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The Armenian Quarter in Jerusalem

The Armenian Quarter occupies the southwest corner of the Old City of Jerusalem. It covers one-sixth of the area contained inside the ancient walls. It is believed that between 35 and 25 B.C., the Jewish King, Herod built a fortress and his palace along the western wall of the Quarter which at that time was called The Upper City ( Zion) since it was ( and now is ) relatively on higher ground than the other Quarters. After the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in A.D. 70, the area was occupied by the Tenth Roman ( Fretensis) Legion and became a government center. In the beginning of the twentieth century this western-most section of the Quarter was used as a cow pasture and to this day it is called as such.

Some Christian historians believed the site of the Armenian Quarter is also the Biblical Mount Zion, a name currently used for the area- a parcel of land highly coveted by other nations and religions. A short time after the destruction of Jerusalem, a small number of Jewish Christians returned to the few houses that remained standing in the Upper City. (At the time almost all Christians were of Jewish origin). Since Christians were not legally recognized at the time, they were driven out by future Roman emperors. There is no historical evidence that Christians lived in the Upper City during the second and third centuries; instead, they congregated outside the city.

One of the gates of the Old City along the southern end of the Armenian Quarter is currently called Zion Gate. It opens to a street outside the wall, currently called Hativat Ezyioni (Zion Street). This street runs between the southern wall of the city and the Armenian cemetery adjacent to St. Savior Armenian Convent and the Biblical House of Caiaphas . Over the last three centuries this large cemetery has been the burial place of many distinguished Patriarchs of Jerusalem as well as the resting place of members of the community and many pilgrims who met their reward while visiting the Holy Places. The inscriptions on the old tombstones tell many poignant stories of the nature of the people interred there. The centerpiece of the cemetery is a monument erected in memory of the fallen heros of the Armenian Legion in 1917. It also serves as a reminder of the Armenian victims of the Turkish genocide in 1915.

The Armenian Quarter is a complex of several historical sites around which Armenians congregated over the last millennium to form a homogeneous entity housing a self-sustained community with its churches, schools, public and social institutions, residences and historical monuments. The compound consists of the St. James Armenian Convent and the adjacent residential neighborhood located toward the center of the Old City.

The Armenian Quarter is reached through the Armenian Orthodox Patriarchate Road, a narrow, one-way street extending through the center of the Quarter and ending at Zion Gate in the south. The main gate of St. James Convent opens to this road which starts just below Jaffa Gate at the western wall of the Old City. Just to the south of and adjacent to Jaffa Gate a wide portion of the wall was demolished in 1896 to make way for vehicular access. It is one of two major vehicular entrances into the Old City. The other is located at the southeast corner of the

Old City to provide vehicular access to buses bringing in Jewish devotees to the "Western Wall" (Previously known as the "Wailing Wall") located at the base of the Haram El-Sharif [Temple Mount]. Immediately after capturing the Old City in the 1967 war, the Israeli government demolished a portion of the city wall at the southeast corner as well as a row of ancient Arab houses opposite the Western wall to make room for a large square and appropriate parking .

The Armenian Quarter is believed to have its beginning in the fourth century A.D., when a small group of monks and pilgrims settled in the area in order to be near the Upper Room, a building on Mount Zion traditionally considered the gathering place of the early Christians. The current St. James Cathedral is believed to be on this site. The Armenian Quarter began to take shape just prior to the Crusader period (1099-1187 A.D.) when Armenians settled in appreciable numbers in the vicinity of St. James Cathedral ("The Jewel of Churches") which historically is proven to exist at the time. The current configuration of the cathedral comes to us as a result of renovations made during the Crusader period. Some current sanctuaries in the area are believed to pre-date the Crusaders. The ages of some of the buildings date from different periods thereafter.

By the middle of the fifteenth century the Armenian Quarter is frequently mentioned to be of existence. It developed to its current size during the reign of the Ottoman Turks in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Unlike other Quarters in the Old City, the Armenian Quarter is well preserved. The St. James Convent is a complex of several churches with open spaces and gardens covered with a variety of greenery. The Patriarchate building next door is an impressive structure consisting of the Patriarch’s residence, gold embossed throne room and several offices. Behind its main gate, the convent contains priest’s quarters, a library building, a museum, printing press, elementary and high schools and residences, youth and social clubs and residential shelters for the poor and employees of the Patriarchate. Currently the Theological Seminary is located outside the convent across the street from the main gate.

The residential section adjoining the convent is accessed through narrow cobblestone alleys and walkways carrying Armenian names (i.e. Ararat Street) similar to those in the other quarters except that these alleys are not as crowded and are well maintained. A guarded gate connects this area to the St. Archangels Church at the south end, which is provided to the faithful as a parish church where weddings, funeral services and baptisms are performed.

During the 1948 Arab/Israeli war some members of the community took refuge within the walls of the St. James Convent. Many others left the country for the safety of countries around the world (Soviet Armenia, the U.S., South America, Europe, Australia etc.).Thus some of the residences were forced to remain vacant becoming victims of vandalism. The greatest damage was inflicted on the entire Quarter during the 1967 war between Israel and the Kingdom of Jordan.

Having been caught in the middle, the entire Quarter was the victim of bomb damage . The buildings housing the priests and the seminarians were damaged by mortar shells lobbed by both combatants and had to be completely evacuated. The major part of the residential section was evacuated. Some were illegally appropriated by Jewish squatters. To this day the Patriarchate is attempting to throw them out to no avail. Some have been given long term leases since officially, most of the residences belong to and are currently maintained by the Patriarchate. The Armenian Quarter is still on the maps; but its future seems to be bleak. The fact that it is adjacent to the Jewish Quarter in the east does not help much. It is feared that the Armenian Quarter is in danger of shrinking in the coming years.

By 1948 the Armenian population in Jerusalem at its peak numbered more than 16,000. Currently, about one thousand Armenians live in the Armenian Quarter. The total number of Armenians in Israel and the West Bank is estimated to be about two thousand.

Source: Armenians in the Holy Land