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The Armenian Community in the Holy Land

Contributed by This Week In Palestine on 30.07.2007:

By Tania Manougian

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 11 (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 travelling to Jerusalem, and some remained to establish a permanent community.

In the seventh century, the Armenians gained the trust and favour of Caliph Omar Ibn el-Khattab. He gave Abraham, the first recorded Armenian Patriarch of Jerusalem, a charter that guaranteed the rights, safety, and security of the properties, holy places, and lives of the Armenians in Jerusalem. Subsequently, Armenians began to settle in the Armenian Quarter and around various holy sites and churches, including St. James Cathedral. A further charter by Salaheddin, during the Muslim rule, endowed Armenians with the freedom to worship and the right to keep their holy places. Mamluk Sultan Al-Zahir Chaqmaq bestowed his favour on the Armenians in a written edict carved in Arabic on a marble plaque that is installed at the entrance of the St. James Convent.

During the Crusader era, the Armenian Queen, Melisend, ruled over the Holy Land. After the death of her husband, Fulk V of Anjou, in a hunting accident, Melisend became the Jerusalem Kingdom’s ruler from 1143 to 1152. Her interest in Jerusalem’s Armenian community compelled her to become a patron of its arts and ecclesiastical affairs. Melisend initiated many architectural projects, renovated the Jerusalem markets and the Holy Sepulchre, and rebuilt St. James Cathedral, around which the Armenian Quarter of the Old City had already begun to form. During the same period, the Armenians were also present in other Palestinian cities, including Acre, Caesarea, Gaza, Nablus, and Kerak.

Under the Ottomans, the population flourished. By 1690 Armenians comprised 23 percent of Jerusalem’s Christians. The Armenians established the city’s first printing press in 1833 and inaugurated their first photography studio and newspaper in Jerusalem. During the Ottoman Rule, the status quo over the Christian holy places for the Greeks, Armenians, and Latins was preserved, which promoted harmony among Christian communities.

In 1915, more than one million Armenians were massacred at the hands of the young Turks. With the arrival of refugees from Turkey after World War I, the Armenian population in Palestine under Turkish rule grew to 20,000. Some have since been repatriated to Armenia, and some have emigrated to the United States. The Armenian refugees were known by the local Armenian community as zoowar (newcomers) and settled in the Armenian Quarter. They were assisted by the native people of the Armenian community, who were known as kaghakatsi (of the town), and by the local Arab community, even though they were not Arabic speakers. Some refugees also fled to the neighbouring countries of Lebanon, Syria, Iran, and Iraq. The refugees were assisted by the Armenian Convent in securing shelter, food, and other necessities. At present, approximately 9 million Armenians live in the Diaspora and 3.5 million live in Armenia. Every year, on April 24, the Armenian people commemorate the start of the first genocide of the twentieth century – the genocide of the Armenian people.

During the British Mandate (1917-1948), the Armenians continued to be successful. They were well established and many were entrepreneurs, administrative officers, and civil servants. Harmonious relations with local Palestinians were developed. Armenians worked with many relief agencies, including UNRWA and the Red Cross.

The Armenians in the Middle East have witnessed many conflicts in the region, including the Arab-Israeli wars, the Lebanese Civil War, the Iran-Iraq war, and the Gulf wars. In 1948, the Armenian Quarter was bombarded several times, and many people were killed. During the wars of 1948 and 1967, many Armenians, like Palestinians, lost their businesses and homes and fled to nearby countries. Many Armenians sought refuge within the Armenian Quarter and the St. James Convent of the Old City. As a result of the 1948 Arab-Israeli conflict, many Armenians left the cities where they were residing (Jaffa, Haifa, Nazareth, Gaza, etc.), which further reduced the number of Armenians in the Holy Land.

The Armenian Quarter is one of the four surviving quarters of Jerusalem’s Old City and, although tiny, provides the Armenian community with churches, a seminary, a school, social institutions, historical monuments, priests’ quarters, a library, a museum, a printing press, youth and social clubs, and a health clinic. The Armenian Quarter has long been a shelter to Armenian refugees fleeing war and persecution. It is the site of the churches of St. James, St. Toros, the Holy Archangels, and St. Saviour. From all over the world, pilgrims flock to these holy places every year to offer donations and maintain their spiritual connection with the Holy Land. This tradition can be traced back to the Christian era, when many Armenian traders and pilgrims who travelled through the region also gave gifts.

Four thousand original manuscripts are housed in the Armenian Convent and are considered the second largest collection of Armenian manuscripts in the world. Most were brought by pilgrims and were donated to the St. James Convent. The walls of St. James Convent in the Armenian Quarter have crosses carved in stone and are called the Khatchkars (“Khatch” in Armenian means “cross” and “Kar” means “stone”). Carved by pilgrims, the oldest Khatchkars date back to the ninth century and commemorate visitors’ journeys to Jerusalem and the Holy Land. The inscription is signed by the traveller and dated. The evidence of fifth-century Armenian presence is seen in a beautiful mosaic floor that is found in Musrara near Damascus Gate and depicts twenty different kinds of birds.

The 36 characters of the Armenian alphabet were invented in 405 AD by Saint Mesrop Mashtots, an Armenian monk, theologian, and linguist. Subsequently, he translated the Bible into Armenian. Two more characters were added during the Middle Ages. The Armenian language belongs to the Indo-European group of languages and is still taught in Armenian schools all over the world.

The Armenian Church owns properties in and around Jerusalem, Jaffa, Ramleh, Haifa, Bethlehem, Jericho, and Gaza. These properties provide the Patriarchate with revenue to help run its educational, cultural, and religious institutions. The Armenian Church is one of the custodians of the Holy Sepulchre, the Church of Nativity in Bethlehem, the Church of the Assumption of Virgin Mary, and the Church of the Holy Ascension.

Throughout their long history, the Armenians (Ha’yer in Armenian) have enriched the cultural fabric of the Holy Land with their distinct identity. During various periods, individual Armenians managed to acquire prominent positions in the private and public sectors of Palestinian society. History bears witness that many Armenians were traders and businessmen, many of whom established industries, mainly in the West Bank, which created economic opportunities for the local population. Examples of personalities and academics who illustrate this contribution, before and after the Mandate period, include Dr. Manuel Hassassian, former vice chancellor of Bethlehem University and currently the PA ambassador in the United Kingdom; Dr. Albert Aghazarian who, for more than two decades, was head of public relations at Birzeit University and responsible for the Palestinian Press Centre during the Madrid peace talks. Mrs. Aline Balian served during both Intifadas as a lecturer of linguistics and communications at Birzeit University and as coordinator for the English department at College des Freres in Jerusalem. Many Armenians have served as medical doctors and pharmacists and have worked in such institutions as Augusta Victoria Hospital. They include Dr. Vicken Kalibian, Dr. Norayr Arsenian, and Dr. Garabed Garabedian. One of the few remaining Armenian doctors is Dr. Adrine Karakashian, a renowned paediatrician who also worked at the Augusta Victoria Hospital and with UNRWA. She pioneered the Oral Rehydration Centre in Akbet Jaber Refugee Camp in Jericho. Similar centres were subsequently established in other areas of the West Bank. She continues to have a clinic in Jerusalem, which is dedicated to the welfare of children.

The Armenians by nature are skilled craftsmen and artists. They became goldsmiths and silversmiths, potters, photographers, painters, musicians, composers, carpenters, hairdressers, cobblers, shoemakers, and tailors. The Armenians are talented ceramic artisans; in Jerusalem, most churches, public and private institutions, and residences are decorated with handmade Armenian ceramic tiles. The first Armenian potter to bring the skill of ceramics to Jerusalem was David Ohannessian, from Kutahya, who taught genocide survivors after 1915. One of his many projects included restoring the Dome of the Rock. There are still many families who are skilled in ceramic pottery in Jerusalem, such as the Karakashian, Balian, Lepedjian, Anterassian, and Sandrouni families.

Photography also played a big role in the lives of Armenians. The first studio of photography was opened by an Armenian monk named Yesayi Vartabed, who later became Armenian Patriarch of Jerusalem during the 1850s. In fact, most of the earliest photographs of the region are his work. Among the many distinctive photographers were members of the Tcholakian family. Today there are several other photographer families, such as the Nalbandians, the Eshkhanians, and the Khavedjians; Elia Khavedjian was a genocide survivor and a prominent photographer who was known for his collection of photographic resources of people and places from before and after the Mandate period. He later passed the business to his son, Kevork, and his grandchildren. My grandfather, Khashadour Manougian, was the son of a genocide survivor from Marash. He worked as a hairdresser from 1940 and passed on his skills and family business to my father Manoug Manougian, who, in turn, passed them on to my brother, Christian Manougian.

Throughout its long, turbulent history in the Holy Land, the Armenian community has maintained a strong relationship with the Palestinians. Today, Armenians live in Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Ramallah, Jericho, Gaza, Jaffa, Ramleh, Haifa, Acre, and Nazareth. They continue to be involved with Palestinians in their daily lives. Some Armenians were educated in Palestinian schools and universities. Nowadays, mixed marriages occur, and Palestinian society and traditions have begun to influence the Armenian community.

At the same time, however, the Armenians have remained distinct by retaining their national identity and sense of belonging albeit while living in the Diaspora. However, in the heart of every Armenian is our Mother Church, the Holy Etchmiadzin, Mount Ararat, and Armenia (Hayastan in Armenian).

Even within Palestinian society, the Armenians have retained and preserved their own cultural identity, traditions, customs, cuisine, and language. It is an ongoing process that continues with each new generation. The Armenians are an integral part of Palestinian society. They remain intact and empathize with the Palestinian cause. Due to the political and economic upheavals in this region, the number of Armenians and Palestinians has dwindled. Armenian communities share common problems with Arabs who are being forced to migrate. This was illustrated in the old Armenian village in Atlit (Sheikh Brak) near Haifa. Armenian farmers settled in this village in the 1920s. Since then, however, they were denied the right to be provided with paved roads, electricity, water, and a sewage system. Armenian farming families had no alternative but to leave in the 1980s. The declining Armenian communities face serious threats to their existence in the Holy Land. During the first Intifada, many Armenian businesses were forced to close, which resulted in the further migration of Armenian families.

Stability in the region is scarce and business opportunities are few, so the lure of emigration continues to haunt our lives. In order to stay in this region, Armenians and Palestinians must maintain their belief that the present conflict in the Holy Land will pass and that their richly diverse communities will continue to exist.

Tania Manougian is an Armenian who was born in Jerusalem and educated in the United Kingdom. She currently works in the Real Estate Department of the Armenian Patriarchate of Jerusalem. Ms. Manougian can be reached at


This Week in Palestine

August 2007

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