'Cobblestones of Jerusalem': Reunion in Jerusalem's Armenian Quarter - review

The Old City’s four quarters reflect its holiness for different peoples.

 AN ARMENIAN priest enters a church at the monastery compound in the Armenian Quarter in Jerusalem’s Old City.  (photo credit: AMMAR AWAD/REUTERS)
AN ARMENIAN priest enters a church at the monastery compound in the Armenian Quarter in Jerusalem’s Old City.
(photo credit: AMMAR AWAD/REUTERS)

“The city has been devastated countless times, its children scattered and orphaned, its walls and streets torn down, its gardens made fallow, only to rise through its ashes, like the legendary phoenix, more enchanting than ever. It never ceases to amaze and delight throughout the centuries; it has been courted and celebrated by people of all faiths in song and dance, prose and poetry.”

When Arthur Hagopian returned to Jerusalem about 10 years ago as a consultant for a film about the city, it had been 15 long years since his last visit to his birthplace. A journalist living in Sydney, Australia, Hagopian had not been back for years, yet as he reveals in his book, The Cobblestones of Jerusalem, his memories of his childhood home remained vibrant and detailed. Hagopian, an Armenian Christian, grew up in the Armenian Quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem.

The Cobblestones of Jerusalem is a collage of colorful stories, part memoir and part history. As the author returns to the Armenian Quarter after 15 years, he describes walking through his childhood neighborhood, and his prose weaves vignettes from his reunions with people and places into the memories of his childhood. Throughout his stories, Hagopian shares his extensive knowledge of the Armenian people who make Jerusalem their home. 

“I was born in the heart of a labyrinth of quaint, serpentine streets and alleys, where one of the most dynamic people of the Middle East, the Armenians, make their home. Claiming their descent from the conquering armies of Dickran (Tigranes) II, King of Kings, Armenians have been living in Jerusalem for over 2,000 years.”

The Old City of Jerusalem has four quarters – Jewish, Muslim, Christian and Armenian. If you are like me, you may have visited Jerusalem countless times but never learned very much about the Armenians who make their home in the Old City. The Cobblestones of Jerusalem will fill in some of the gaps in your knowledge.

 THE ARMENIAN monastery compound in the Armenian Quarter. (credit: AMMAR AWAD/REUTERS) THE ARMENIAN monastery compound in the Armenian Quarter. (credit: AMMAR AWAD/REUTERS)

In the first chapter “The Religious Tapestry,” the author writes:

“Jews form a majority in the Holy Land but the wide range of minority communities, principally Muslim, Christian and Druze, provides a rich diversity that is without parallel anywhere else in the world.”

The majority of Armenians are Orthodox Christians, although there are small numbers belonging to other churches such as the Catholic or non-Chalcedonian churches.

During the Armenians’ long history in the Old City, they were caught in the middle of the continuing conflict between Arabs and Jews many times. Some of them even lost their lives. During the 1948 war, Hagopian was a child living in the Armenian Quarter, and he remembers taking refuge in the St. James Cathedral. He remembers the sights and sounds of the bombs, and the feelings of terror, while at the same time, being a child, he and his friends continued to play their games close to their parents.

“Thousands of souls, the young and the old, were cramped together in the vast bosom of the cathedral while consternation reigned outside, with Arabs and Jews lobbying their horrent armaments across the Old City walls, the Jews on the outside wistfully looking in, the Arabs manning the higher ground of the walls, the war claiming countless innocent Armenian casualties, among them my grandfather’s brother, Vahan Hovsepitan.”

Living in Australia, Hagopian decided he wanted to share his extensive knowledge of the Armenian community in Jerusalem. “In 2007, I started an online project called ‘Armenian Jerusalem’ aimed at preserving the community’s heritage, incorporating a comprehensive family tree that would encompass the ‘kaghakatsi’ (after ‘kaghak,’ town) clans and families in the Armenian Quarter.” It was through Hagopian’s website that Daniel Ferguson, the Canadian director of a unique IMAX 3-D film about Jerusalem, contacted Hagopian and hired him as a consultant.

The kaghakatsi community in the Armenian Quarter of the Old City claims that they are the descendants of the Armenians who came to the Holy Land in the early years of Christianity, more than 2,000 years ago. The first Armenians who came to the Land of Israel were idol worshipers or mercenaries who came with the army of Tigranes. In the fourth century CE, Armenia adopted Christianity and pilgrims began to make their way to Jerusalem, where they built monasteries and shrines. Among them were Arthur Hagopian’s ancestors. The other main body of Armenians who came to the Holy Land is known as the “vanketsi” (the word “vank” means convent) and they are the survivors of the Armenian Genocide, which took place in the Ottoman Empire during World War I.

As a Jew who had a traditional Jewish education, I learned about the special place Jerusalem has in the history and traditions of the Jewish people. The Cobblestones of Jerusalem reminds the reader that Jews are not the only ones who have this type of historical and spiritual connection to Jerusalem. Other groups feel the same way and no matter where you stand on the political or religious spectrum, this is a reality of Jerusalem. The four quarters of the Old City reflect this truth, and the challenge for all of us, of course, is how to live side by side with respect and without conflict. 

Hagopian explains Jerusalem from the unique standpoint of a person who is not an Arab and not a Jew. He is determined to stay apolitical and not side with either group in the ongoing conflict, so, for example in his description of the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, he explains that while the Jews called it the “War of Independence,” the Arabs called it the “Nakba” (catastrophe). Growing up, he and his family had friendly relationships with both Jews and Arabs, always remaining a distinct religious and ethnic group, while sometimes picking up various cultural nuances from both, which is what often happens in a multicultural society.

I noticed this in the following paragraph:

“In the shtetl that was the Armenian Quarter, where everybody knew everybody else no one bothered about the notions or niceties of privacy.” This amused me, as shtetl is a Yiddish term for the small towns in Eastern Europe that had large Jewish populations before the Holocaust. On another page, the author writes, “Who can doubt that of the portions of beauty God bestowed on the world, He reserved nine for Jerusalem.” This line comes from the Babylonian Talmud (he also adds “and of the 10 portions of sorrow, Jerusalem’s gift numbered nine?”).

The Cobblestones of Jerusalem is overflowing with stories and information and has many tangents and side stories. The author writes about his journalism career, the years he spent as a journalist in Kuwait and the time he spent as an English teacher, in addition to discussing Armenian and Israeli history, life in Jerusalem in different periods, and much more. All of these different themes can make the book confusing at times and somewhat challenging to read. 

For example, the author writes about a visit to a man he remembered from the Armenian Quarter, and in describing the visit, he delves into his memories of the man, and then suddenly takes a tangent, describing something indirectly related to the man and his visit with him. When he returns to the story of his visit later in the chapter, or suddenly mentions his work on the Jerusalem film, it is disorienting. I think that with more organization and better editing, The Cobblestones of Jerusalem would flow better and be a more pleasurable read.

Amazon Publishing published the book and (in my humble opinion) this is not the first book published through Amazon that needs more editing. Despite this flaw, the book has a lot to teach us and I recommend it to anyone interested in learning about Jerusalem from a perspective that is not often heard, written by a man who knows it well.

“It is said that you can never go back home. But when Jerusalem is your home, you never leave it, because you carry it in your heart.” 

The Cobblestones of JerusalemBy Arthur Hagopian349 pages; $20.84