© Arthur Hagopian 2017
     The Armenian connection to Jerusalem predates the Christian era. The first Armenians to set foot in the Holy Land, pagan idol-worshippers, would have been conscripts or mercenaries marching with the conquering armies of Tigranes (II) the Great, King of Kings.      Tigranes overran Judea but it is uncertain whether he actually entered Jerusalem, at that time under Roman domination. From a strategic point of view, a march on Jerusalem, an insignificant provincial enclave, would have forced his over-stretched armies into another bloody and costly encounter with the Romans.      But he did the next best thing. He left some of his soldiers behind, most likely in fortified garrisons along the borders. Eventually, these pioneers went native, settling in the region. Others moved north towards the greener pastures of the Fertile Crescent that includes Syria and Lebanon, while a number settled in the land of Canaan, where they became fruitful and multiplied.      When the Armenian nation under King Tiridates became the first in the world to accept Christianity as its state religion, my ancestors lost no time making the pilgrimage to Jerusalem.      They came on foot, on the back of camels and donkeys, braving the long travails of danger and hardship: but their first sight of the holy city with its towering walls, reinforced their faith.      Halfway between Jericho and Jerusalem, the pilgrims paused to set up what would later become the foundation for the first Christian monastery in the Holy Land. The site, now known by its Arabic name Khan El Ahmar (the red khan), also figures in the Bible as the location of the parable of the Good Samaritan.      A typical feature of those early monasteries was their embellishment with a floor mosaic, depicting native flora and fauna. However, a 6th Century "medallion" uncovered in 1991 outside the Walls of the Old City, bore only a script incorporating a prayer:  "I, Yevsdat (Eustacius) the priest, laid down this mosaic. You who enter this room, remember me and my brother Ghugas (Lucas), unto Christ."      Historians estimate that the Armenians built hundreds of monasteries and churches along the width and breadth of the Holy Land. Today only a handful survive, among them the magnificent Cathedral of St James, situated within the "vank" (convent) that is the seat of the Armenian Patriarchate.      At its peak, the convent was home to over 15,000 refugees. These "Vanketsi" (residents of the "Vank"), were survivors or descendants of survivors of the 1915 Turkish genocide. But in 1948, at the height of the first Arab-Jewish war, hundreds of Armenians opted to seek sanctuary from the fighting at their doorstep, in their homeland, a Soviet autonomous republic.      The second largest Armenian contingent, the "Kaghakatsi" (from "kaghak", city), the progeny of the original Armenian pioneers,  who had been living in the Armenian Quarter that snakes halfway around the Convent of St James, remained practically intact, unwilling to abandon what they considered their true home. But inevitably, over the years, emigration and natural attrition extracted their relentless toll, reducing the flow to a trickle.      The expatriate Armenians, the "bantukhd", sought greener, and more placid pastures, in the West, predominantly in the USA, UK, Canada and Australia.      They may have left their land, but Jerusalem will always be the home where the heart lies. And although the Armenian presence in the Old City has shrunk alarmingly over the past decades, there has never been any reduction in their prodigious cultural and artistic contribution.      Where else but in the Armenian Quarter will you find both tried and new derivations of the exquisite ceramics first produced in the Turkish town of Kutayha that their industry made famous, their secret brought all the way to Jerusalem, secure in the hearts and minds of survivors of the Armenian genocide?      And where but within the archives of Armenian photographers will you be able to trace the times and lives of the ancient denizens of Jerusalem, vividly preserved in un-retouched black and white? And they kept on building: houses, churches, monasteries.      Alongside the craftsmen, tradesmen, artisans and the dreamers, the Armenians of Jerusalem contributed reams of administrators, civil servants, educators, diplomats and artists, some of whom, like the composer and conductor Ohan Durian, and the philosopher Haig Khatchadourian, both "kaghakatsi", have attained universal acclaim.      Ohan and Haig were brothers, testimony to a unique genealogical oddity: the "kaghakatsi" are all related to each other, every member of the tribe, a relative of another, either directly or indirectly: Ohan Haig are no  exception. They are the brothers of the husband of my father's younger sister. I remember with fond envy how the girls crowded around Ohan as he regaled them with choice Chopin overtures, his fingers dancing skittishly on the keyboard of the grand piano someone had bequeathed to the Jerusalem Armenian Benevolent Union club, the "kaghakatsi" youth bastion.      The piano is still there, a sad victim of neglect, enshrined in the cluttered webs of wandering spiders, a cocoon of distant memories. The Walt Disney cartoon, featuring Donald Duck and his naughty nephews, drawn so painstakingly by Kawarek (Kevork Koukeyan), still hugs the wall of the Jerusalem Armenian Benevolent Union dance-hall, caught up in its futile struggle against damp and peeling plaster      One of the one thousand and one other tales comprising the saga of the Armenians of Jerusalem.  sint.
every tile has a tale to tell
Street in Old City, circa 1900