Background 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.
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.
The Armenians Orthodox are the oldest Christian community in the in Holy land and date backs to the very early Christian period prior to the conversion of Armenian King Tirdard III in the year 301 A.D. In the year 254 A.D. Bishops of the Armenian Church, along with Prelates of Greek Orthodox Churches in Jerusalem, Alexandria, Egypt were actively involved in discovering and confirming the places related to the holy ministry of Jesus Christ and made all necessary arrangements to preserve these historic sites. The Armenians also showed great enthusiasm in discovering and restoring relic of the true cross.
Highlights of the Armenian Quarter
In early times the Armenian Christians made several pilgrimages and many of them choose to live in the holy land within the jurisdiction of the Holy land places owned by the Armenian Patriarchate. St James Cathedral became the centerpiece of their life and eventually these settlements along with the Armenian Convent, Cathedral, Patriarchate Building and areas near the Patriarchate (southwestern corner of the Old City of Jerusalem)came to be known as the Armenian Quarter. Today it extend up to one-sixth of the geographic area within the walls of the Old City. Some Christian historians state that the site of the Armenian Quarter is the Mount Zion that is mentioned in Bible.
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.
Ironically, St. James is the 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.
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 Ownership of Holy Land Sites
The Armenian Church is fortunate enough to co-own holy sites such as the Tomb of St. Mary, the Church of the Ascension, the Church of the Nativity, and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre along with other Christian communities. This was finally confirmed in 1852 in the “Status Quo” document, a written declaration of the Ottoman Sultan Abdul Majid. It also owns several other important holy lands sites. The Elementary School of Saint Tarkmanchatz, or The Holy Translators, which was established in 1929 and has over hundred students.
Mary’s Tomb in the Church of the Ascension, photo courtesy Allaboutjerusalem.com
The Armenian Church owns the monastery of St. James located in the Armenian quarter, the monastery of the Holy Archangels and the monastery of the Holy Savior, where the Armenian cemetery is located. It owns the Monastery of the Dormition of the Holy Virgin, which was the residence of Holy Theotokos the Mother-of-God and and her burial place, located near the garden of Gethsemane. The ancient subterranean church is co-owned by the Armenians and the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem. The Armenian Church also have several other Churches, monasteries and buildings like St James Monastery (headquarters of the Aremnain Patriarchate of Jerusalem), Armenian retreat of Baron Der, medieval monastery named after St. Nicholas, the Church of St. Toro’s, the Old Printing press, Libraries, museums and also a Seminary is operated by the Patriarchate and several bishops and Clergy of Armenian Church serving worldwide who have been graduated from the Seminary of the Armenian Patriarchate in Jerusalem.
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 a private Armenian guide.
St. Marks Church
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.
The Armenian Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem
The Armenian Patriarchate of Jerusalem is the second most venerable and important see within the Armenian Church after the Mother See of Holy Holy Etchmiadzin and the Great House of Cilicia. The Patriarchate is the custodian and oversees the Armenian holy sites in Jerusalem and also look after the pastoral needs of Armenian faithful living in Holy Land. Its jurisdiction extends Jordan apart from the Holy land where there are several Armenian Communities with Churches and Schools. The Patriarchate of Jerusalem is subject to the jurisdiction of the Catholicate of all Armenians.
A Synod of seven clergymen elected by the St. James Brotherhood, runs the Patriarchate. The Bishops of the Armenian Patriarchate in Jerusalem are ordained by the Catholicos of All Armenians as rule and hence these bishops are members of both the Brotherhood of Holy Etchmiadzin and the Brotherhood of St. James. During its glory, there were more than 25000 Armenian in the Holy Land.
Armenian Holy Land Christians Today
It is estimated that there are two thousand or more Armenians living in and around the Holy land region and about five hundred of whom live within the Armenian Quarter in the Jerusalem’s Old City. Many educated Armenians are leaving Holy Land in search of jobs whereas others make their living through self employment including retail stores and other businesses. Many have found that selling jewelry or ceramics is a more lucrative than other paid employment. While there are numerous daily challenges the Armenian Community in the Holy Land continues to hold onto ancient Orthodox Christians faith and traditions and they are quite resolved and concerned with protecting and co-protecting the holy sites.
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.