The Armenian and Jewish peoples have several things in common: Both have a defined religion and nationality, both have a past of continuous pogroms and persecutions, and both have been subjected to genocide – the Armenians during the first World War and the Jews during the second. Both peoples have realized their age-old dreams of national independence in the modern period, we in 1948, and the Armenians in 1991.
To our happiness, both Jews and Armenians have quarters in the Old City of Jerusalem – and this time we will visit the pearl of the Armenian Quarter, The Saint James Church.
The uniqueness of the Armenian Quarter is its being placed within its own walls, in addition to the walls of the Old City. The Quarter, sort of its own enclosed ghetto, takes up around a sixth of the territory of the Old City, and is home to around 2,000 Armenian, both secular and religious (another point in common with the Jewish people). Most earn a livelihood from local businesses, artwork (like the famous ceramics), printing and academe.
Most of the Armenian Quarter is closed to foreigners outside the framework of organized tour groups arranged in advance. The Church and the Armenian museum that is located not far from it are the only places open to the broad public.
The romance of the Armenians with Christianity is one of the earliest: They were the first people that converted to Christianity, even before Emperor Constantine declared Christianity the religion of the Roman Empire. The holy books were translated already into Armenian in that period, and the Armenian community in Jerusalem is the oldest in the world.
Entry to Saint James Church is open to the public only between the hours of 3:00-3:30 p.m. every day, prayer time for the monks and priests and it is important not to miss it.
The Armenian Quarter is most easily accessed from Zion or Jaffa Gates, both of which feature parking lots nearby. From either, follow the road around 200 meters (656 ft) to a sign indicating the entrance to the Armenian Quarter. The Quarter's adorned gate leads to an antique wooden door, behind which is a plaza leading straight into the church.
Nakos and Katshkerim
Engraved in the wall over the wooden door are a number of ancient Armenian inscriptions, decorations and crosses, called "Katshkerim." They have great artistic importance and they are considered rare in our environs. Pay attention to the grave of the Armenian Patriarch and its impressive iconic painting attached to the wooden gate.
Inside the Church are two hanging tablets – a wooden tablet on the right and an iron tablet on the left. These are the "Nakos" –cymbals. Until the mid 19th century and the end of the rule of Egyptian Muhammad Ali, Muslims forbid Christians to ring the church bells (in a certain period they also forbid Jews from blowing the shofar). Today the Nakos call the priests to prayer.
As a point of interest, additional "Nakos" can be seen in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in the Christian Quarter.
Don't cross your legs
It is important to remember that speaking in the Church is forbidden. In addition, the monks will not allow guests to cross their legs while sitting. Photography is permitted, although I was asked once not to use flash.
The present structure, built in the shape of a cross, dates to the 12th century. It is small, but there is infinite wealth for the eye to see (and is likely to cause shock among some visitors).
We raise our glance to the dome, featuring an impressive Star of David. To the left on the northern wall are three Capella, or prayer altars, dedicated to three individuals: Bishop Makarios, one of the first bishops of Jerusalem, the second, James, is the church's namesake and is Armenia's holiest saint; the third is in a small room dedicated to Minas, the Armenian Saint. This is the oldest room in the Church, dating to the sixth century.
Story of two Yaakovs
James, known in Hebrew as Yaakov, the brother of Johannan, was one of the twelve disciples of Jesus of Nazareth. According to Christian tradition his head was chopped off by Herod Agrippas in the year 44 CE. His head is buried here, in a small room off the Church, and the rest of his body is scattered in burial sites around the Church.
A star on the floor of the Capella indicates the place where the head is buried. Pay attention to the entry doors to the tomb, as they are decorated with the armor of turtles and clams. Many believers enter the church especially to kiss the opening to James' tomb.
In the center of the church is the central Capella, called in Christianity "Opsis". Here, the altar another Yaakov is buried, the brother of Jesus and the first Bishop of Jerusalem. His body was brought here from Nahal Kidron.
A Chain and Eggs
Broad renovation work was undertaken in the church at the beginning of the 18th century by the Armenian Patriarch Gregory "Bearer of the Chain". He received the nickname because he wore a heavy chain around his neck as a sign of enslavement, until he obtained the money to repay debts in which the Armenian community in Jerusalem had become submerged. His journey through Armenia succeeded beyond expectations and the money he collected was even sufficient to rehabilitate the church and build the walls of the Quarter.
Those familiar with Jerusalem churches such as the Holy Sepulchre or Miriam's Tomb in Nahal Kidron will know that Orthodox churches and cappella often contain oil lamps hung from the ceiling. Over every lamp and at the end of every rope it is possible to see ceramic ostrich eggs decorated with various paintings and drawings (that symbolize the various streams of Christianity).
Today the eggs are a pleasant decoration, but in the past they are believed to have played a more crucial role: Mice and rats used to climb the walls and descend the rope to the lamp, an entertaining perhaps but not especially popular among the monks. The slippery ostrich eggs caused the rodents to slip off the rope.
Saint James Church: Every day 15:00-15:30. The entry is free of charge, Tel: 02-6282331
Armenian Museum: Monday through Saturday 9:30-16:30 Tel: 02-6282331