Wednesday, August 25, 2004

The Armenians in Jerusalem

The following is the text of a brochure which I helped to prepare for visitors to the SS. James Armenian Convent. We also translated it into French, Italian, and Spanish. I will post the rest of the brochure in subsequent installments.

The Armenian presence in the Holy Land dates back to the earliest years of Christianity, even before the conversion of the Armenian king, Tiridates III, on or about AD 301, and Armenia’s adoption of Christianity as the state religion, the first nation to do so. There is recorded historical evidence that as early as AD 154, bishops of the Armenian Church, in cooperation with bishops of the Greek Orthodox Churches in Jerusalem and Alexandria (Egypt), were actively engaged in the discovery and confirmation of Holy Places deemed to be related to the activities of Jesus Christ, and the construction of edifices for the preservation of these early Christian treasures.

The church of Jerusalem was chronologically the first Christian in history, and the first bishop of that church was St. James, called “the Brother of Our Lord” in the Gospels. In AD 381, the Ecumenical Council of Constantinople accorded honor to the See of Jerusalem equal to that of Rome and Constantinople, so that the occupants of the See were called “Patriarchs.”

The first formally recorded Armenian Patriarch of Jerusalem was Abraham, who served from AD 638 to 669 and received a charter and official recognition from the Arab Caliph Omar Ibn-Il-Khattab. The charter enumerated the rights and privileges of the Armenian Church in the Holy Land, guaranteeing its integrity and security. On the back wall, facing the main entrance of the St. James Convent, there is an elaborately carved inscription in Arabic which, loosely translated, warns all intruders: “This decree from our Lord Sultan and King Al-Daher Abu Sayid Mohammed, cursed be all those and their future generations, and may Almighty God curse whoever harms or inflicts any injustice to this Holy Place. Abu Kheyer Razan hereby guarantees this to the St. James Armenian Convent in Jerusalem. In the year of Mohammed 854 (AD 1488).” This and previous protective edicts have helped to strengthen and perpetuate the integrity of the Patriarchate and have provided a basis for succeeding conquerors to honor these pledges.

The final and most important pledge was made by the written declaration of the Turkish Sultan, Abdul Majid, in 1852. This declaration officially established the principle of “Statu Quo,” (i.e. existing “as is” condition) in the Holy Places, which defines, regulates and maintains, without change, the proprietary rights in the Holy Places, granted exclusively to the three major Christian rites – Greek, Armenian Orthodox, and Latin (Roman Catholic).

Armenians are the indigenous people of the Armenian highlands, where Mount Ararat, the resting place of Noha’s Ark, according to the book of Genesis, is located. This mountain is as sacred for Armenians as the Western Wall is for the Jewish people and Mecca is for the Muslims.

The Armenian language is most akin to Sanskrit and, together with Greek and Persian, lies at the root of all Indo-European languages.

According to Armenian tradition, a practicing Christian would go on pilgrimage to Jerusalem at least once in his or her lifetime. Despite political and economic turmoil, thousands of Armenians flocked to the Holy Land every year. It is said of past times that the St. James Monastery could accommodate as many as eight thousand pilgrims at a given time. Pilgrimage brought to the Holy City renowned Armenian clergymen, statesment, kings, and princes, all of whom presented gifts and left their mark.

One can still see, carved on the walls of churches, groups of very small Armenian crosses. Local tradition holds that these were inscribed by pilgrims, and the clusters represent the number of people in the family of each pilgrim. In Armenian society, it was a great honor for someone to have gone on pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Such an act secured for the pilgrim a special social status. Thereafter, he or she was referred to as Mahdesi (“One who saw death”) – a reference to the Tomb of Christ.

By the second half of the 7th century, there were more than seventy Armenian monasteries in the Holy Land. The present-day Armenian Quarter in Jerusalem – home to a closely-knit community of Armenian families – occupies the sites of some of these ancient monasteries. Enclosed within the present Quarter are the Monasteries of St. James, Holy Archangels, and Holy Saviour.


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