The Armenian Quarter

Historical Background

The Armenian presence in Jerusalem dates back to the Byzantine period in the fourth century when an influx of Armenian pilgrims came to the city after the discovery of the Holy Places of Christianity, traditionally ascribed to Saint Helena, the mother of Emperor Constantine I.

The current Patriarchate came into existence in the first decade of the fourteenth century when the Brotherhood of Sts. James proclaimed its head, Bishop Sargis, as patriarch. Eventually the Armenian Patriarchate of Jerusalem exercised its authority in Palestine, southern Syria, Lebanon, Cyprus and Egypt. During the Ottoman period and after the creation of the Armenian Patriarchate of Istanbul, the Ottoman state forced all the Armenian ecclesiastic centers in the Ottoman Empire to obey the newly created religious order in the capital. This subordination was mainly characterized by administrative affairs and did not encompass the recognition of the Patriarchate of Istanbul as a higher religious authority. The Armenian Patriarchate of Jerusalem had no choice but to adapt itself to the new situation. However, the Armenian Patriarchate of Jerusalem may have actually benefited from this situation because it received financial assistance from the Patriarchate of Istanbul as well as the support of the wealthy Armenian Amira class in its struggle to preserve its rights in the Holy Places.

One can hardly understand the current condition of the Jerusalem Armenians without understanding the historical transformations that Armenians in general experienced under the 19th-century Ottoman Empire, and later under the British Mandate, Jordanian rule, and the current administration by Israel. Under the Ottoman Empire, political changes coupled with the Tanzimat reforms led to the emergence of an Armenian constitutional movement, which aimed at conducting Armenian community affairs on the basis of written regulations – i.e., a constitution. A long struggle ensued between “constitutionalists” and “conservatives,” but an Armenian National Constitution was ratified in 1863, and the Armenian National Assembly that formed had equal rights with Istanbul’s Armenian Patriarch. In addition to ratifying the election of the Patriarch in Istanbul, the ANS also ratified the election of the Armenian Patriarch of Jerusalem. Thus, in the second half of the 19th century, the Armenian National Assembly sitting in Constantinople assumed the right to elect the Patriarch of Jerusalem and to supervise and control the Patriarchate’s finances, the negotiation of loans, and the sale and purchase of properties. Up until the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, the Armenian National Assembly had the right to interfere in the affairs of the Armenian community of Jerusalem. The situation changed after the empire’s collapse, however, as Jerusalem’s Sts. James Brotherhood emerged as an autonomous entity. The following points should be taken into consideration to understand the historical background of the community’s present condition.

(a) Implementation of the constitution: The Armenian National Constitution promulgated in 1863 did not have as direct an impact on the Armenian community of Jerusalem as it did on the Armenians living in the other cities of the Ottoman Empire. However, up to the collapse of the empire, the Armenian Patriarchate of Jerusalem did remain subordinate to Istanbul’s Patriarchate and Armenian National Assembly. During this period, no internal reform of Jerusalem’s Armenian community took place – most likely because a large independent community did not exist there at the time. Most of the local population was affiliated with the Armenian Patriarchate in some way, and the compounds inside the Armenian cathedral were rarely inhabited by the local population; they served only as accommodations for the pilgrims, whose status was that of temporary visitors.

(b) Collapse of the empire: The collapse of the Ottoman Empire and the Armenian Genocide during the First World War led to a mass migration of Armenians from Cilicia to Jerusalem – leading ultimately to a major change in the on-the-ground reality in Jerusalem, with thousands pouring into the Armenian Quarter seeking shelter. Previously, the Armenian Patriarchate had dealt only with temporary pilgrims; now it had to deal with “pilgrims” permanently residing in the Armenian Quarter. The collapse of the empire also led to the detachment of the Jerusalem Patriarchate from the authority of the Istanbul Patriarchate and the Armenian National Assembly. The election of Patriarch Yeghishe Turian (1921-1929) was done according to the Armenian National Constitution, but the election was ratified by the British Queen. During Patriarch Torkom Koushagian’s reign (1929-1939), the constitution of the Sts. James Brotherhood was modified to vest authority for the election of the Patriarch exclusively in the brotherhood’s General Assembly – negating any “popular” element to the decision, and so denying any kind of “national” character to the election.

(c) Relations between the Patriarchate and State: During the Mandatory Period, the Patriarchate kept its relationship with the British authorities on good terms. The British largely maintained the Ottoman millet system, which meant that local administrative matters concerning the Armenian refugees and the local population were still referred to the Patriarchate. However, following the Arab-Israeli war of 1948 and the subsequent withdrawal of the British, the situation changed. Jerusalem became a hotly contested locale between the Jordanians and the Israelis — a competition frequently reflected within the Armenian community on the issue of the patriarchal elections. The Cold War had its own impact on the inter-communal relationships, as Jerusalem became a contested place between the holy sees of Etchmiadzin and Cilicia. In the 1970s and 80s, the Patriarchate pursued a subtle and sophisticated policy with the Israeli government. But in 1987 the first Intifada broke out, leaving an immense impact on the Armenian shopkeepers in Jerusalem, and leading to the departure of dozens of Armenian families. The Patriarchate’s policies towards the state of Israel and the Palestinian Authority cooled into a generally apolitical sentiment following the 1990 death of Patriarch Derderian and the arrival that same year of Patriarch Torkom Manoogian. Nevertheless, in spite of this evident desire to stay out of the political fray, as the leader of one of the three Christian patriarchates of Jerusalem, Patriarch Manoogian is regularly led, along with the Greek and Latin patriarchs, to take public stances on the prevailing issues, and has co-signed a number of “common declarations” with the other Christian communities on the status of Jerusalem and on the political situation in general. It should not be forgotten that the position of Patriarch Manoogian is quite different from that of his predecessor. Patriarch Derderian was a political man first and foremost, and during his reign the situation was significantly less hostile, both with the Jordanians (until 1967) and within the municipality controlled by Israel’s Labor party. Beginning in 1980, however, the situation of East Jerusalem moved from bad to worse, as the rightist Likud party began running the municipality. The larger truth today is that it is not easy for any church to intercede effectively with the government regarding the problems faced by its lay population because the churches themselves have their own problems with the current Israeli policies.

(d) Relations between the Patriarchate and laity: As mentioned above, in the aftermath of the Armenian Genocide, Jerusalem’s Armenian Quarter filled with “permanent pilgrims,” and the Patriarchate, long used to housing and dealing with “temporary” pilgrims only, now had a larger problem on its hands. Eventually the Armenian lay population organized its own clubs and organizations, and a period of revival began during the period under the British Mandate. However, the lay community never developed a unified body through which to represent grievances and issues pertaining to the community to the religious authorities. Exacerbating this deficiency were the ideological currents extant elsewhere in the Armenian diaspora – and as elsewhere magnified by the Cold War — which also had an impact on Jerusalem’s Armenian community. During the internal rivalries over the election of the patriarch, for example, these ideological loyalties were manipulated by the clergy and by the political parties themselves to support one or the other rival faction. As a consequence, a deep schism developed in the community, precluding the hope for a unified lay body. In the absence of a unified approach, the ideological parties through their clubs acted as mediators between the “community” — most of the time representing the interests and the grievances of their own club members — and the Patriarchate. However, these channels proved to be unproductive on issues involving with the genuine collective interest of the community. And when the political and the socio-economic situation began to deteriorate, especially within the last three decades, these channels proved to be utterly incompetent in representing the grievances of their members. It is reasonable to say that the very lack of such a unified lay body to provide a unified channel for the collective interest of the Armenians was itself an important factor in the process of decline.

Community Challenges

Presently Jerusalem’s shrinking Armenian community faces serious challenges threatening its continued existence. After noting these obstacles, Save the ArQ poses possible solutions:

Citizenship status: Most Armenians living in Jerusalem are not Israeli citizens. They are Jordanian citizens de jure falling under the legal category of “Eastern Jerusalemites”. This means dealing with all governmental bureaucracies must take place directly within the Eastern Jerusalem institutions. The most important institution in this regard is the Israeli Ministry of the Interior branch of East Jerusalem. Issues relating to obtaining travel documents, marriage, divorce, family reunion, and death (among other things) must be addressed through this institution. For Armenians of Jerusalem, and most Palestinians of East Jerusalem, this has been one of the most stressful challenges to contend with. Despite some reforms within the institution, the regulations of the ministry still remain a major hurdle to tackle such issues mentioned above.

Business opportunity: Business opportunities for Armenians in Jerusalem are limited. A poor economic situation discourages the venture of opening a private business in East Jerusalem. It is also impossible to open a business in West Jerusalem due to the economic and political status for Jerusalem’s Armenians. Lacking business opportunity in East and West Jerusalem has been a key factor in the immigration of the Jerusalem Armenians to the U.S. and Canada.

Housing: Housing remains one of the biggest issues–arguably one of the prime factors for the community’s decline. Jerusalem’s Old City is overpopulated and nearly impossible to find available housing. In the last two decades, real estate prices have steeply risen.  For example, a house with two rooms costs $150,000 (with no modern amenities). The average monthly income for an Armenian in Jerusalem ranges from $800 to $1,200; the economic condition of Armenians was better in the past while most benefited from tourism with their goldsmith and souvenir shops.  Now, 80 percent of the Armenian shopkeepers have left Jerusalem as a result of the political situation.

It is extremely difficult for an Armenian living in East Jerusalem to obtain a home in West Jerusalem, primarily due to lacking Israeli citizenship, and subsequently, lofty housing prices. Even if one considers purchasing an apartment, it would be necessary to acquire a mortgage from a bank. If the local Armenians were living in an equitable society with equal access to resources, they would not be so dependent on the Patriarchate. Alas, due to existing conditions, the Armenian Patriarchate is the only venue which can act on behalf of Jerusalem’s Armenians.

The last housing project in the Armenian Quarter was a three-story building built by the Gulbenkian Foundation—over 50 years ago.

Education: The Armenian Sts. Tarkmantchats Secondary School in Jerusalem follows neither the Israeli nor the Palestinian educational systems. It follows the educational system put in place under the British Mandate. So in order to enter institutions of higher learning, Armenian students must pass the GSCE (General Certificate of Secondary Education) exam. As a result it has become more difficult for Armenians to enter Palestinian or Israeli universities, and most students now leave Israel and move to Armenia in order to study at Yerevan State University.

ArQ Advisory Council

Those involved in deciding the fate of the Armenians of Jerusalem need to understand that the Armenian community members themselves need to have a voice in the process. Clinging to partisan ideology has failed to serve the collective interest of the Armenian community in the past, and will fail again. In light of that, reform in the Armenian Quarter of Jerusalem is necessary at this critical moment of history. We are not suggesting that the constitution of the Sts. James Brotherhood needs to be modified or that the Patriarchate be made subordinate. Instead, we are suggesting the establishment of an ArQ Advisory Council formed by members of Save the ArQ, legal counsel from the Armenian Diaspora, members from Jerusalem’s Armenian Quarter community as well as representatives of the Armenian Patriarchate of Jerusalem who will advise the Patriarchate on issues pertaining to the political, economic, and social dimensions of the Armenians of Israel/Palestine in general, and of Jerusalem in particular.  A committee of legal experts within the Advisory Council would tackle issues pertaining to law and legality in the Armenian Quarter. Taking into consideration the deplorable condition of the Armenians of Jerusalem, and the ongoing Palestinian-Israeli conflict, creating such an ArQ Advisory Council represents the most promising path to a new phase for the remnants of the community, characterized by a more equal distribution of resources, an evaluation of the real living conditions of the community, and a commitment to identifying appropriate solutions. Jerusalem’s Armenian Quarter is one of the most significant Armenian centers in the world, with a rich history extending over 1,500 years, and a claim to be one of the preeminent spiritual and cultural centers in the Diaspora. The perpetuation of this treasure is presently in question; its preservation will depend on the survival of both the Armenian Patriarchate and the Armenian community of Jerusalem.


The logotype and Gallery of Photographs within the ArQ tab are reproduced with permission courtesy of Ruben Malayan © Save the ArQ would like to thank all of you who have contributed and support this significant cause.