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January 24, 2014January 24, 2014  1 comments  Holy Sites

It is said that the Armenian presence in Jerusalem dates back to the earliest years of Christianity. Even before 301 AD, which was the year in which Armenia became the first country that adopted belief in Christ as its national faith.


As early as in 154 AD, bishops of Armenia together with those of Jerusalem and Alexandria, worked actively on finding the spots of the holy sites related to the activities of Jesus.


After St. Sophronius died in 638, the Greeks did not designate another bishop for Jerusalem. Thus the Armenian Apostolic Church began appointing its own bishops for the Holy City. Since those days the office has continued almost uninterruptedly, with a change that the Bishops were later given a higher status of Patriarchs.


Armenian Quarter in Jerusalem


Entrance to St. James Cathedral Travelujah


The Armenian Quarter is the smallest of the four quarters of the Old City of Jerusalem and is a home for around 2000 persons. The Armenians of the Holy City distinguish among themselves two different groups: people who were residents of Jerusalem before the Armenian Genocide, which took place at the beginning of the 20th century, and the Armenian refugees who fled from the other parts of the Ottoman Empire to escape the massacre.


St. James Cathedral


Cathedral of St. James Jerusalem Travelujah


The focal point of the Armenian Quarter is undoubtedly the ancient Cathedral of St. James which hosts the Armenian Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem. The monastery incorporates two Byzantine chapels, however its most part dates from the Crusader-era that survived undamaged since those times.


The church is said to be built over the site of the tombs of two martyrs bearing the same name: St. James “Brother of the Lord” - the first bishop of the Christian church and St. James the Apostle (the Great). 


St. James the Great was sentenced to death and beheaded by Herod Agripa I around 44 AD (Acts 12:1-2). Armenian tradition states that only his head is entombed beneath the cathedral in Jerusalem (this corpus is believed to be in Santiago de Compostela in Spain).


The burial place of St. James the Apostle is marked by a small but very decorative shrine on the left side of the church, where each year on the 13th of January the community commemorates the Feast of St. James. The holyday is also solemnized with a ceremonial procession inside the monastery.


Shrine of St. James Travelujah


The opening hours of the St. James Cathedral are very restricted: 6.30-7.30 am and 3.00-3.40 pm Sun-Fri; 6.30-9.30 am and 3.00-3.40 pm Sat. This all is excused by the tremendous treasure that is exposed inside the edifice: gold and silver items, ancient paintings and other lush decorations.


The interior of the church is partly decorated with ceramic tiles that are very similar to some of those that cover parts of the Dome of the Rock. The only difference in design is that the tiles placed in the monastery contain small crosses. The tiles were actually made by the same person – Mgrdthch Karakashian, who came to Jerusalem in 1919 as an Armenian refugee and where he opened his ceramics shop. Karakashian was hired by the British Mandate to make some reparations to the Muslim shrine that was in a poor state at that time.


Armenian Tiles Jerusalem Travelujah


Armenian Cross


As the Byzantine Church (and now the Greek Orthodox) has artistically expressed itself through iconography, the Armenian Church expressed itself in various designs of a cross. Khachkar is a very distinctive symbol that in its form combines a cross with floral elements. It is very common to decorate sacred spaces with various designs of Armenian Cross.


Armenian Cross Travelujah


Holy Places under the Armenian Custody


Along with the Franciscan Order and the representatives of the Orthodox and Oriental Churches, the Armenian Patriarchate has a privilege of being a custodian of the Holy Places, among which are: Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the Garden of the Gethsemnane, the Tomb of the Holy Virgin, all in Jerusalem, or the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. This was finally confirmed in 1852 in the “Status Quo” document, a written declaration of the Ottoman Sultan Abdul Majid.


Cathedral of St. James Jerusalem Travelujah


Armenian Christmas in Bethlehem


Bethlehem, the town where Christ was born, celebrates Christmas three times per year. It is because the different Christian denominations follow different Eucharistic calendars but also due to the fact that the Basilica of the Nativity and Bethlehem itself would have a great difficulty to accommodate all the Christmas pilgrims in the same time.


The Armenian Christmas Eve falls on the 18th of January and is also a day of celebrative scout parade that precedes the arrival of the Armenian Patriarch on the Manger Square and his solemn entry to the Basilica of the Nativity (around 2 pm).


The Armenian community which numerously flocks from Jerusalem and other parts of the world celebrates the Christmas Eve Mass from 10 pm till 1 am in the Armenian owned part of the Nativity Church’s complex. The service is immediately followed by the Blessing of the Holy Water & Episcopal High Mass in the Nativity Grotto.


Roman Catholics and Protestants celebrate Christmas Eve on the 24th of December and Orthodox and Oriental Christians celebrate it on the 6th of January.



Beata Andonia blogs regularly for Travelujah, the leading faith-based social network in the Holy Land. She is originally from Poland and moved to Bethlehem in 2010. 

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