Photos: The Unseen Armenians of Jerusalem

Armenians who have long lived in Jerusalem remain one of the city’s least known communities.

Adolf Hitler is reported to have said, “Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?” He apparently wasn’t counting on the combined powers of Kim Kardashian and Pope Francis to raise awareness a century after the oft-ignored atrocity that is the Armenian Genocide.

While Kardashian touring her roots and the Pope uttering the term “genocide” has put this history in the headlines, Armenians who have long lived in Jerusalem remain one of the city’s least known communities.

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A member of Jerusalem’s Armenian community walks across the empty courtyard of St. James Convent, October 15, 2011. The convent is the center of Armenian life in the Old City of Jerusalem, where residents live side-by-side with clergy.

Tourist maps of the Old City of Jerusalem are divided into four Quarters: Muslim, Jewish, Christian, and Armenian. But while the other quarters draw multitudes of pilgrims to the Dome of the Rock, the Western Wall, and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, respectively, the Armenian Quarter’s most prominent site, St. James Cathedral, is only open during worship services. The convent that surrounds it, the center of Armenian life in Jerusalem, is off-limits to visitors without a local guide.

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Armenian Orthodox worshippers light prayer candles during a mass on the Feast of St. George in the Cathedral of St. George in Ramla, Israel, October 16, 2011.

“It’s probably one of the few convents in the world where clergy and civilians live side by side, and it’s basically a city within a city,” says resident Apo Sahagian. “The convent is our own private home, and its one the quietest places in Jerusalem. Now why go ahead and ruin that serenity with tourists?”

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During a portion of the Armenian Orthodox mass marking the Feast of St. George, a curtain separates clergy from worshippers in the Cathedral of St. George, Ramla, Israel, October 16, 2011.

During my four years living in the Holy Land, first in East Jerusalem and later in the West Bank town of Bethlehem, I was privileged to enjoy that serenity several times. Like Jerusalem, my wife Ingrid has an Armenian quarter — her father is half-Armenian. His grandmother fled the genocide to settle in California.

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Armenian Orthodox worshippers kiss the Bible during a mass celebrating the Feast of St. George at the Cathedral of St. George, Ramla, Israel, October 16, 2011.

Ingrid’s friendships once scored us seats on an Armenian church bus to Ramle, a city in the center of modern Israel, for a special service at the Cathedral of St. George. The ancient but tiny church was packed with worshippers who welcomed us into a full-sensory experience of glowing candles, billowing clouds of incense, acapella singing by young seminarians, and an intricate choreography performed by priests clad either in richly ornamented vestments or distinctly peaked black hoods.

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The silver dome of Our Lady of the Spasm Armenian Catholic Church and the golden Dome of the Rock rise over the Old City of Jerusalem, October 12, 2013. Armenians have lived in Jerusalem since the fourth century.

My father-in-law, Bill Rodrick, would later connect with his Armenian heritage while visiting us in Jerusalem.

“I felt very well received,” he told me. “Every time I sheepishly introduced myself to some representative of an Armenian community as half-Armenian, they encouraged me to just drop the ‘half.’”

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A chapel in the Armenian Orthodox Cathedral of St. James in the Old City of Jerusalem marks the place where his head is reputed to be buried, on the site of his beheading. April 17, 2014.

It was Rodrick’s connections that granted me access to some of the community’s most exclusive Holy Week rituals. Maundy Thursday marks the evening before Jesus’ arrest and crucifixion, when after the Last Supper he washed his disciples’ feet as an expression of humble service. Enacting this tradition at the Cathedral of St. James, the Armenian patriarch — clad in all of his elaborate finery — stoops to wash the feet of his clergy one by one in a ritual at once grand and intimate.

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A chorus of seminarians sings as Armenian Orthodox clergy celebrate a Maundy Thursday mass in the Cathedral of St. James in the Old City of Jerusalem, April 17, 2014.

Even though Rodrick’s grandparents were instrumental in establishing an Armenian church in Reedly, California, with early church meetings taking place in their home, he confessed that much of the St. James service was lost on him: “I’ve only been to one Armenian church service in the U.S., and that was a memorial service.”

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Armenian Patriarch of Jerusalem, Nourhan Manougian, washes the feet of fellow clergy during a special Maundy Thursday mass in the Cathedral of St. James in the Old City of Jerusalem, April 17, 2014. The ritual commemorates Jesus’ washing of his disciples’ feet after the Last Supper, the night before his arrest and crucifixion.

I think that means I’ve been to at least as many Armenian church services as he has. In previous years, I had been among the throngs attempting to sneak, shove, or cajole their way past Israeli checkpoints to reach the Church of the Holy Sepulchre for the Holy Fire celebration on the Saturday before Easter.

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Traditional guards, known as kawas, stand in the entrance of the Armenian Cathedral of St. James near a sign indicating various forbidden activities, Old City of Jerusalem, April 17, 2014.

In this yearly ritual observed by all Eastern churches, the Greek Orthodox patriarch enters the shrine marking the tomb of Jesus with an unlit candle, which tradition holds is miraculously lit by the Holy Spirit. When he emerges, pandemonium breaks loose as the assembled masses surge to light their own candles, passing the Holy Fire from pilgrim to pilgrim.

Last year, through my father-in-law’s connections, we were given special passes to join the official Armenian procession to the Holy Sepulchre.

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An Israeli policeman stands near Armenian Orthodox worshippers waiting to participate in a procession to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in the Old City of Jerusalem for the Holy Fire celebration, April 19, 2014.

“I was pleased to find the little Armenian I had previously learned ‘worked’ in the Armenian Quarter,” said Rodrick. “It was the only time in my life when knowing a little bit of that language proved essential. It kept me from being separated from the group, and secured us a privileged spot during the ceremony.”

But even that special access was ultimately controlled by Israeli authorities, which annexed East Jerusalem after capturing it from Jordan in the Six-Day War of 1967. At that time, the Armenian population was about 1,600. Today, about 500 remain in the Old City.

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Armenian national and Orthodox Church flags decorate the main street in the Armenian Quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem as throngs of worshippers wait to process to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre for the Holy Fire celebration, April 19, 2014.

“My first knowledge of the Armenian community in Jerusalem actually came in 1982, while speaking to a family in Santa Barbara who had emigrated from the Armenian Quarter,” said Rodrick. They told him that, “Life in the Armenian Quarter had been much easier under Jordan.”

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Armenian Orthodox seminary students jostle through the streets of the Old City of Jerusalem as throngs of worshippers process to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre for the Holy Fire celebration, April 19, 2014.

Jerusalem-dwelling Armenians, like their Palestinian neighbors, are designated “permanent residents” by Israel, a status higher than West Bank residents but without the full citizenship given to Jews in the same jurisdiction. Because Israel’s annexation was never internationally recognized, East Jerusalem, including the Old City, is still considered occupied Palestinian territory under international law.

“It is not lost on us that the state was established for the Jewish people,” said Sahagian. “Priority to that preferred demography is institutionalized, which understandably leads to frustration on our part.”

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Armenian Orthodox clergy stand in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the traditional site of the crucifixion, burial, and resurrection of Jesus, awaiting the Holy Fire ceremony, April 19, 2014.

Armenians have lived in Jerusalem since the fourth century, when monks began settling there after Armenia became the first country to adopt Christianity as a national religion. Thousands more fled to Jerusalem after 1915 to escape the genocide perpetrated by the Ottoman Empire. In order to maintain ties with Turkey, Israel has yet to officially recognize the Armenian Genocide. But as those relations have soured in recent years, the topic is again being debated by the Knesset.

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A man in an Armenia shirt watches as Israeli police try to separate arguing worshippers in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the traditional site of the crucifixion, burial, and resurrection of Jesus, awaiting the Holy Fire ceremony, April 19, 2014. The church is shared by clergy of many Christian traditions, leading to frequent disputes.

According to Sahagian, Jerusalem Armenians will be commemorating the genocide with activities similar to those in other diaspora communities, including marches through Jerusalem and “a demonstration in front of the Turkish Consulate where we will employ the Turkish slurs we learned from our grandparents.”

As for the publicity provided by the Pope and Kim Kardashian, Sahagian remains somewhat ambivalent: “Personally, I wasn’t swept away by the hype. Past popes have already used the word, but hey, it’s also important that the biggest global religious institution is on our side. It was a good boost.”

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Worshippers hold lit candles during the Holy Fire ceremony in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the traditional site of the crucifixion, burial, and resurrection of Jesus, April 19, 2014. During the yearly ritual on the Saturday before Easter, the Greek Orthodox patriarch enters the shrine marking the tomb of Jesus with an unlit candle, which tradition holds is miraculously lit by the Holy Spirit and then passed from pilgrim to pilgrim.

As for Kardashian, says Sahagian, “Smartly enough, she came just before the Centennial, which emphasized the issue.” Had she visited during the actual commemorations, “then it would rob the spotlight of the more important issues and focus would be diverted to her latest dress or something. So the timing was well thought of, if it was not luck.”

For a tiny community trying to preserve its identity while at the same time broadening awareness of its history, Jerusalem’s Armenians can use all the luck they can get.

All images courtesy of the author.

Ryan Rodrick Beiler
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