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The Armenian Quarter in Jerusalem

The Armenian Quarter (Hebrew: הרובע הארמני‎, Arabic: حارة الأرمن‎) is one of the four quarters of the Old City of Jerusalem. The Armenian Quarter is the smallest of the four quarters, with the smallest number of residents.

In 2001, there were about 2,500 Armenians living in Jerusalem, most of them living in and around the Patriarchate at the St. James Monastery, which occupies most of the Armenian Quarter.


Establishment of the Armenian community in Jerusalem: 95 BC–AD 640

Armenians have inhabited parts of modern Turkey, Iran and the Caucasus Mountains for more than four thousand years. The first known instance of an Armenian to come anywhere near Jerusalem arrived in 95 BC under King Tigranes II of Armenia. The Armenian armies traveled to several cities in Judea before leaving Israel. 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 Israel. Following the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70 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 AD 301, Armenia was proclaimed a "Christian state" under its King Terdat III (Father. Norayr, the first Christian country historically. 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 AD 313 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 AD 326 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 AD Armenian Bishops were located in Jerusalem around what they called "Mount Zion", indicating that a substantial Armenian community existed in the city and that the community was settling continuously in a particular area. [1][2]The entrance to the Cathedral of St. JamesThe 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 AD 431 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 Dyophysites. 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 Dyophysite. It would take until 1054 for the Latin (Catholic) Church and the Eastern (Orthodox Church) to split (East-West_Schism) 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 Syriac, Coptic and Ethiopian churches, a leadership role the Armenian Patriarchate of Jerusalem still assumes. Thus from AD 451 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.

Islamic conquest 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, and not be allowed to construct new Christian buildings.

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 lead to the spark of the Crusades. Pope Urban II called on Christians throughout Europe to unite and drive out the Seljuks, who had been harassing and suppressing Christians trying to live in, and make pilgrimages to, the Holy Land. The Pope's call was taken up and the heavily armed 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. During 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 ceased to be independent, so though a million or more Armenians lived in eastern Asia Minor (modern Turkey) they posed no political military challenge to the Muslim Mamluks or Ottomans.

[edit] Mamluk period 1260–1517

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 master 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.

[edit] Ottoman period 1517–1917

[1][2]Armenian priest in Jerusalem, ca. 1900Under 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 craftmaking 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 Sepulchre.

Outside the Armenian quarter and its residential neighborhood and imposing St. James cathedral, the Armenians vied for control of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. 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, Chapel of Saint Helena, 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 Christians in Jerusalem was not always good and certainly was not always respectful. For instance, there were many complaints surrounding the "inspections" whereby Ottoman "officials" would come into the Holy sites, particularly the Holy Sepulchre, 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 unencumbered by the marginalization of non-Muslim Jerusalem, more than likely owing to the Armenian farsightedness 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 one's 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 Armenian 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.

[edit] Struggles over the holy sites

[3][4]An Orthodox Priest in the Armenian quarter.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 Sepulchre and at the Church of the Nativity. The major outcome of this was that the Armenian church lost any chance to get its hands on the former Ethiopian holdings at the Holy Sepulchre, 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. The same waqf that today administers the Muslim holy sites was in charge of taxing the Christians during the Ottoman period. Because 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 Sepulchre 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 largely intact from the 17th century to the present. Although claims that this status quo was being violated led to vicious rioting in 1929, it has not been changed, and the quarters and areas remain roughly as they have been inside Suleiman's walls.

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.”

Armenians embraced the modern era with high hopes. As the Armenian diaspora spread throughout Europe and America many came into wealth once again. Their status as craftsmen and traders and their dispersal allowed them to excel in international trade and business. Thus the oil man Calouste Gulbenkian, known as "Mr. 5 Percent" for his dealings, came to endow the Gulbenkian Library in the Armenian quarter, today holding one of the great collection of ancient Armenian manuscripts including endless copies of the various Firmens, 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. In 1908 the Armenian community built two large buildings 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 <word missing> outside the Old City and leave my children in the hands of Turks and troops and other strange people." In 1905, the Armenians had represented about 2.7% of the Christians in Jerusalem, around 840 people.

With the outbreak of World War I, 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 expelled from Armenia in north eastern Turkey, which was used as a pretext in the Armenian Genocide. The Soviets meanwhile marched into the newly formed Democratic Republic of 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 Hanukkah, in December 1917 the Union Flag 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 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.

[edit] British Mandate period 1917–1948

The British authorities, with their years of colonial experience, were quick to embrace the Status Quo, despite the Balfour Declaration declaring the need for the creation of 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.

By the 1920s, most of the Armenian quarter 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, bringing 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". Though 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 over the loss of Armenia to the Soviets[dubiousdiscuss][clarification needed] and the destruction brought by the Armenian Genocide left the Patriarchate with financial backing to be found mostly in the wealthy American diaspora community. During this time the quarter was renovated, but the various Christian communities could not come to an agreement on the renovations at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

[edit] 1948 Arab-Israeli War

[5][6]Patriarch Guregh II Israelian, May 1948In 1948 the British were set to leave Palestine, the U.N agreed to partition Palestine, and Israel declared its independence. 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 Arabs. Yet for the Armenians, who were neither Arab nor Jewish, they were Armenian and were neutral. 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. [7][8]Armenian refugees from West Jerusalem living in St James, May 1948On August 2, 1948 the Armenians petitioned Count Bernadotte to help negotiate protection for the holy places, but it was to no avail. The Count would later be assassinated by a splinter group of Jewish terrorists who did not want him negotiating with the Palestinian Arabs, 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 the holy land 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.

[edit] Jordanian rule 1948–1967

In 1962 the Armenians agreed with the Catholics and Orthodox to begin renovating the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. 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.


An Armenian ceramicist in the Old City of Jerusalem.The Six-Day War of 1967 is remembered by some in the Armenian community as a "miracle", because two unexploded bombs were later found inside the Armenian monastery. Nevertheless it is also believed, absent hard statistics, that more than 20,000 Armenians lived in Israel and Jordan before the 1967 war. 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 Patriarchate owns the entire quarter, as well as other assets in West Jerusalem and elsewhere. Finances for the quarter receive assistance from 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 for repairing any churches or holy sites damaged in the fighting, regardless of who had caused the damage. In 1980 a source claimed 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 are 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

Coordinates: 31°46′29″N 35°13′45″E / 31.77472°N 35.22917°E / 31.77472; 35.22917

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