Armenian Community of Jerusalem

views updated


Site of the Armenian patriarchate and center of the Armenian community in Israel, the West Bank, and Jordan.

The Armenian presence in Jerusalem had its beginnings in early Byzantine monasticism. Armenian inscriptions in mosaic floors from this era are found in and around Jerusalem, attesting to the existence of permanent settlements. The present boundaries of the Armenian quarter, covering nearly one-sixth of the Old City at the southwestern corner, appear to have been in place prior to the First Crusade (1099), with a patriarchate established during the sixth century.


After the defeat of the Crusaders, the Muslim rulers formed an alliance with the Armenians in Jerusalem, since both groups were persecuted by their common enemy, the Byzantines, because of religious differences. Likewise the Ottomans, during their rule, sided with the Armenians against the Greek Orthodox Churchand at times against the Roman Catholicsover ownership, control, or maintenance of sacred sites, especially within the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. (In both churches, Armenians have nearly equal holdings with the other two denominations.) The Armenian community in Jerusalem traces its status to the original edicts issued on its behalf by several Muslim rulers, beginning with Umar ibn al-Khattab, affirming the rights of Armenians to their possessions in Jerusalem and elsewhere. The last of these rulers was Sultan Mahmud II, whose edict of 1813 settled a long dispute with the local Greek hierarchy over ownership of Saint James Monastery with its cathedral, the seat of the Armenian patriarchate. Rights to traditional holy places since then have remained unchanged by virtue of the famous firman (edict) issued by Sultan Abdülmecit I in 1852, establishing the status quo for the various churches' control over such sites, a decree honored by all successive administrations governing Jerusalem.

The prominence of the Armenian patriarchate of Jerusalem rests on the tradition that Saint James Cathedral marks the site where the apostle James, the brother of Jesus, had his residence. It is also where the Jerusalem Council was held under his leadership, as recorded in Acts of the Apostles, chapter 15. The Armenian patriarch of Jerusalem is deemed the successor of Saint James. His office is much coveted by the local hierarchies, who have schemed throughout history to possess the site and appropriate the office. Also within Saint James Cathedral is the traditional burial place of the head of Saint James, son of Zebedee and brother of the apostle John, whose martyrdom is also recorded in Acts of the Apostles, in chapter 12. Thus the Saint James compound, with its traditions surrounding the two apostles named James, is one of Jerusalem's most venerated sites as well as the largest monastic center in the country. The cathedral, built during the tenth century and expanded during the twelfth, is a prized monument of Eastern Christianity.

As head of the largest Monophysite church in the Holy Land, the Armenian patriarch traditionally champions the cause of the Syriac, Coptic, and Ethiopian churches.

Beginning in the seventeenth century, some patriarchs played significant roles, with lasting benefits for the Armenian community. Grigor V (16131645) expanded the community's estates beyond Jerusalem; Grigor VI (17151749) implemented financial reforms; Yesayi III (18651885) promoted publishing; and Yeghishe I (19211930) founded new schools. The insightful leadership of these and other patriarchs, especially during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, enabled the monastic community to stabilize its resources and to acquire additional properties in and around Jerusalem. These continue to provide a regularalbeit meagerincome for the brotherhood.

Until recently 1931, the patriarch's jurisdiction extended over all Armenians in the Arab world. With the settlement at Antelias, near Beirut, of the displaced catholicosate of Cilicia (the ancient pontificate of Armenia domiciled in southern Turkey until 1921) during the French administration of Lebanon (19231943), the patriarch's jurisdiction over Lebanon, Syria, and Cyprus was ceded to Antelias. To help that fledgling establishment, Jerusalem provided clerical administrators and instructors. Until 1991, because of communism in Armenia, where the Catholicos of All Armenians resides, Jerusalem took the lead in providing parish priests for nearly all Armenian communities in the diasporaa task now shared competitively with Antelias.

Manuscripts and Treasures

Unlike other ancient Armenian communities, whether in Armenia or in the diaspora, the Jerusalem community was rarely disturbed. Its continuity enabled it to flourish as a center of learning and religious worship. Over the centuries, the monastic community was enriched by a constant flow of pilgrims, including kings and other members of the Cilician Armenian royal family, prelates of the Armenian church, and scholiasts who took residence. Some of the accumulated treasures, and by no means the best, are on permanent display at the monastery.

The monastery holds the world's second largest collection of ancient Armenian manuscripts, which are housed in the Chapel of Saint T'oros. Four thousand medieval codices (manuscript books), including more than a hundred works of which only a single copy exists, are fully described in an eleven-volume catalogue. Some of these works were composed by local authors and many of the others are copies made by local scribes who, in personal comments at the end of the works, chronicled contemporary and near-contemporary events and encounters with other Christians, as well as with non-Christian entities. These manuscripts have not been sufficiently considered for their historical significanceespecially their bearing on the medieval history of Jerusalem.

In addition to the library of ancient manuscripts and a few other chapels, the Saint James Monastery houses several academic establishments: a seminary largely supported by the Alex Manoogian Fund of Detroit; a modern library supported by the Calouste Gülbenkian Foundation of Lisbon; the Edward and Helen Mardigian Museum of Armenian Art and Culture; a printing press established in 1833, which published nearly 500 titles in the first hundred years of its operation (its earliest publications, including a complete concordance to the Armenian Bible, and the first issue of Sion, the scholarly journal of the patriarchate since 1866, are on display at the site); and a high school for the local community, built early during the twentieth century, when the Armenian population of Jerusalem more than doubled as a result of the Turkish persecutions of World War I. More Armenians moved into Saint James when their properties were confiscated by Israel during the ArabIsrael War of 1948. The sharp increase in the lay population brought a degree of secularism into the life of the monastic community.

The Late Twentieth and Early Twenty-First Centuries

The number of Armenians in Jerusalem decreased during the final forty years of the twentieth century, from about 4,000 in 1960 to about 1,500 in 2000; nearly two-thirds of them lived within the compound of Saint James and were increasingly dependent on the monastery for their livelihood. This was largely a result of the unification of Jerusalem under Israeli rule in 1967, which affected the population of East Jerusalem generally. The various partisan and political divisions among Armenians worldwide are represented in this small community, which until 1990 was further fragmented as a result of families taking sides with feuding bishops.

As one of the few minority groups with a presence for more than one millennium in the Holy Land, the Armenian community of Jerusalem maintains close ties with other such groups of various faiths. The current jurisdiction of the patriarchate includes Israel and Jordan, with an Armenian population of 3,000 and 8,000, respectively. While members of the older community continue to emigrate, mostly to Australia, Canada, and the United States, an influx of immigrants in mixed marriages arrived in Israel from Armenia during the 1990s. The consequences of the first Palestinian Intifada became evident in the near disappearance of Armenian merchants from Jerusalem's Old Marketplace, and the Israeli response to the al-Aqsa Intifadabuilding a security wallhas introduced new challenges to the Armenian community and the Armenian patriarchate, whose historic properties now straddle this new line. The solicitude of the government of the Republic of Armenia for the welfare of the Armenian patriarchate resulted in visits to the compound by presidents Levon Ter-Petrossian and Robert Kocharian. The Cathedral of Saint James and the other religious sites in the care of the patriarch remain the object of pilgrimage by Armenians the world over.

see also abdÜlmecit i; aqsa intifada, al-; arabisrael war (1948); holy land; intifada (19871991); jerusalem; mahmud ii.


Azarya, Victor. The Armenian Quarter of Jerusalem: Urban Life behind Monastery Walls. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984.

Hintlian, Kevork. History of the Armenians in the Holy Land, 2d edition. Jerusalem: Armenian Patriarchate, 1989.

Narkiss, Bezalel, ed. Armenian Art Treasures of Jerusalem. New Rochelle, NY: Caratzas Brothers, 1979.

Prawer, Joshua. "The Armenians in Jerusalem under the Crusaders." In Armenian and Biblical Studies, edited by Michael E. Stone. Jerusalem: St. James Press, 1976.

Rose, John H. Melkon. Armenians of Jerusalem: Memories of Life in Palestine. New York; London: Radcliffe Press, 1993.

Sanjian, Avedis K. The Armenian Communities in Syria under Ottoman Dominion. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1965.

Abraham Terian

Updated by Rouben P. Adalian

About this article

Armenian Community of Jerusalem

Updated About content Print Article