The Armenian Quarter of Jerusalem is one of the oldest continuously inhabited sections of the ancient holy city. The Quarter is one of the four major sectors of the Old City.
Over the past several years, the Armenian Quarter has gone through conflicts, turmoil, and inner politicking, which has led to the fracturing presence of the Armenians in the city. Israeli settlers have gradually encroached and have confronted Armenians in the Quarter, which have been violent at times.
History of the Armenian Quarter
The Armenian Quarter of Jerusalem started around the 4th century AD, but Armenians have had a more extended presence there. Tigranes II, also known as Tigranes the Great, captured large swaths of the Levant, annexing the Greek Seleucid Kingdom and making the Jewish Kingdom of Judea a brief vassal state before a series of confrontations with the Roman Republic.
Armenians in the region would be an integral part of the Roman Republic and Empire, and later its Eastern Roman successor state, serving in critical governance, military rankings, and even emperors themselves. Nevertheless, a split in the aftermath of the Council of Chalcedon in 451 led to Eastern Orthodox Roman persecutions against the Oriental Christians that saw many Armenians flee Jerusalem.
During the Muslim conquests and subsequent Crusades, Armenians generally returned to Jerusalem, particularly from the Armenian Kingdom of Cilicia, which was allied to the Crusader states. Later in history, after the Muslims reconquered Jerusalem, the Mamluk Sultanate under Sultan Jakmak gave leeway of taxes for the Armenian Quarter, which allowed the Jerusalemite Armenians to flourish.
The Quarter would later expand in the Ottoman Empire under Suleiman the Magnificent, and initially, Armenians made up a significant portion of daily activities in the empire. In the late Ottoman Empire, persecution heightened against Armenians, and many genocide survivors took refuge in the Quarter.
On a visit to Jerusalem, then Crown Prince Haile Selassie of the Ethiopian Empire would take in 40 Armenian Genocide orphans and personally adopt them, as their musical talents moved him. These orphans, known as the Arba Lijoch (forty children in Amharic), would help write the national anthem of Ethiopia.
Historical Christian holy sites, such as the Saint James Cathedral, Saint Toros Church, and Church of the Holy Archangels, are all located within the Quarter.
Situation in the Armenian Quarter
During the height of ethnic tensions between Jews and Arabs of British Palestine, the USSR repatriated 1,500 Armenians from Jerusalem to the Armenian SSR. Armenians formed self-defense militias instead of Hagenah shelling, which would kill several dozen of their community.
During the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, the Kingdom of Jordan annexed the West Bank and disregarded vandals who desecrated the Jewish Quarter. Armenians themselves were left untouched by the Arab nationalist vandalism but once again faced uncertainty after Israel’s decisive Six-Day War, which saw Jerusalem in Israeli hands.
The transition from Jordanian to Israeli rule has been difficult for Jerusalemite Armenians compared to their counterparts in Israel proper, as the Old City has been classified with Palestinians despite not being ethnically Arab. Due to the government’s policy, the Jerusalemite Armenians face tedious problems in attaining documentation.
Inside the Quarter, Armenian priests and citizens face hate crimes from the far-right Israelis in Jerusalem that the Israeli government has often failed to reprimand—especially as current Prime Minister Netanyahu formed a coalition with the more extreme Israeli elements to come back to power.
Growing Fears of Another Cultural Catastrophe
A dubious land deal in the ‘Cow’s Garden’ by the Armenian Patriarch of Jerusalem has only exacerbated the community’s downfall.
The deal states real estate developer Danny Rubenstein can lease the garden, which includes a significant parking lot, for 98 years. Rubenstein plans to create a luxury hotel in the vicinity, drawing angry reactions from the local Armenians and the diaspora alike.
The patriarch, Nourhan Manougian, is currently suspended and unrecognized by the Palestinian Authority and the Kingdom of Jordan due to his dubious handling of the Armenian Quarter. The patriarch has denied allegations of being responsible for the land deal and is currently attempting to renege on the lease—most likely in an effort of damage control after the negative pushback by the Jerusalemite community, fellow church members, and the diaspora.
Nevertheless, the situation remains tense due to the ethnic tensions caused by a fringe group of settlers. On November 5th, armed settlers attempted to intimidate the Armenians in the Quarter, stemming from the shady lease deal that the patriarch is currently trying to renege on.
Ever-growing concerns over the Armenian Quarter in Jerusalem are not only an Armenian problem but a global issue. One of the oldest continuously inhabited communities in the Middle East is now once again at threat—and akin to the negligence towards Assyrians in Iraq, Jerusalemite Armenians face an uncertain future.
[Header image: Church of the Holy Archangels, Jerusalem, via Wikimedia Commons, by Utilisateur: Djampa]
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.
Julian McBride is a forensic anthropologist and independent journalist born in New York. He is the founder and director of the Reflections of War Initiative (ROW), an anthropological NGO which aims to tell the stories of the victims of war through art therapy. As a former Marine, he uses this technique not only to help heal PTSD but also to share people’s stories through art, which conveys “the message of the brutality of war better than most news organizations.”