation of the manuscripts and archival material of the Armenian Patriarchate of Jerusalem. As a medievalist, and someone who both collects and works with manuscripts, the preservation and maintenance of this collection is particularly important to me. We are very fortunate to have the invaluable magnum opus of Archbishop Norayr Bogharian – a twelve-volume manuscript catalog, which provides detailed information about all of the manuscripts belonging to the Armenian Patriarchate of Jerusalem. This highly significant catalog is no longer published in print form, but through my efforts at UCLA, I have been able to convince the university to digitize it. However, it is vital that we support efforts to preserve and digitize the actual manuscripts and archival material – yet another project being put in place by Save the ArQ. Just like Jerusalem itself, this material is a palimpsest upon which Armenian culture and history have been inscribed and preserved; and it is significant that we create permanency of our own history and culture through modern technologies, such as digitization.

Through efforts such as these, we can help our brothers and sisters in Jerusalem maintain this historic and vital community. Let us remember some of the opening lines of Catholicos Grigor Tgha’s 12th-century “Poem of Lamentation over the Capture of Jerusalem,” lest we find ourselves lamenting (as his poem does), a once-present Armenian spirit in the city: I cry out this lamentable sound… You listen concerning the calamity, Brothers and sisters together, Children of the great mother Zion Brides of the upper room.

For more information on Save the ArQ, you can visit their website at: savethearq.org.

Tamar Boyadjian is a Postdoctoral Fellow at UCLA, where she received her PhD in the Department of Comparative Literature. Her research interests include medieval manuscripts, crusader Jerusalem, and the interactions between medieval Europe and the medieval Middle East. You can reach her or any of the other contributors to Critics’ Forum at comments@criticsforum.org. This and all other articles published in this series are available online at www.criticsforum.org. To sign up for a weekly electronic version of new articles, go to www.criticsforum.org/join. Critics’ Forum is a group created to discuss issues relating to Armenian art and culture in the Diaspora.

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