Most people know that Jerusalem’s Old City is divided into quarters, the Jewish, Christian and Muslim Quarters are well known but few are familiar with the Armenian community of Jerusalem. Who are the Armenian’s of Jerusalem and how did they arrive in Israel and come to occupy such a prominent part of the Old City?
Armenia is a country bordered by Turkey; the nation has been persecuted by numerous enemies over the centuries but today the country is an independent nation. The Armenians have a rich and unique culture, their own language and
heritage. Armenia was the first country in the world to accept Christianity as its national religion in 301AD and soon after large caravans of Armenian pilgrims began making their way to Jerusalem, to visit the holy Christian sites. When Caliph Omar rode triumphantly into Jerusalem in 638 he granted the Armenian Patriarch protection of the Armenian possessions and freedom to worship as they pleased. Using donations made to the church the Armenians purchased properties close to the holy sites in order to accommodate the many Armenian pilgrims.
In the 12th century St. James Cathedral in Jerusalem’s Armenian Quarter became the base of Armenian leadership in Palestine, and today the cathedral is the seat of the Armenian Patriarchate. With the constant influx of Armenian pilgrims inns, guesthouses and eateries were set up around St. James. In this way the Quarter developed into an “Armenian” Quarter. At its peak, during the Byzantine Period there were approximately 25,000 Armenian Christians living in Jerusalem in the vicinity of St. James. In 1852 when Jerusalem was under Ottoman rule an agreement was made to keep the Status Quo, whereby the existing rights that each church (Greek, Armenian, Orthodox and Roman Catholic) had over the holy sites of Jerusalem would remain the same for perpetuity. To this day the historic agreement is upheld and thus the Armenian Quarter is established as one of the city’s four Quarters.
By 1903 records show that there were 1,200 Armenians living in Jerusalem. The community swelled following WWI when survivors of the Armenian genocide arrived in Jerusalem. Since then numbers have dwindled as many Armenians have chosen to immigrate to the USA and other countries. However those who remain strive to preserve their heritage and culture. There is an Armenian elementary school, three monasteries, a valuable historic Armenian archive and library, the treasures of St. James and artisans who still work at the traditional Armenian crafts.
The Armenians made an undeniable impact on Jerusalem’s cultural life; they introduced the city’s first printing press in 1833; worked as master masons and opened the city’s first photographic studio. One of the artistic contributions to the Old City is the Armenian ceramics which were introduced to the city in 1919. The brightly colored mosaics, stone and metal work and decorated glazed tiles adorn many of the city’s homes and public buildings.
The Armenian Quarter consists of two sections, the Monastery of St. James where the relics of St. James are kept and the residential area of the Armenian inhabitants. Many of the homes are traditional courtyard homes with inner gardens and the Quarter is perhaps the most tranquil part of the Old City.
Today the Armenian Quarter has a population of less than 1,000 and is the smallest of the Old City Quarters occupying one-sixth of the space within the Old City walls. The Armenians, through the Armenian Patriarch, control or have right to religious services in each of the major Christian sites in the Holy Land including the Church of the Holy Sepulchre; Church of the