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The Armenian Quarter

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Highlights of the Armenian Quarter

 

The Armenian Quarter is the smallest and most overlooked of the Old City quarters. Tucked into the southwest corner of the Old City, the shops are few and the residential convent, where most of the churches and sites are, is off limits to outsiders for the most part behind the stone walls that surround it. Nevertheless, studied observers will find some unique jewels here.

 

 

The quarter begins from Jaffa Gate past the David Citadel and extends past Zion Gate until it meets up with the Jewish Quarter. The main hub of Armenian life is St. James Convent, private residential quarters where about 200 Armenian families live. The gates of the convent close between 10 p.m. and 5 a.m.



St. James Convent is a city within a city with a complex of homes, chapels, priests’ quarters, a library, a museum, a printing press, a school and youth and social clubs. The Patriarchate building next door houses the the Patriarch and several offices. A seminary is located outside the convent across the street from the main gate. Accessible to the public is the Mardigian Museum, which contains exhibits on Armenian art and culture and the genocide of 1915.

 

 

 

While visitors can enter St. James Cathedral during services, other sites such as the Holy Archangels Church (Convent of the Olive Tree) are off limits without an Armenian guide.

 

The famous ceramics that mark Jerusalem souvenirs are based on traditional Armenian pottery, which made its way to Jerusalem in 1918. The traditional ceramics were introduced when refugees of the Armenian Genocide in Turkey brought their craft here. While the Old City is full of souvenir pottery based on the Armenian patterns, currently only five shops sell hand-painted Armenian ceramics.

 

 


Ironically, only one Armenian church is in the Quarter, but four other denominations (Syrian, Maronite Catholic, Greek Orthodox, and Anglican) have churches in this part of the city.


 

Background Information


 
Armenia in 301 AD was the first nation to declare itself a Christian nation, and since then pilgrims have flocked to Jerusalem. An Armenian presence existed in Jerusalem dating back to 95 B.C., but the quarter has been established on Mount Zion since 301. The Armenian Quarter began to take shape just prior to the Crusader period (1099-1187 A.D.) and developed to its current size during the Ottoman period. The “quarter” occupies about one-sixth of the Old City.

 

St. James Cathedral



Built in the 12th century, St. James Cathedral is the central point of life in the Armenian Quarter. The church shows layer upon layer of architectural styles attesting to the centuries through which it has stood. It is noted for its 8,000 tiles and the hundreds of oil lamps suspended from the ceiling. These centuries-old lamps and a skylight on the vaulted dome ceiling are the only source of light in the church, which has no electricity.

 

 

armenian, armenian quarter, jerusalem, old city, st. james.

 

St. James Church is named for the brother of Jesus, who was the first bishop of the Jerusalem church and for James the Apostle. According to Armenian tradition, the church has been built on the site of the tombs of James, the Apostle, and James the brother of Jesus.

 

One of three small chapels inside the church is believed to entomb the head of James the Apostle. Armenians believe that he was buried here in the first century after his execution. The wooden doors that lead into this shrine are inlaid with mother-of-peal and tortoise shell.



The church is architecturally intriguing. The walls are covered with blue and white tiles about two meters high made by Armenians from Kutahya in the l7th century. Massive paintings of biblical and apostolic figures top the tiles and stretch high along the walls. Gilded altars span the front of the sanctuary. The exterior of the church is decorated with colorful Armenian tiles, wrought iron gates and paintings of icons. The courtyard of Jerusalem stone also contains the graves of Armenian patriarchs. One can also see crosses dating from different periods etched into the stone walls.



The church is open only during daily services at 3 p.m. A leather curtain serves as the door while services are in progress. The mass is conducted in Armenian and a choir of priests leads the emotive chants.

 

Mardigian Museum



The museum, though small, preserves the memory of a centuries-long Armenian presence in the Holy Land. Built around a picturesque courtyard, the museum contains exhibits on Armenian art, culture and the history of the Jerusalem Armenian community. Another section is devoted to the Armenian Genocide of 1915. The Mardigian Museum is currently undergoing renovations and may not be open.

 

Convent of the Olive Tree or Holy Archangels Church



To the Armenians, the Holy Archangels Church, situated within St. James Convent, is known as the wedding chapel. Armenian couple take their vows in this 12th-century stone church. However, the Holy Archangels is also known to some as the house of Annas, the father-in-law of Caiaphas the High Priest (John 18:19-24). There, they believe, Jesus was brought after his arrest in Gethsamane to await trial with the high priest. Church tradition says that Jesus was tied to an Olive Tree on the premises, and that olive tree still exists today.



That is why the church/convent is also known as Deir al Zeytune, the Convent of the Olive Tree. This olive tree has been sacred ever since and has been a destination for pilgrims. On Good Friday, a special ceremony is held at the tree. Another tradition consists of miracles of healing related to the tree for barren women and fever.



The convent of the Holy Archangels is a typical medieval convent and preserves the old Armenian church style: divided into two parts with the external vestibule and the inner church. The foundation was laid by Queen Helen. These places since that time have been protected secretly and openly by Armenian monks and faithful hermits. Foreign historians for the first time in the 7th century have mentioned that this convent belongs to the Armenians. In the course of time the kings and rulers of Cilicia have carried out renovations, such as Armenian King Levon III in the year 1286. He has constructed a wall around the monastery of the Archangels, and has left an inscription.



Another tradition linked with the Holy Archangels Church places it as the threshing floor of Ornan the Jebusite. The scripture, in 2 Samuel 24:18, says that after David saw the angel, On that day the prophet Gad told David, “Go up and build an altar to the Lord on the threshing floor of Araunah the Jebusite.”



Unfortunately, this site is only accessible with an Armenian guide.

 

St. Mark

 

Although in the Armenian Quarter, this church is the center of the Syrian Orthodox community, of the Eastern Orthodox religion. The church uses Syriac, a dialect of Aramaic, as its official language.  This small church is another possible site for the Last Supper and the Upper Room. The church is home to a revered painting of Mary, reputedly painted by Luke, the writer of the third Gospel. The painting is on leather. Parts of the building are believed to predate the Crusader period.

 

St. James the Cut Up

 

Once dedicated to James, who was martyred in Persia in 422 by being cut up into small pieces, this chapel is now a mosque called Yaqubieh. Now a Muslim building, it still bears the dedication to James, however, and is located behind Christ Church, the first Anglican church built in the Middle East.

 

Travelujah Tips


 
Saint James Armenian Convent if off limits to the public without a guide. However, the public may attend church services daily from 3 to 3:30  p.m. The museum is accessible from outside the convent on Armenian Patriarchate Road, but is currently undergoing renovations.
 
 

Nearby Places of Interest


 
King David's Tomb, the Western Wall, Church of the Dormition, St. Peter Gallicantu
 

 

 


 

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