A Cloistered Community

The country's Armenian population continues to opt for a secluded existence.

It's Sunday morning in St. James's Cathedral in the Old City of Jerusalem. A choir of young seminarians harmoniously chants the prayers that are part of the ancient Armenian liturgy. The only light in this massive medieval church comes from a pale sunbeam seeping through the small windows in the soaring, vaulted dome, and dozens of ornate oil lamps suspended from the ceiling. The darkness adds a mystical quality to the services. Twice a day, a priest rhythmically pounds a hanging wooden beam outside the doors of the cathedral to announce prayers. The practice dates from the time when the Ottoman Turks ruled the Holy Land and would not allow Christians to ring church bells. The Armenian community is steeped in its own history. Racked by memories of genocide, mixing a diaspora cosmopolitanism with a traditional religious mind-set, and caught in the middle of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, Armenians must forever reassert their separate identity. The community's near-insular existence in the Old City was born of ancient necessity. Parts of St. James's Cathedral date back to the fifth century. The church is named for the brother of Jesus, who was the first bishop of the Jerusalem church, and for St. James the apostle, beheaded by Herod Agrippas in the first century. His head is entombed in the church. Shortly after the establishment of the faith in Armenia in the fourth century, Armenian pilgrims began to journey to Jerusalem; by the middle of the fifth century they were strongly represented in the city. During the Middle Ages, there were 70 monasteries in Jerusalem alone. The cathedral is at the center of a large compound inside the walled Old City - the Armenian monastery or 'convent,' as it is called by local residents. It constitutes about one-sixth of the territory of the Old City. This walled world within a walled world is really a miniature city: Inside it are the offices of the Armenian Patriarchate, and the library, museum, schools, seminary, countless courtyards and living quarters for clergy and families. Perhaps to keep trouble and the rest of Jerusalem locked out, a strict curfew is imposed on the compound - a reminder of the days when it was only a monastery. The massive iron doors are shut from 10 p.m. until the early morning. Outsiders have only limited access to this walled fortress. George Hintlian, the resident historian of the Armenian community, guides me around the labyrinth of cobblestone paths, and up and down stone staircases inside the monastery compound. There are a number of spacious courtyards and gardens. The oldest trees in the Old City are in the Armenian Quarter. On the roof of the building next to St. James's Cathedral, laundry is hanging on lines. Those families living inside the compound are descendants of refugees who fled here after the Turks massacred over 1.5 million Armenians in 1915 in what is now eastern Turkey. 'We have two segments of the Armenian population in Jerusalem,' says Hintlian. 'We have native Armenians who have been here for hundreds of years, if not for a millennium, at least. But my [middle-aged] generation is the first to be born in Jerusalem. Our parents were born in Armenia and Turkey and they are the survivors of the genocide. So any Armenian family living within the monastery is actually from the second wave of immigration.' The Armenians who fled to Jerusalem were put up in quarters that had been intended as temporary accommodations for pilgrims. For a time, after World War I, there were 25,000 Armenians living in Jerusalem. But political and economic instability in the region have decimated the colony. Today there are about 2,500 Armenians living in Jerusalem; a few thousand living in Jaffa, Haifa and Nazareth, and a few hundred in the West Bank. Outside the Armenian school, children play tag and marbles during recess. This school was the first in Jerusalem to become coeducational, in 1869. It runs from kindergarten through secondary school, and its graduates sit for the British A-level matriculation exams. Most Armenian children in the city study here. They have little social contact with Arab or Jewish youth. Church, school and language have been central to the Armenian people throughout the centuries. In North America, where there are nearly one million Armenians, secularism and assimilation are perhaps an inevitable fact of life. Not so in the community in Jerusalem, which is cohesive - some would say insular - and where intermarriage is rare. Poet and playwright Anoush Nakashian teaches classical Armenian to secondary-school pupils. She lives with her mother and teenage son in one of the larger apartments inside the compound. 'Here all the children speak Armenian, they even fight in Armenian, they curse in Armenian. You see, it's different here,' Nakashian explains. 'We speak and dance and sing and do everything in Armenian. Suddenly while the kids are playing they decide they want to go to the church, you know, to be there for 10 minutes. They pray and they come out. It's completely different, you cannot imagine how life is here,' she exclaims. Nakashian, admired locally for her glamorous style of dress, often travels abroad to give readings of her works to Armenian communities around the world. She recently turned down an offer of a prestigious job at an Armenian school in the US. 'America has nothing to attract me. You cannot compare the Armenian convent in Jerusalem with anything in the world. This is a little Armenia after the main Armenia. If I leave there may be no one else to teach the subjects that I teach. So maybe I've been sent here to do something.' Nevertheless, as someone who has led a rather cosmopolitan life, what's it like to live in a compound where the gates are locked at 10 at night? Nakashian admits this is not the easiest arrangement. 'I was 17 when I left home, when I went to Armenia to study. Then I lived in England, and France and Switzerland. Then coming back to Jerusalem, not only to the walls but the walls inside too, it's not easy,' she says. 'But inside the convent we have the clubs, which keep the children busy, and then, I travel a lot; I have my freedom. But when I'm inside that's also an advantage because I can work quietly. We're used to this in a way, you see, and you feel very safe inside. I feel safe, not for myself but for my son; I know that he's either at the club or playing with a friend in the courtyard, so it's good in a way, especially at this time,' she says, referring to the current unrest. The patriarchate is not only concerned with the education of the community, but also acts as a mini-welfare state. It provides medical services for a nominal fee at a clinic donated by the Jinishian Medical Fund, and free meals to the aged, invalid, and indigent members of the community. Many Armenians in Jerusalem still work at traditional trades, including the manufacture of intricately designed pottery and photography, which was first introduced to Palestine by Armenians in the 19th century. The first photography lab in the country was set up in the Armenian compound in 1855. Twenty years earlier, the first printing press in Jerusalem was set up here. Now on display in the museum, it is, incredibly, still in working order. In the Elia Photo Shop in the Old City's Christian Quarter, Kevork Kahvedjian shows visitors the handsome book he has produced of his father's photographs taken during the British Mandate. The walls of the shop are covered with the photos as well as early 19th-century prints that are favorites of collectors. Kahvedjian inherited the shop from his father, a survivor of the atrocities of 1915. His father lost his entire family and was brought to Nazareth as an orphan, where he was taught the art. Kahvedjian jokes that photography is part of the Armenian genetic makeup. 'I continued my father's work as a photographer, and now luckily my son, Ruben, is a third-generation photographer,' he says. The streets leading to the shop are nearly empty these days. The Palestinian uprising has taken its toll on businesses throughout Jerusalem, and especially here. 'It's a bit difficult nowadays, especially the last four months, but so far, I'm coping,' says Kahvedjian. 'But for the others the impact is very, very harsh; it has affected them a lot. Look at the hotels - they are empty, no tourists. How long can they stay like this?' In general, members of the Jerusalem community seem determined to stay, despite the lure of North America, where most Armenians here have family. In a small factory just across the road from the Armenian compound, Harout Sandrouni produces finest-quality traditional Armenian ceramics. He and his two brothers say they remain faithful to tradition, and use techniques passed down from generation to generation. 'We are trying to revive the colors and motifs used ever since the 14th century. Most of our creations were inspired by the old tradition,' he explains. In such a small community, where people rarely intermarry, how do young people find brides and bridegrooms? Sandrouni explains that while in thepast local Armenian young men used to go to Lebanon and Syria, many find partners in Armenia, 'now that it is independent and open. It's harder than finding them right next door, but it is possible, especially with the Internet these days.' The enormous geopolitical changes as a result of the breakup of the Soviet Union have opened things up for the Armenian diaspora. Under the Communist regime, the church in Armenia was repressed; its clergy was banished to Siberia and its churches destroyed. 'Since Armenia became independent, so did the church,' declares Bishop Aris Shirvanian, director of the ecumenical and foreign relations of the Armenian Patriarchate. 'This allowed almost everyone to return to the fold of the church, to once again accept the faith for which they had [suffered] a void. Today the church is victorious.' The opening of communications has meant that most of the seminary students studying in Jerusalem are recruited from Armenia. 'In the past we had no chance of bringing any, since the official line of the regime was atheism, and they wouldn't allow the young men to go to a seminary,' explains the bishop. A sensitive issue between Israel and the Armenians is Israel's failure thus far to recognize the killing of Armenians during the Ottoman Empire as genocide. But in this Israel is no different from most countries that have relations with Turkey. The Armenians want world governments to eventually force Turkey to accept responsibility for the massacres. In 2001, Turkey canceled a $200 million defense deal with a French company, and initiated other sanctions, in retaliation for the passage of a new French law recognizing the Armenian genocide of 1915. Bishop Aris says the church understands that Israel values its close relations with Turkey. Nevertheless, he states, 'we still do not give up the hope that the day will come and Israel will also extend recognition of the Armenian genocide, since we and the Jewish people have suffered the same fate. We went through the first genocide in the 20th century, which encouraged Hitler to carry out his plan of the Holocaust of the Jewish people.' The Israeli-Palestinian conflict affects all Christian communities living in the Holy Land, and the Armenians are also involved - at least emotionally. As Bishop Aris diplomatically puts it: 'We are, after all, part of the citizenry of the Holy Land; we'd like to see the restoration of peace and justice among those people who surround us, and so everything will go back to normal and brotherly relations take over animosity.' But relations with the Israeli authorities are not as 'normal' as Bishop Aris would like them portrayed. Like most of Jerusalem's Arab residents, most Armenians in the Old City still hold Jordanian citizenship from before 1967. They don't vote in elections, though Armenians living elsewhere in the country do. The bureaucracy considers Jerusalem Armenians to be Palestinians, which means endless delays in getting documents, and hassles at the airport. 'I try to understand these things and not to feel so frustrated,' says Hintlian. 'It's always an individual response. 'For an Armenian living in the West Bank his reactions may be different, and for Armenians living in Jaffa and Haifa, their reaction to the State of Israel is also different. So it depends on where you live and how much you can keep a distance from politics.' Harry Hagopian, Armenian author, law lecturer, and secretary of the Jerusalem inter-church committee, agrees. 'The conflict is one that affects most Christian communities; I do not think the Armenians are particularly an exception to the rule,' he avers. 'The difference, as I see it, is that by and large most of the Christian communities here are Palestinian ethnically, whereas the Armenians have their own ethnic identity as Armenians, and that is where in some sense they stand out or differ. In that sense, they have tried over the years to maintain their own sense of integrity and their own sense of identity within.