© Arthur Hagopian 2017
     I perch on a retaining wall on top of the old Armenian convent of St James, and let my gaze sweep across the panorama unraveling before me. The golden Dome of the Rock shimmers in the bashful April sun, the sacred script on the tiled walls tracing, with hazy fingers, lines of divine revelations that had descended upon the Prophet of Islam, a millennium and a half ago.      Not to be outdone, the massive blocks of stone buttressing the Western Wall of the ancient Jewish temple, soar triumphantly skyward, its lowest tiers emblazoned with a scatter of paper snowflakes peeping from the crevices. They carry the cries of Jewish hearts, to a deity whose name is too awesome and hallowed to be uttered by mortals, except in a cryptic Tetragrammaton, YHWH.      Stolidly pensive, the dark cupola of the Cathedral of the Holy Sepulcher, hovers atop the spot where the body of the man called the Christ, Jesus the carpenter's son from Nazareth,  is assumed to be buried.      Echoes of a Babel of tongues raised in supplication to the same God, faintly reach the ear.      This is the city of gold where history is said to have begun.      The gold has become tarnished with the blood and tears that have been shed along its narrow, meandering streets and alleys, but the charm and mystique of an ethereal ambience, pervade the atmosphere, indelibly embedded in the city's fabric.      This is Jerusalem where I was born.      I am back in the Old City, city of my birth, after decades of self-imposed exile. My peregrinations which have, over the years, led me variously to an oasis in the searing heart of the Saudi Arabian desert, a Kuwaiti prince's palace, the cell of an ascetic monk, the confidences of princes of the church, the depository of priceless manuscripts, and other places and people uncounted and unremembered, have now landed me back here.      Enticed back to Jerusalem by a Canadian film-maker, I have been asked to advise on the production of a 3D IMAX film that would pinpoint the interaction of the three great monotheistic faiths - Christianity, Judaism and Islam - for whom this is the center of the world.      I know every street and alley in the Old City, and have trodden upon their weathered cobblestones countless times. This is where I grew up as a child and spent my early youth. This is where I found and lost my first love.      Jerusalem is more than a mere dot on a map. It is an experience. Indeed, every tile on its dust and grime encrusted streets has a tale to tell. Every cobblestone will regale you with stories of glory and grandeur,  a litany of devastation and despair, and ultimately of triumph: for Jerusalem boasts the dubious distinction of being the perennial battleground of the nations, a designation that has eclipsed the more sublime mantle of spirituality it has been ordained with over the ages.      I pass through its dozen portals, and walk in the footsteps of the prophets, the conquerors, the poets and the dreamers, the builders and destroyers, and am carried once more on the wings of wonder and awe this place inspires. It would be impossible to pinpoint a single aspect of Jerusalem's ambience, except to remember that there is a universal conviction that Jerusalem does not belong only to Arabs, Jews, or Christians, but to the world.      It is, beyond doubt, the city's special mark of distinction as a fount of spirituality that is the lodestone for the millions of people from around the world who come here seeking solace in the sonorous chants of holy men, the broken monuments that whisper their history to the heart, the misty embrace of incense and the warm glow of candle, leaving their prayers in cracks in a wall, or keeping midnight vigil in expectation of the opening of the gates of heaven.      My feet seem to have a mind of their own, a delectable habit of gravitating me back to the Armenian Quarter.  And as I walk along the ancient cobblestones of its twisting and turning alleys, I am greeted by faces, weathered by time and toil, but still familiar,  old friends and relatives I have not seen for more than 15 years.      I am lost in a sea of hugs and kisses - they converge upon me in an endless wave of welcome - no simple handshake or pat on the back will suffice.  They disdain the shaking of hands because the practice is regarded as a foreign interpolation, nor do they celebrate our temporary reunion with a bland hello or welcoming platitude.  Tradition requires a three-pass kiss, placed squarely on the cheek, not hanging impersonally in the air. It is gratifying to learn that at least that aspect of the tradition is still maintained.      But there will be no kissing the hand of this aging man:  whether the elder is family or not, neighbor or stranger, youngsters were expected to kiss his or her hand. Some, like my paternal grandfather, Hagop, who had survived the ravages of Sefer Berlik (the First World War) to return a broken man, would withdraw their hand abruptly, responding to the overture with a blessing.      My favorite was his Midas benediction: "May the earth you touch, turn into gold."      I recognize some of the young ones I meet. They had been children when I last saw them, but quite a few of them do still recognize me. Not all of them.  Interspersed among the friends, are many strange faces.  The blanks are glaring: familiar Jerusalem characters who are no longer there. The dust of the years has obliterated their traces.      I miss the mute shoe-shine boy, Hagop, who had laid claim to a corner of the Citadel wall where no competitor dared encroach. The twinkle in his eye would vanish at the slightest provocation, to be replaced by a snarl when he was crossed.      Where are the garrulous "barav", the old women in black, furies in some Armenian tragedy? Their role in life was to line both  sides of the street in the evenings, their generous posteriors planted perilously on rickety chairs, reviewing or manufacturing, the day’s gossip and shredding the reputations of rivals?      How can I forget the terror Dudu Vartoug (Koukeyan) inspired in the little children? Whenever she visited us, I would seek the remotest nook to hide myself in. But she would easily uncover my hideout. She would point a fat finger at me and intone in ominous tones:      "If you are not a good boy, I will take off my clothes, and slither inside your nose."      Leave it to a helpless child to work out the absurd logic in the terror.      Where is the Arab peddler who boasted that the fine grains of sand his donkey carried could whiten the blackest cooking pot?      Or the one-eyed ice-cream vendor,  who sang to us "ta'alla 'indi, ya habeeb, Come to me, dear one", in a convincing tenor, praising the virtues of his  "dandurma booza"  (icecream) that he swore had come from Tal Abeeb (Tel Aviv)? He must have chosen that point of origin because, despite the fact that in the days of the Jordanian administration, Tel Aviv was the unmentionable, forbidden city of the Jewish enemy, it conveniently rhymed with “habeeb").      The diminutive fruit seller who followed or sometimes preceded his act, opted for another locale for his golden apples: Al Sham, Damascus). The melons, on the other hand, were "Rihawi", grown in "Ariha," Jericho.       What he lacked in height, he more than made up for in rigor. As one little girl found to her sorrow. Acting on a dare a girl, who happened to be a cousin of mine, slithered close to him and tried to measure herself against him to prove she was taller.      She won, but was rewarded for her "chutzpah" with a resounding slap from the angry and embarrassed man.      The parade of itinerant vendors, mainly Arab peasants from outlying villages, included some of Jerusalem's most colorful characters who chose to advertize their wares mainly in song. And they sang surprisingly well. Even after the passage of so many years, I can still recall the lyrics and the refrains.      But for sheer musical delight, few could compare with Khoren Ahranonian's Sunday morning "concerts."      Where is he now, Khoren, the Jamgotch, the town-crier who pounded the cobblestones of the Armenian Quarter at dawn, inviting the faithful to Sunday prayers at the nearby church of the Holy Archangels, his mellifluously evocative voice of the haunting lilt, proclaiming unto the sleeping populace, “in the morning, a light has dawned"?      The denizens of the Armenian Quarter are called "kaghakatsi"  (literally, native or city dwellers) to distinguish them from the other Armenian colony in Jerusalem, the "Vanketsi," who lived within the precincts of the Convent of St James, and were late comers, survivors of the 1915 Armenian genocide, or their descendants.      The chain-smoking Penyamin loved to stare skyward and recount to his gaping audience the antics of the man on the moon. He was the harmless village idiot who loved cats. When he died, the score of little creatures he nurtured, scattered around like headless chickens, mewling plaintively.     Keor (blind) Sarkis could not see, but he could navigate not only the whole Armenian compound, but also knew his way around the country, and had no difficulty travelling to visit relatives in Lebanon.     One day, a strange white van stopped by the entrance to the Patriarchate of St James. It belonged to a nursing home where the ailing Sarkis had been lodged. A male nurse stepped out and proceeded to lead the sick man out.     I was coming out of my office at the Patriarchate and did not like what I was seeing. Sarkis was evidently in no condition to be discharged - but that was exactly what the nurse was doing. A crowd soon gathered and started haranguing the man.     To no avail.     "He can’t stay at the home any longer," the man expostulated as he ran back to the van and sped off.     Sarkis was left lying on the floor. I ran up the stairs to my office, dragged out a chair, and carried it downstairs. We settled Sarkis comfortably on it. He would remain there until his case was settled.
every tile has a tale to tell
Street in Old City, circa 1900

The return . . .