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Est proident Foreword...

The Armenian connection to Jerusalem predates the

Christian era. The first Armenians to set foot in the

Holy Land, pagan idol-worshippers, would have

been conscripts or mercenaries marching with the

conquering armies of Tigranes (Dickran) II the

Great, King of Kings.

     Tigranes overran Judea but it is uncertain whether he actually entered Jerusalem, at that time under Roman domination. From a strategic point of view, a march on Jerusalem, an insignificant provincial enclave, would have forced his over-stretched armies into another bloody and costly encounter with the Romans.       But he did the next best thing. He left some of his soldiers behind, most likely in fortified garrisons along the borders. Eventually, these pioneers went native, settling in the region. Others moved north towards the greener pastures of the Fertile Crescent that includes Syria and Lebanon, while a number settled in the land of Canaan, where they became fruitful and multiplied.       When the Armenian nation under King Tiridates (Dertad) became the first in the world to accept Christianity as its state religion, my ancestors lost no time making the pilgrimage to Jerusalem.       They came on foot, on the back of camels and donkeys, braving the long travails of danger and hardship: but their first sight of the holy city with its towering walls, reinforced their faith.       In one caravan alone, there were more than 700 camels.       Halfway between Jericho and Jerusalem, the pilgrims paused to set up what would later become the foundation for the first Christian monastery in the Holy Land.       The site, now known by its Arabic name Khan El Ahmar  (the red khan), also features in the Bible as the location of the parable of the Good Samaritan.       A typical feature of those early monasteries was their endowment with a floor mosaic, featuring native flora and fauna. However, a 6th Century "medallion" uncovered in 1991 outside the Walls of the Old City, bore only a script incorporating a prayer:  "I, Yevsdat ( Eustacius) the priest, laid down this mosaic. You who enter this room, remember me and my brother Ghugas (Lucas), unto Christ."       Historians estimate that the Armenians built hundreds of monasteries and churches along the width and breadth of the Holy Land. Today only a handful survive, among them the magnificent Cathedral of St James, situated within the "vank" (convent) that is the seat of the Armenian Patriarchate.       At its peak, the convent was home to over 15,000 refugees. These "Vanketsi" (residents of the  "Vank"), were survivors or descendants of survivors of the Turkish genocide. But in 1948, at the height of the first Arab-Jewish war, scores of Armenians opted to seek sanctuary from the fighting at their doorstep, in their homeland, now a Soviet autonomous republic.      The second largest contingent, the "Kaghakatsi" (from "kaghak", city), the progeny of the original Armenian pioneers,  who had been living in the Armenian Quarter that snakes halfway around the Convent of St James, remained practically intact, unwilling to abandon what they considered their true home.      But inevitably, over the years, emigration and natural attrition extracted their relentless toll.       The "bantukhd" (expatriate Armenians) may have left their land, but Jerusalem will always be the home where the heart lies.        Their presence in the Old City may have shrunk but there has never been any reduction in their prodigious cultural and artistic contribution.        Where else but in the Armenian Quarter will you find both tried and new derivations of the exquisite ceramics first produced in the Turkish town of Kutayha that their industry  made famous, their secret brought all the way to Jerusalem, secure in the hearts and minds of survivors of the Armenian genocide?      And where but within the archives of Armenian photographers will you be able to trace the times and lives of the ancient denizens of Jerusalem, vividly preserved in un-retouched black and white?       And they kept on building: houses, churches, monasteries.      Alongside the craftsmen, tradesmen, artisans and the dreamers, the Armenians of Jerusalem contributed reams of administrators, civil servants, educators, diplomats and artists, some of whom, like the composer and conductor Ohan Durian, a "kaghakatsi", have attained universal acclaim.      The "kaghakatsi" are a unique genealogical oddity: all the members of this tribe are related to one another, either directly or indirectly: Ohan Durian, for example,  is the brother of the husband of my father's younger sister.      I remember with fond envy how the girls crowded around him as he regaled them with choice Chopin overtures, his fingers dancing skittishly on the keyboard of the grand piano someone had bequeathed to the Jerusalem Armenian Benevolent Union club, the "kaghakatsi" youth bastion.      The piano is still there, a sad victim of neglect, enshrined in the tender webs of wandering spiders, a cocoon of distant memories.    One of the one thousand and one other tales comprising the saga of the Armenians of Jerusalem. It is said that you cannot go back home. But when Jerusalem is your home, you can always return to it, because you carry it in the heart. As I retrace my steps along the cobblestoned alleys of the Old City, I am overcome by a maelstrom of feelings, a mixture of awe and nostalgia. Mingled with that is the sense of the time continuum and the ethereal touch of imperturbability that Jerusalem can inspire.     Jerusalem, city of gold, city of light, city of mystery.     It is not possible to talk of Jerusalem except in superlatives.     Jerusalem is not a city. It is an experience. Although its back alleys are filthy, the crowds noisy and pushy, the merchants importunate, and sometimes downright mendacious, all is forgotten and forgiven when you stand before the majestic Western Wall, climb up to the golden Dome of the Rock, or wonder at the mysterious ladder at foot of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. And when you sit down to a plate of "musabbaha" (hummus with chickpea and parsley) or munch on a hot crunchy falafel or partake of the mouth-watering sweet "kenafeh" (a filodough pastry with sweetened cheese in rose water with a garnish of pistachios), you get a sense of the tendrils of affection the world feels for what could have been a demi- paradise.     And then, despite the intifadas, the house-demolitions, and the relentless wrangle of politicians and generals, you meet its amiable and friendly people in the street, and get a taste of the gaucho camaraderie of Christian, Jew and Moslem alike, and you realize this is a people who know the meaning of real and lasting friendship.     This is our story, the Armenians of Jerusalem.     We begin our endless journeys in the Old City of Jerusalem, with its ragged cobblestones, golden domes and 500-year-old walls.       It has been said, perhaps wistfully, that history began here. Indeed, every tile in its quaint alleys has a tale to tell. Every cobblestone will regale you with stories of glory and grandeur, and a litany of devastation and despair.      And, ultimately, triumph. For Jerusalem has earned the unenviable distinction of being the perennial battleground of the nations, an Armageddon designation that has eclipsed the more sublime mantle of spirituality it has been clothed with.      You pass through its arched portals, and walk in the footsteps of the prophets, the conquerors, the butchers, the poets and the dreamers, the builders and destroyers, and you wonder, what is it that makes Jerusalem so different from the other milestones of human history?      What makes it unique and evokes such a plethora of feelings in believer and non-believer alike?      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 to Arabs, Jews, or Christians only: it belongs to the world.      It is, beyond doubt, the city's undisputed claim to its symbol 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 misty embrace of incense and the warm glow of candles, leaving their prayers in cracks in a wall, or keeping midnight vigil in expectation of the opening of the gates of heaven.      Venturing along the twisting alleys of the Old City is like stepping into another dimension, an exhilarating experience enhanced by sound, taste, color and a myriad other mental and spiritual intoxicants the Middle East is rife with.      And among the ingredients that make up the intricate mosaic of its varied denizens, the Armenians stand out as one of the most vital.      Let's go meet them.
© 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.
Arthur Hagopian