A window into a secret world

A Jerusalem-based event group is highlighting the Holy City’s "sects" appeal.

Entrance to the St. Marks Church in Jerusalem 521 (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Entrance to the St. Marks Church in Jerusalem 521
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
On any given night of the week, the First Station complex in Jerusalem is crowded with people; friends celebrating a belated birthday at one of the many restaurants, visitors perusing the free art exhibits, or – as happened last week – residents coming out to hear a lecture about a small, insular community that is concentrated in the Old City, a short physical distance but worlds apart.
The Syrian Orthodox Church is one of the oldest and most ancient sects of Christianity. The authority of the church has its roots in Syria and the spoken language is Syriac, a dialect of the Aramaic language that Jesus spoke. The community inhabits a small corner of the Christian Quarter and is home to the Church of St. Mark, which claims to be the site of the Last Supper. Community members still know and speak ancient Syriac, although they mostly speak Arabic.
Mukhtar Sami Barsoum, the head of the city’s Syrian Christian community which today numbers around 150 families, said he remembers a time when there were 3,000 members of his community inhabiting the Old City, but it has dwindled due to lack of opportunity for young people.
Barsoum was invited by Dr. Shalva Weil, an anthropologist and senior researcher at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, to participate in an interview-like presentation for the program Sects in the City, put on by the nonprofit group 100% Jerusalem.
The goal of the Sects in the City events is to introduce the minority communities to greater Jerusalem. Previous events have seen members of the Ethiopian, Armenian and Indian communities participate in the lively sessions in Hebrew, free to the public. Barsoum’s interview/lecture was the first conducted in English, due to the simple fact that he doesn’t speak Hebrew.
When Barsoum – who was born and raised in the Old City – was asked about his nationality, he ticked them off in a list which follows the ruling powers that have come and gone. He started by saying he is Turkish from his father’s side, British by virtue of being born in Palestine under the Mandate, Jordanian from when the Old City was under its control after 1948, and after the Israelis conquered the city in 1967, a resident of Jerusalem, but not a citizen of Israel, and finally Palestinian.
“Five nationalities, one person, one city. So it’s very complicated,” said Barsoum, adding that he’s a Syrian Christian first, and a Jerusalemite second.
Barsoum, who has five children and 14 grandchildren, has run a tailor and souvenir shop for decades in the Old City, and has photos with almost every mayor of Jerusalem – saying the ties he’s built with the municipality allow the community to survive. He only has an elementary-school education, but a couple of years ago published a book on his community and a photographic history of himself posing with leaders of Jerusalem and from all over the world.
“Teddy Kollek was my friend and customer,” Barsoum said of the former mayor. “He paid me a visit in 1984 with [Antony Armstrong-Jones, the first earl of] Snowdon, he was a guest of the mayor, and when they passed my shop he said, ‘This is Sami from the Syrian Christian church.’” Barsoum disclosed he only came to speak at the insistence of Weil, who developed an interest in the Syrian Christian community while conducting research in India in the 1980s about similarities between Christians and Cochin Jews. The city of Kerala, in the south of India, has the largest population of Syrian Christians at five million. Weil was approached by Madelaine Black, the founder of 100% Jerusalem, to be the main interviewer for the Sects in the City series and to help in finding leading members of some of Jerusalem’s most insular communities. Weil reached out to Barsoum, and after meeting with him in the Christian Quarter, he took her to meet the patriarch of the community, who also wanted to come and speak but the timing didn’t allow him to attend. Instead, he sent a high-ranking religious head, priest Moshe Shimon, as well as nine members of the community to the event with Barsoum in a show of support.
Barsoum was affable and related well to the crowd of just under 100 people, who sat with blankets provided by the First Station under a tent set up for winter. There were a few young faces in the crowd, but most of the attendees were in their 50s and 60s. Topics discussed ranged from the roles of women in the community, the diaspora that has moved to Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan and countries in Europe, and the community’s history in Israel. A question from one audience member asked Barsoum to elaborate on the situation and access to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. The church, the site where Jesus is believed to have risen from the dead, has always been steeped in controversy.
Three denominations share ownership – the Greek Orthodox, Catholics and Armenian Orthodox – but the keys to the building rest in the hands of two Muslim families who have acted as gatekeepers since the 13th century. The three denominations can hold services in the church, but the Syrian Christians have limited access.
“We have had the right to pray in the Holy Sepulchre from the fourth century,” Barsoum said. “Until today we have the right to pray, but unfortunately we are not a big church, not wealthy.
We have problems with our brothers the Armenians, we hope to fix it,” he says, shying away from jealousies and confrontations over rights to the church.
But Barsoum preferred to not talk about politics and relay personal stories instead. He told an anecdote about how when he was younger, his mother would send him to the Jewish grocer for sugar, with the message that she would send money later.
“Friendship, this is how it was,” he said. “Today no one can get sugar without paying money.”
The event was disappointingly short, especially because Barsoum asserted himself as a charismatic speaker. Those who stayed afterward found him, Weil and members of the community very approachable, with the event also opening itself up to surprising connections. Kurdish Jews who speak Aramaic approached Barsoum, and they all were able to converse in the almost dead language. Such a moment is what Sects in the City really aims for, according to Black.
“It’s about bringing people together to encounter each other, to hear about each other, understand each others’ journey in the mosaic that is Jerusalem’s multicultural landscape,” Black said.
“The sectarian nature of Jerusalem’s society should not be viewed in a negative way, instead we have ‘sects appeal.’” The Sects in the City series is one of the most important events 100% Jerusalem puts on, Black said, adding that all of the communities approached have been very open to coming to speak. As this was the last event, Black said she hopes to restart the series in February or March.
“The series was amazing,” Weil added. “This was the first time that our neighbors, the Armenians or the Syrian Christians, living in the Old City for 100 years, came over to share with us their history, their everyday life and their stories. They said that they had never been invited before! I hope that these encounters are the beginning of something bigger.”
At the end of the event Black wished everyone a Happy Hanukka. Reflecting once again the diversity of Jerusalem, Barsoum responded, “You have Hanukka, we have Christmas coming up!”