The Armenian Community of Jerusalem: Challenges and Realities

Special for the Armenian Weekly

The Armenians of Jerusalem form one of the oldest Armenian communities outside of Armenia. The Armenian Quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem may be one of the most “Armenian” places in the world, too.

An Armenian priest walks in Jerusalem’s Old City during an event on 24 April, 2015 (Photo: AFP)

But this community is more than just old and Armenian. The community also controls, through the Armenian Church, at least a part of every major Christian Holy Site in the region, including the birthplace and crucifixion of Jesus, and the Tomb of the Virgin Mary.

With such a rich cultural legacy, one might guess that the Armenians of Jerusalem are strong and thriving. They are not. If the Old City were divided up today, the Armenians might barely command one street. They certainly would not lay claim to an entire Quarter, as they have for centuries.

The survival of the community is today in peril. The population is dwindling. Armenian property rights are under attack. Even Armenian pilgrims are fewer in number.

The Armenians of Jerusalem occupy a distinct Quarter of Jerusalem, but it’s easy for a casual visitor to miss them. Their community exists mostly within a private and walled compound. This compound is wholly within the Armenian Quarter, which is itself within the stone walls of the Old City of Jerusalem. To reach the Old City, one must travel to the seam where the two halves of Jerusalem meet.

The so-called “seam line” is the place where east and west meet.

The west of Jerusalem is mostly Jewish. This is the Jerusalem that Israel proclaimed as its capital some 60 years ago, shortly after winning its independence.

The east of Jerusalem is populated mostly by Palestinians. This is the Jerusalem that Palestinians claim as the capital of a future independent Palestine and which Israel has occupied since 1967.

The Armenian Quarter is public, much as the Little Armenia section of Los Angeles is public. But the Quarter has a distinct and fixed geographic location, and most of the properties within the Quarter are Armenian-owned.

The Armenian presence in the Holy Land predates the life of Jesus Christ, when Armenia and Palestine were part of a common empire. The Armenian Great King Tigran II (95 to 55 BC) conquered the northern part and extended his influence over Palestine. Ever since Armenia became the first nation to adopt Christianity as its official state religion (301 AD), the Armenians have contributed to the diverse mosaic of peoples in the Holy Land. Armenian pilgrims began traveling to Jerusalem, and some remained to establish a permanent community.

For the last two millennia, Jerusalem has been represented as a space of desire—a place that has been perennially occupied and lost, and whose borders are contested until today. Jerusalem, as both a spiritual and secular space, has over the years attracted the attention of many different groups of people, including Armenians. The Armenian Quarter in Jerusalem, which encompasses one-sixth of the Old City, is unique in that Armenians are the only people to have a Quarter in the Old City along with the three monotheistic faiths: Christianity, Islam, and Judaism.

Currently, the Armenians in Jerusalem face many types of difficulties due to the socio-economic and political factors impacting the region. While much of the connection between Armenians and Jerusalem has been and continues to be religious in nature—and more specifically, related to pilgrimage—a strong and prominent secular dimension also exists. Armenians in Jerusalem have made significant contributions to the history and development of the city from the period of early Christianity to the present. Moreover, in order to better understand the current condition of the Jerusalem Armenians, one must look at the historical transformations that Armenians in general experienced under the 19th-century Ottoman Empire, and later under the British Mandate, Jordanian rule, and the current administration of Israel.

The collapse of the Ottoman Empire and the Armenian Genocide during World War I led to the mass migration of Armenians from Cilicia to Jerusalem, with thousands of Armenians pouring into the Armenian Quarter. At this point, the Armenian Patriarchate of Jerusalem detached itself from the authority of the Istanbul Patriarchate and the Armenian National Assembly, to which it was subordinate during the period following the Armenian National Constitution in 1863. During the period under the British Mandate, the Jerusalem Patriarchate kept amicable relations with the British authorities, who largely maintained the Ottoman millet system and allowed administrative matters concerning the Armenian refugees and local population to be handled by the patriarchate. Following the Arab-Israeli War of 1948 and the subsequent withdrawal of the British, the Jordanians and the Israelis had disputes over Jerusalem; following the Cold War, Jerusalem became a contested space for the Holy Sees of Etchmiadzin and Cilicia. In the 1970’s and 1980’s, the patriarchate pursued a subtle policy with the Israeli government, but with the breakout of the first Intifada in 1987, the position of the patriarchate towards the Palestinian authorities and the Israeli government relatively cooled, and dozens of Armenian families began to leave Jerusalem. In fact, the population of Armenians living in Jerusalem has greatly declined since then. During the British Mandate period, more than 10,000 Armenians lived in greater Jerusalem. Today, that number is under 1,000.

The decline in population is just one of the many challenges that Jerusalem Armenians face today. These current difficulties are multifold; as Armenians, we should be aware of these circumstances to help maintain this historically significant and long-standing Armenian Diasporan community. The first obstacle Jerusalem Armenians face pertains to their citizenship status. Most Armenians are considered Jordanian citizens and fall under the legal category of “Eastern Jerusalemites.” For this reason, many of them have difficulty obtaining travel and marriage documents. They also face obstacles when attempting to bring spouses or other family members into Jerusalem. The depressed economic environment discourages and makes it difficult for Armenians to open up and maintain businesses in Jerusalem. Housing also remains one of the biggest obstacles facing the Armenians in the Old City. Not only is space limited because of overpopulation in the Old City, but real estate is very expensive. Most Armenians, given their current income, simply cannot afford to maintain their primary residence there. Moreover, Armenians living in East Jerusalem would find it virtually impossible to obtain a house in West Jerusalem, due to exorbitant costs and their citizenship status.

Just like Jerusalem itself, this material is a palimpsest upon which Armenian culture and history have been inscribed and preserved; and it is significant that we create permanency of our own history and culture through modern technologies, such as digitization.

Source: Armenian Weekly
Link: The Armenian Community of Jerusalem: Challenges and Realities

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