ARMENIAN COMMUNITY IN JERUSALEM
Looking carefully at the map of the old city in Jerusalem, we can see that the area is divided into four quarters: the Muslim, the Christian, the Armenian and the Jewish. Surprisingly, the Armenian one is named following the origin of their community, not their religion, as the other three quarters. Indeed, the Armenians are Christians (the majority orthodox, and a small group are catholic). The three first quarters are porous, that’s to say, Christian and Muslim are deeply mixed. The Armenian area is mostly inhabited by the Armenian community, who is not Arab, but it’s historically Palestinian.
“We are Armenians born in Jerusalem. We come from the people who, thousand years ago, arrived as pilgrims, and the Christian Patriarchate boosted them to settle to guard the Holy Places… and you can find many Holy Places in Jerusalem! – told me Anshelous Zakarian, a witty , sharp 80- year-old woman- This is how a large community, who had reached about 20.000 people, was established.”
The Armenian Quarter’s streets have an appearance of walled compounds, whose indoors store green gardens to accommodate several households. The names of the streets are written in Armenian alphabet, and we can see several historical sights of the Armenian history. Ararat, as an example, is the holy mountain of the Armenian community. The religious presence is rich in monuments such as the St. James Cathedral, or St. George, as well as the several chapels in the Holy Sepulchre. Moreover, there are Armenian restaurants with delicious food, museums, a rich tradition of Armenian pottery, and a legendary generation of artistical photographers with pictures of historical Jerusalem.
One detail caught our eye: we can see texts, maps and pictures on the walls of the Old City, which give us memory of the genocide of the Armenian community by Young Turks in 1915. Often, the posters appear as scratched and spoiled, as if someone didn’t want them to be witnessed by the large number of tourists wandering along the streets. Many people of the Armenian community say that this is done by Israelis (who have been pressing the Armenian and the Arab community since Israel was created) with the will of hiding their genocide. True or false, it’s a fact that the Armenian Quarter is heavily pressed by the Israeli side of Jerusalem, grabbing their properties; furthermore, the Jewish Quarter is attached to the Armenian one, which enters its streets.
Hence, if something can be found in the Armenian community in Palestine, is people who are double victim: victims of the Armenian genocide in 1915 in the former Turkey, and afterwards, victims of the ethnic cleansing in Palestine by Zionist militias in 1948 (especially those who lived in the west side of Jerusalem).
The book “Towards Golgota” by Arda Arsenian, is a moving witness of the long journey to Jerusalem of her grandfather Hagop Arsenian, escaping the genocide.
“After fourteen months of deadly and torturous exile, arriving in Jerusalem and settling as a family in one of the quarters of the Armenian Convent was one of the utmost bliss and happiness.” Gone were the fearful swords and bayonets of the gendarmes’, gone were the gachken, khekhen, chekhen shouts which struck us like lightning and filled us with terror and fear. Gone were the insecure days and the deadly Damoclean sword which had haunted us for weeks.”
Anshelous, as Armenian Palestinian, remembers that her parents explained to her about the arrival of the second generation of Armenians in the XXth century, escaping from the genocide. They were hosted with open arms and integrated. However, they have always been distinguished from the old settled Armenians, even for their rough Arabic. “Thousands of orphans arrived by train in Palestine. They were hosted in convents, they were provided with clothes (many of them didn’t have clothes), they were schooled… Some families left them their children to their fate because, if they had stayed, they would be dead.”
The Arab nations accepted and hosted the Armenian community. Moreover, almost all the Armenian family natives from Palestine adopted an orphan. My family, for example, adopted one and treated him as their son. There were also weddings of migrated Armenians with the native ones. What’s more, some Armenian children found their families in Jerusalem or in the Middle East! The child adopted by my family, for example, found his mother in Iraq some years after!
We never give up talking about our genocide! Too many Armenians have suffered a lot, and nobody wants to recognize it! Nobody supports us. We would settle with Turkey saying, “Yes, it happened”. Up to now they have kept silent. That’s why we are annoyed, with everything that has happened to us.”
48 and 67
Anshelous was also a victim of 1948 and 1967’s conflicts. “Before 48, and during the British Mandate, to some extent, we were well treated and educated. We lived better than during the Ottoman Empire, a period when we were very poor! The British brought us to a better live. It was the flourishing period of the Armenian photography. We were very happy, and there was no difference between Arabs or Jewish and us. The Jewish at that time were Palestinians like us, they spoke in Arabic, not in Hebrew. When the Zionists arrived, everything changed. Some of them, after 1948, visited us, and they were really surprised that my family, who used to own a very beautiful property, were living in a house basement with one single window. My father died poorly, penniless… if we think of the house that he had!
The life of Anshelous, like all the Armenian and Palestinian’s communities’ life in Jerusalem, changed again when in 1948 the city was divided in two. Then in 1967, the Israelis occupied the Palestinian side, a side occupied so far by Jordan. “Just after our wedding my husband was killed. It was in 1948. When the expulsion of Palestinian population by Zionist troupes started, a Transjordanian commander offered us to go to Jordan for our safety. We did, but in a short truce period, my husband came back. Crossing the bordering street between East and West Jerusalem, a bullet shoot from the Nôtre Dâme building crossed his head. They brought me to Jordan telling me that my father was sick, but when I arrived, I found my husband was passing away in the hospital.
Then, in the 1967 war, I remember that they were shooting around my house 24 hours a day. Some of my relatives were killed. After 6 days closed in a shelter, we got out. An Israeli soldier asked us in French if we were afraid, and he advised us to leave the country because the Jordan road was opened. We were already packing our suitcases, when a neighbour told us that if we left the house, we would lose it. Finally, we stayed. A lot of neighbours lost their properties.
Nowadays, 2,000 Armenian remain, but we were 20.000 at least! We live in minority here, we don’t have good positions and some of them migrated. I can’t imagine how the West Bank Armenians live! At least in Jerusalem we benefit of some advantages, but in the West Bank there is no work, there is nothing! Nowadays we don’t know where we are! We are not Israelis, because our ID just recognizes us as Jerusalem residents. We are 2nd class citizens, and this didn’t happen before 1948.”
Published in Dialogal, 2013