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Est proident Foreword...

 1 Perching on a wall

 I perch on a retaining wall on top of the old

Armenian convent of St James, and let my gaze

sweep across the panorama unraveling before me.

The golden Dome of the Rock shimmers in the

bashful April sun, the sacred script on the tiled

walls hazy fingers, burning into the Moslem soul.

     Not to be outdone, the massive blocks of stone buttressing the Western Wall of the ancient Jewish temple, soar triumphantly skyward, its lowest tiers emblazoned with a scatter of paper snowflakes peeping from the crevices. They carry the cries of Jewish hearts, to a deity whose name is too awesome and hallowed to be uttered by mortals, except in a cryptic Tetragrammaton, YHWH..      Stolidly pensive, the dark cupola of the Cathedral of the Holy Sepulcher, hovers atop the spot where the body of the man called the Christ, Yeshua bar Yosef, the carpenter's son from Nazareth,  is assumed to be buried..      Echoes of a Babel of tongues raised in supplication to the same God, faintly reach the ear.      This is the city of gold where history is said to have begun.      The gold has become tarnished with the blood and tears that have been shed along its narrow, meandering streets and alleys, but the charm and mystique pervades the atmosphere..      This is Jerusalem where I was born, scion of an Armenian family whose ancestors first set foot on its soil over 2,000 years ago.      I am back in the Old City, city of my birth, after decades of self-imposed exile. My peregrinations which have, over the years, led me variously to an oasis in the searing heart of the Saudi Arabian desert, a Kuwaiti prince's palace, the cell of an ascetic monk, the confidences of princes of the church, the depository of priceless manuscripts, and other places and people uncounted and unremembered, have now landed me here.      Enticed back to Jerusalem by a Canadian film-maker, I have been asked to advise on the production of a 3D IMAX film that would pinpoint the interaction of the three great monotheistic faiths - Christianity, Judaism and Islam - for whom this is the center of the world.      I know every street and alley in the Old City, and have trodden upon their weathered cobblestones countless times. This is where I grew up as a child and spent my early youth. This is where I found and lost my first love.      Jerusalem is more than a mere dot on a map. It is an experience.       Indeed, every tile on its dust and grime encrusted streets has a tale to tell. Every cobblestone will regale you with stories of glory and grandeur,  a litany of devastation and despair, and ultimately of triumph: for Jerusalem boasts the dubious distinction of being the perennial battleground of the nations, a designation that has eclipsed the more sublime mantle of spirituality it has been ordained with over the ages.       I pass through its dozen portals, and walk in the footsteps of the prophets, the conquerors, the poets and the dreamers, the builders and destroyers, and am carried once more on the wings wonder of the awe this place inspires. It would be impossible to pinpoint a single aspect of Jerusalem's ambience, except to remember that there is a universal conviction that Jerusalem does not belong only to Arabs, Jews, or Christians, but to the world.    It is, beyond doubt, the city's special mark of distinction as a fount of spirituality that is the lodestone for the millions of people from around the world who come here seeking solace in the sonorous chants of holy men, the broken monuments that whisper their history to the heart, the misty embrace of incense and the warm glow of candle, leaving their prayers in cracks in a wall, or keeping midnight vigil in expectation of the opening of the gates of heaven.      My feet seem to have a mind of their own, a delectable habit of gravitating me back to the Armenian Quarter.  And as I walk along the ancient cobblestones of its twisting and turning alleys, I am greeted by faces, weathered by time and toil, but still familiar,  old friends and relatives I have not seen for 15 years or more.    I am lost in a sea of hugs and kisses - they converge upon me in an endless wave of welcome - no simple handshake or pat on the back will suffice.  They will not shake hands because the practice is regarded as a foreign interpolation, nor do we celebrate our temporary reunion with a hello or welcoming platitude.  Tradition requires a three-pass kiss, placed squarely on the cheek, not hanging impersonally in the air. It is gratifying to learn that at least that aspect of the tradition, is still maintained. But there will be no kissing the hand of this old man:  whether the elder is family or not, neighbor or stranger, youngsters were commanded to kiss his or her hand. Some, like my paternal grandfather, Hagop, who had survived the ravages of Sefer Berlik to return a broken man, would withdraw their hand abruptly, responding to the overture with a blessing.    My favorite was his Midas benediction : "May the earth you touch, turn into gold."     I recognize some of the young ones I met. They had been a few years old, but quite a few of them do recognize me.     But still I feel like a stranger in my home. Jerusalem has undergone an irreversible  metamorphosis.      Intersersed among the friends, are many strange faces I mostly fail to recognize: the children who have grown up in my absence. And they are as exuberant as the ones I remember from my childhood.      But there are also many familiar ones who are no longer there. The dust of the years has obliterated their traces.      Where are the garrulous "barav", the old women who usually wore black, like the furies in some Greek tragedy? Their role in life was to line both  sides of the street in the evenings, their generally generous posteriors planted perilously on rickety chairs, reviewing or manufacturing, the day’s gossip and shredding the reputations of rivals?      Where is the Arab peddler who boasted that the fine grains of sand his donkey carried could whiten the blackest cooking pot?      Or the ice-cream vendor, with one eye of glass and one of sapphire blue, who sang to us "ta'alla 'indi, ya habeeb, Come to me, dear one", in a haunting tenor, praising the virtues of his "booza" and "dandurma icecream" that he swore had come from Tal Abeeb (Tel Aviv).      He must have chosen that designation because, despite the fact that in those days, during the Jordanian administration, Tel Aviv was the unmentionable, forbidden city of the Jewish enemy, it conveniently rhymed with “habeeb")      The diminutive fruit seller who followed or sometimes preceded his act, opted for another locale for his golden apples: they were "Shami" (from Al Sham, Damascus). The melon, on the other hand, was "Rihawi", grown in "Ariha," Jericho.      What he lacked in height, he more than made up for in rigor. As one little girl found to her sorrow. Acting on a bet that she was taller than him, the girl, who happened to be a cousin of mine, crept close to him and tried to measure herself against him without giving the game away.      She won the bet, but was rewarded with a resounding slap from the angry and embarrassed man.      The parade of itinerant vendors, mainly Arab peasants from outlying villages, included some of Jerusalem's most colorful characters who chose to advertize their wares mainly in song. And they sang surprisingly well. Even after the passage of so many years, I can still recall the lyrics and the refrains.      But for sheer musical delight, few could compare with Khoren Ahranonian's Sunday morning "concerts."      Where is he now, Khoren, the Jamgotch, the town-crier who pounded the cobblestones of the Armenian Quarter at dawn, inviting the faithful to Sunday prayers at the nearby church of the Holy Archangels, his mellifluously evocative voice with the haunting lilt, proclaiming unto the sleeping populace, “in the morning, a light has dawned"?      The denizens of the Armenian Quarter are called "kaghakatsi"  (literally, native or city dwellers) to distinguish them from the other Armenian colony in Jerusalem, the "Vanketsi," who lived within the precincts of the Convent of St James, and were late comers, survivors of the 1915 Armenian genocide or their descendants.      The kaghakatsi, whose ancestors came to the land with the conquering armies of Emperor Tigranes II, circa BCE 100, are a rare genealogical anomaly: every one of them is related to everyone else within their community, directly or distantly. Everyone knew everyone else. Visitors did not even bother to knock on a door, they would just give it a push and walk in. In pre-1948 Jerusalem, the telephone had yet to encroach upon the city's complacent "laissez vivre" and "laissez faire."      I pass by Bab el Tahouneh, gateway of the flour mill, which marks the intersection of roads leading to the Jewish Quarter, the Syriac Convent of St Mark, and Jaffa Gate. Here, within the sprawling interiors of a khan, another diminutive protagonist, the ironsmith and engineer, Bedros, spent long hours designing and machining the Tommygun clones that the leaders of the community needed for self-defense during the 1948 Arab-Israeli war.      A little further down, I come across what is left of an old Jewish china and crockery shop that had been looted of every single item on its shelves at the outbreak of the war. There is nothing left of its neighbor, either, the confectionary shop run by the avuncular Apraham Baba that had disappeared in a puff of smoke after a missile lobbed by the Jewish Haganah forces scored a direct hit on it. The gentle, smiling giant towered above us, clad in an Ottoman "shirwal," (baggy trousers), and wearing a tarboush, as he cajoled us into buying the candy and trinkets that adorned the shelves of his shop.        The street turns right and leads us to the historic convent of St Mark, which is said to be the first Christian enclave erected in the Holy Land. This is where the Dead Sea Scrolls were ensconced briefly, before an  enterprising Jewish archeologist  gained access to them, crossing the battle-lines at the risk of his life, and secured them for history.       Abouna Boulos, the newly ordained Syriac priest, leads me to an underground chapel and points to a jar, leaning against a corner.      "This is the jar in which Jesus changed water into wine during the Cana wedding," he tells me.      I had been married in that church, but no one had ever revealed its secret to me, until Abouna Boulos recounted it to me.      How many more mysteries does Jerusalem harbor in its cavernous bosom?          I retrace my steps and pass under an arch which supports one of a number of homes I had lived in. The structure was a  rickety affair, a Damoclean disaster waiting to happen hanging over it.      It did, eventually when the arch collapsed partially, its roof caving in, and pulling the ground of the house with it. Fortunately, no one was home when the stones came falling down.      I walk out of the arch and stand before a wall that had an eerie tendency to loose its bowels punctually and come tumbling down around Christmas, when the layers of snow piled upon it. The wall seemed originally to have been assembled haphazardly, but a generous application of mortar later solved that problem.      There's another arch ahead. And another. And another.      I wonder, is it true that you can't go home again, and am reminded of the Umru' ul Qais “mu’allaqah" (hanging poem) , where the Jahiliya poet and vagabond prince begins his  lament with the words:      “Let us stop for a moment to weep      In memory of a ‘habeeb’  and a home . . . "      The habeeb are my people, the Armenians of Jerusalem.      This is their world and their story, bygone, but not forgotten.     
© 2017 arthur hagopian
The Beginnings    In the heart of a labyrinth of quaint, serpentine streets and alleys, in the Old City of Jerusalem, one of the most dynamic people of the Middle East, the Armenians, make their home.     Claiming descent from the conquering armies of Tigranes (Dickran) II, King of Kings,  Armenians have been living in Jerusalem for over 2,000 years.     Three centuries later, in the year 301 of the Christian Era, they abandoned paganism and adopted Christianity after the miraculous conversion of their king, Tiridates (Dertad), smashing their lifeless idols of gods and goddesses, and becoming the first nation on earth to accept the teachings of Jesus as their state dogma.    This seminal milestone in their history was to unleash a borderless tsunami of pilgrims, wending their way to the Holy City on foot or on the back of camels and donkeys, in long caravans that sometimes boasted 700 beasts of burden, braving unforgiving desert sandstorms or running the gauntlet of roaming bandits, in their relentless quest for spiritual rejuvenation.    Some of the conscripts and later pilgrims, among them my ancestors, stayed and prospered, in the process making Jerusalem what many unabashedly proclaim, the center of the world.     Their descendants gave the city its first printing press and photographic studio.    One of my great-grandparents was a prolific builder. The houses he and his fellow artisans built, with their distinctive meter-wide earthen walls, still stand.      I was born, and grew up, in such a house, in the Armenian Quarter, of the Old City.   This is my story, interwoven within the fabric of the saga of the Armenians of Jerusalem.
Jerusalem
Arthur Hagopian