The Old City of Jerusalem has four quarters, the most mysterious of them being the Armenian Quarter. Most of it is hidden from the eyes of the passersby, behind the walls of the Armenian monastery, which is open to the public only rarely. Many Israelis know it only from the St. James Street, that leads to the Jewish Quarter.
The Armenians are an ethnic group native to the area of Western Asia, who have spread around the world following the Armenian Genocide done to them by the Turks in the beginning of the 20th century. The Armenians were the first nation to convert to Christianity. They also have their own Armenian letters. Whoever wants to be an Armenian must follow the Armenian traditions and speak the Armenian language. In Jerusalem they are known for the Armenian ceramics, but most of them don’t really do ceramics.
Watch this beautiful video by VEM Media Arts depicting the story of the Armenians in Jeruslaem:
If you’ve always wondered about the Armenians of Jerusalem, here are 5 facts which you might find interesting:
1- Today there are about 800 Armenians in Jerusalem, many of them living inside the monastery.
The Armenians first came to Jerusalem at the end of the 4th century CE and established the monastery near Jaffa Gate. At first it was a small community, but following the Armenian Genocide in the beginning of the 20th century, many refugees arrived in Jerusalem and settled in the monastery. This means that today, those living inside the monastery aren’t necessarily religious. When more and more came, they started building houses outside of the monastery as well. In recent years, the Armenian population is decreasing due to difficulties in integrating into the Israeli society.
2- The Armenian children study according to the British curriculum.
They don’t want to get the Israeli or the Palestinian side upset, so they don’t work according to the Israeli or the Palestinian curriculum. So, the Armenians stuck to the curriculum they studied from the time of the British.
The Hebrew university usually only accepts students who have an Israeli high school dimploma , but the Armenians are accepted without it, if their grades are high enough. Unfortunately, because the main language they speak is Armenian, many Armenians have trouble studying in the Hebrew University, which passes its lectures in Hebrew. That is why many prefer to study abroad.
3- The Armenians are Christians, but have a seperate quarter.
In the Old City of Jerusalem there are four quarters, the Jewish, the Muslim, the Armenian and the Christian quarters. The Armenians are Christians, so why aren’t they also part of the Christian Quarter? Because the community, from the Crusader period to the Ottoman period, was very significant and powerful. In the Crusader period, there were three queens that were Armenian. They settled around the holy Armenian places and remained there, and because the majority of the dwellers of this quarter are Armenians, they got to keep their own quarter.
4- During the Jordanian control over Jerusalem, they operated the only gender-mixed school in East Jerusalem.
Between 1948 and 1967, the Jordans controlled East Jerusalem, including the Old City. At that time, the Armenians had one school, which taught girls and boys together. That was unacceptable by the Jordanians, who demanded the Armenian community to establish a second school so that the boys and girls could study seperately. Unfortunately, the Armenians didn’t have enough money at the time, so they tried stalling time. At the beginning of June 1967, the Jordanians told them that they have to establish a new school or else they will shut down their only school. The Armenians understood they have no choice and set a meeting to the 5th of June 1967 to discuss this topic. Unfortunately for the Jordanians, that date was the first day of the Six Day War.
5 – For them, the Armenian Quarter in Jerusalem is holy like Armenia itself.
If you ask an Armenian if he is in favor of two states – Israeli and Palestinian, he will most probably answer: “I am in favor of three states – Israeli, Palestinian and Armenian.” The Armenians believe that the Armenian Quarter in Jerusalem is part of the Armenian kingdom and thus, see it as holy as Armenia itself. That is why they believe there will always be an Armenian community in Jerusalem.
And let’s finish with a wonderful Armenian folk song, renewed by Apo Sahagian, a Jerusalemite-Armenian singer:
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