The Armenian Community in the Holy Land

By Miri - 

The Armenian community in Palestine/Israel is mainly known for their presence in the Armenian Quarter, which constitutes one of the four quarters of the Old City of Jerusalem. The Armenian Church is further known for being part of the custodians of some of the most important Christian sites, including the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem and the Church of Nativity in Bethlehem.

How has this small community with a total population of an estimated 5,000, including Armenian West Bank and East Jerusalem residents, maintained this significant position throughout the turbulent history of this region also known as the Holy Land? 

Historical Connection of the Armenian Community to the Holy Land

Detail at St. James Church, Armenian ceramic art
According to their own historiography, the connection between the Armenian people and historic Palestine precedes the birth of Jesus Christ.
For a brief period the Armenian King Tigran II (95 to 55BC) managed to extend his rule as far as Palestine, which at the time was ruled by the Jewish Hasmoean dynasty.

After the Roman era, which led to the total destruction of Jerusalem and the expulsion of all Jews, the Armenians formed part of the small non-Jewish community which remained in the region. At the same time early missionaries started spreading Christianity both among the Armenians who remained in the Holy Land and in Armenia itself. In 301 AD Armenia became the first country to adopt Christianity as its official religion, and the Armenian Church is thus considered to be the world's oldest national church and the Armenians as one of the most ancient Christian communities.

With the spread of Christianity, the first Armenian pilgrims are believed to have embarked on their journeys to Jerusalem, where many of them eventually settled down in what would later become the Armenian Quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem.
The seventh century saw the ascent of the first Armenian Patriarch of Jerusalem, and Caliph Omar Ibn el-Khattab guaranteed the rights, safety, and security of the Armenians' lives, properties, and holy places in Jerusalem. As opposed to many other communities, the Armenians gained the trust of most of the different rulers of the Holy Land, whether Muslim or Christian, and thereby managed to safeguard their holy sites, and ensured the continuation of their presence.

Entrance to the St. James Armenian Convent
By the time the Crusaders conquered Jerusalem, the Armenian community had acquired much of the land of today's Armenian Quarter and started constructing the St. James Cathedral, named after and dedicated to the two James: James "the Great", one of Jesus' apostles and the brother of John, and James "the Less", Jesus' brother and the first bishop of the Christian community in Jerusalem. Until today the St. James Cathedral constitutes the most important building as well as the centre of the Armenian Quarter.
During the Ottoman Empire the whole region opened up to more trade and migration and also witnessed an influx of many Armenians. In 1690 the Armenian community reportedly made up 22,9% of Jerusalem's Christians.
Apart from those directly serving the church, the Armenian community was mainly engaged in trade, civil service and famously in craft making, an occupation that many pursue until today. Especially Armenian ceramic works have a global reputation and many religious sites in Jerusalem, including the Dome of the Rock, are ordained with Armenian ceramic tiles. 
While they always stuck to their specific identity, the Armenian community did never completely isolate itself and contributed to the advancement of the larger society in many ways. In 1833, for instance, Armenians established Jerusalem's first printing press.

With the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and especially with the Armenian genocide in World War I, during which an estimated number of 1 to 1,5 million Armenians were killed, Armenians fled in masses towards Palestine and thousands settled down in the Armenian Quarter. While the tensions between the Palestinian and the Jewish communities grew, the Armenian community tried to maintain neutrality and until 1948 enjoyed a period of social, cultural and religious growth. In 1948, shortly before the outbreak of the war, more than 10,000 Armenians reportedly lived in the British Mandate of Palestine.

Armenian refugees from West Jerusalem in St. James, May 1948
During the war of 1948, the Armenian Quarter got into the fire line between Jewish and Arab forces, and suffered considerable damage. Similarly to the Palestinians, many Armenian families lost their homes and became refugees again. A large number eventually fled the country. After the war the majority of the remaining Armenians of the Old City of Jerusalem came under Jordanian administration, while a small minority, mainly in Jaffa, Haifa and Ramleh obtained Israeli citizenship.

The Armenian Community in Today's Palestine/Israel

During the 1967 war Israel occupied East Jerusalem. Like most Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem, also most Armenians never obtained Israeli citizenship and fell under the category of "East Jerusalemites", which continues to pose a lot of obstacles to the routines of life. The considerably smaller number of Armenians living in the West Bank basically face the same difficulties of a life under direct military occupation as the Palestinian population.

An additional struggle: the recognition of the Armenian genocide
Notwithstanding the fact that the Armenian Church is the second largest landowner in the Old City of Jerusalem with substantial holdings in West Jerusalem and Jaffa, the Church also fell victim to Israeli land confiscation and finds it hard to acquire the necessary building permits for any form of alteration of their legitimate property. Settlers reportedly also continue to attempt to buy property in the Armenian Quarter, but have not succeeded.

As the religious authority of all Armenians living in the Holy Land, the Armenian Patriarch has to make compromises with the Israeli government. At the same time he also has to account for and can therefore not stay neutral to the sufferings of the Palestinian Armenian community. During both Intifadas, many Armenian youth were arrested as they joined the uprising in places like Bethlehem, Ramallah and Jerusalem. While it may weaken his relationship with the Israeli authorities, the Armenian Patriarch generally takes a firm stance against the continued human rights abuses of the Palestinian population as a whole.

Just like many other minority groups in the region, more and more Armenians emigrate from Palestine/Israel in the search for a politically and economically more stable life. It is feared that soon only the Armenian clergy will remain, while the residents and their secular culture, which influenced this region throughout thousands of years, will slowly disappear.


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