Jerusalem’s Armenian Quarter

by Joyce M. Davis
photos by Karen Lagerquist

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The sun-burnt bricks and cobblestone passages of Jerusalem’s Armenian Quarter are etched with the tempestuous history of Christianity in the Holy Land. To this community of Christians, history is not merely a collection of tales told about faraway places. For Armenians in Jerusalem, the history of Christianity is still being told – it is inextricably tied to the trials of their everyday life.

Inside the walls of the Old City, Armenian Christians have created a thriving, modern community bound to an ancient mission – witnessing and preserving the work of Christ.

But the Armenian Apostolic Church’s role as a guardian of Christendom’s history in Jerusalem is once again being put to the test. The Armenian community now finds itself fighting to preserve a newly discovered vestige of one of its earliest churches in Jerusalem.

Late last year, mosaics with Armenian inscriptions were uncovered near the Damascus Gate to the Old City. As the bulldozers continued to plow through layers of earth to build a new road through Jerusalem, it became clear that the mosaics contained references to Christ. Archaeologists and church officials determined they were part of a sixth century Armenian monastery.

Shortly after parts of the site were uncovered, George Hintlian, the Armenian patriarch’s secretary, said, “This was without a doubt a monastery and burial ground for Greek and Armenian monks.” And though the Armenian community exalted at the discovery, they were helpless to protect the ruins.

A few days after Christmas, Christians in the Holy City were struggling with both dismay and anger. Israeli officials informed them that a group of ultra-Orthodox Jews had splattered one of the mosaics with indelible black paint. Then they buried the remains of the Armenian monastery under a pile of rocks.

The ultra-Orthodox Jews believe that the cemetery on the site may actually be a Jewish burial place. And they became enraged at what they saw as the defiling of Jewish graves to excavate Armenian mosaics.

But Christians in Jerusalem were also enraged. The heads of every Christian body in the Holy Land issued a statement demanding that Christian sites be protected and threatened to appeal for international protection unless Israeli authorities preserved Christian holy places.

Israeli authorities then unearthed the mosaics and brought them to the Israel Museum for safekeeping. The Armenians protested, claiming the mosaics as a treasure of its history in Christendom’s holiest city – a history they say dates back more than 1,500 years.

This Armenian presence in Jerusalem dates back to Armenia’s conversion to Christianity in 301 A.D. This presence, and the mandate extended to the community by the Arabs in the 7th century, saw the Armenians and Greeks jointly possessing the majority of the Holy Places.

Today, the Armenian Church’s Brotherhood of St. James still maintains some of Christianity’s holiest sites, including the Monastery of St. Savior and the Church of the Holy Archangels, which lies at the east end of St. James Monastery.

The Monastery of St. Savior is located just outside the Old City’s Zion Gate and is believed to be the site where Jesus was kept for one night before being sent to Pilate. In Arabic, the place is called Deir Habs el-Masih, or “The Lord’s Prison.”

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Tags: Jerusalem Christianity Cultural Identity Armenian Apostolic Church