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The Armenian Patriarchate of Jerusalem


By Avedis K. Sanjian.

hough historically unproved, it is a generally accepted tradition that subsequent to the Ascension of Christ the apostles assembled at Jerusalem and elected James the Younger as first " bishop " and conferred upon him the episcopal ordination. It is believed that he established his seat at his own residence on Mount Zion, which is thought to have been located on the present site of the Armenian cathedral of St. James. According to Armenian tradition, after the destruction of the monastery in which the body of the martyred apostle James the Younger was originally buried, his relics were removed to the cathedral of St. James and placed on the spot where the principal altar now stands. This cathedral is also believed to be the site on which the head of the apostle James the Great, brother of John the Evangelist, was interred. These traditions are usually adduced to underscore the Armenian institution's historic associations with the two apostles, whose relics they have jealously guarded for many centuries.

However, this does not fully explain the origin of the Armenian see of Jerusalem. In the earliest Christian centuries the ecclesiastical affairs of the new faith were supervised by duly chosen regional bishops, whose authority was recognized by all Christians within his jurisdictional bounds regardless of race or language. In the course of time five of these regional bishoprics, Alexandria, Antioch, Rome, Constantinople, and Jerusalem, were elevated to the dignity of patriarchates, each enjoying prerogatives within its designated sphere, but still within the framework of the one Universal Church of Christ. The various heretical movements and the rivalries among these hierarchical sees, however, eventually disrupted the unity of the Universal Church. With the doctrinal disputes brought about by the Christological decisions of the Council of Chalcedon in 451 this disunity developed into a schism.

It is important to note that the Church of Jerusalem did not immediately align itself with the creed of this council, and the schism between the monophysites and dyophysites did not occur there until about the middle of the 6th century, even though the Armenian church synod held at Dwin in 506 categorically rejected the dyophysite Christology of Chalcedon. It was only the persecution of monophysite Christians by the Byzantine Emperor Justinian I and the Chalcedonian Greek patriarch of Jerusalem that caused the Armenian clergy of the Holy Land to sever their ecclesiastical ties with the hierarchy of Jerusalem. Many monophysite clergy abandoned their monasteries at Jerusalem and sought refuge in other regions of the Holy Land and in neighbouring countries. Those who remained formed an Armenian see independent of the Greek. Henceforward, the see of Jerusalem was split into the Greek patriarchate exercising jurisdiction over the dyophysite Christians regardless of nationality or language, and the Armenian hierarchy having authority over the monophysite communities, notably the Jacobite Syrian, Coptic and Abyssinian.

With the Arab conquest of Jerusalem, the Armenian see of the Holy City attained a stature which perhaps equaled the Greek patriarchate, whose association with the Byzantine empire rendered it suspect in the eyes of the conquerors. Its position was further enhanced under the Latin kingdom of Jerusalem (1099-1187), and especially under Saladin who, as an avowed enemy of the Latins and ever suspicious of the Greeks, found it expedient to endow the Armenians of the Holy Land with greater privileges. Moreover, the institution enjoyed, particularly in the l2th and l3th centuries, the active interest of the Armenian kingdom of Cilicia whose royal family and princes bestowed on it munificent gifts.

Subsequent to the transfer of the supreme pontificate to Cilicia and until the beginning of the l4th century, the see of Jerusalem came into closer contact with the pontificate, which in spiritual and even administrative matters took a more direct part in its affairs. The increasingly strong pro-Latin tendencies manifested by the Cilician royal family and subservient catholicoses, however, began to have a disruptive influence. Obviously dictated by political and military expediency, these efforts had the effect of bringing the Armenian church under papal control. The official Latinophile policy culminated in the adoption by the church synod, held at Sis in 1307, of a number of canons and rites which ran counter to the traditional tenets and practices of the Armenian church. Attempts to have these decisions implemented by the clergy beyond the limits of Cilicia met with the determined opposition of traditionalists both in the Armenian provinces and in the Holy Land.

In contrast to the political and ecclesiastical authorities in Cilicia, the Armenian see of Jerusalem always remained the bastion of Armenian orthodoxy. Among other reasons, this can be explained by the fact that, unlike in Cilicia, the Armenians at Jerusalem did not, and had no cause to, entertain ideas of protecting political interests through European assistance. When the Cilician authorities sought to compel the see of Jerusalem to adopt and implement the decisions of the synod of 1307 the incumbent Bishop Sargis and the Jerusalem clergy not only categorically refused to conform, but in the year 1 311 severed their ties with the pontificate of Sis...

[Yet,] despite the official split in 1311, the patriarchate of Jerusalem remained within the framework of the see of Sis until 1441, that is, so long as the hierarchy at Sis represented the supreme pontificate of the Armenian church. With the pontificate's transfer in that year the see of Jerusalem recognized the supreme spiritual authority of Etchmiadzin. It is equally important to note that ... because of its custodianship of the Holy Places the patriarchate of Jerusalem continued to have a uniquely prominent position in the eyes of the Armenian people as a whole - second in importance, from the spiritual standpoint, only to the apostolic see of Etchmiadzin.

Custodianship of the Holy Places

y the 7th century, when Jerusalem fell to the Muslim Arabs, the Christian Church had already been divided into various sects. Nevertheless the see of Jerusalem still had only one patriarch, and all Christians, regardless of their ethnic origins, doubtless shared in common worship at the Holy Places, arranging among themselves a schedule for their services...

With the arrival of the Crusaders and the establishment of the Latin kingdom of Jerusalem a far-reaching change took place. As the cleavage between the Franks and the indigenous Christians became more and more pronounced, the Latin element gained praedominium (paramountcy) in all the Holy Places at the experise of the other Christian sects, notably the Greek Orthodox, whose patriarch finally retired to Constantinople. Nevertheless, according to the account of Theodoric, there were still in 1172 representatives of the other churches officiating in the Holy Sepulcher, though " differing in language and in their manner of conducting divine service ".

During the Frankish hegemony many Christians, mostly Armenian, from Antioch, Edessa, Tarsus, Cappadocea, Cilicia, Mesopotamia, and Syria, flocked into Jerusalem, some to establish permanent residence there and others performing pilgrimages. As a result of this influx and because of the close relationship between the Latin kingdom of Jerusalem and the Armenian kingdom of Cilicia, the Armenian position in the Holy Places and their private monastic institutions gairied a new revival of strength, vitality, and splendour. The monastery and cathedral of St. James on Mount Zion became the principal headquarters of the Armenian ecclesiastical institutions in the Holy Land.

Saladin's occupation of Jerusalem in 1187 and the fall of the Latin kingdom marked another turning point in the fortunes of the three major custodians of the Holy Places. The Latin-Orthodox rivalry for control of the dominical sanctuaries began as early as 1188, when the Byzantine Emperor Isaac Angelus allied himself with Saladin to secure the privilege. Nevertheless, for a century or so, even after the fall of Jerusalem, Latin supremacy was maintained. As attested by the treaties made with the Muslims, the Crusaders sought to secure the position of the Latins exclusively and barely tolerated the performance of other rites in the Holy Places. The Franciscan order, established in Jerusalem in 1230, was the official representative of Roman Catholicism in the Holy Places, with headquarters in the Cenacle on Mount Zion. With the fall of Acre in 1291, however, undisputed Latin supremacy came to an end. The ever deepening estrangement between Rome and the church of Byzantium, and particularly the sacking and plunder of Constantinople by Crusaders in 1204, accentuaded the rivalry between the two parties in Jerusalem, which henceforth became their battlefield.

The Armenian Patriarch Abraham and his leading clerical associates are said to have hastened to pledge their loyalty to the victorious Saladin and to pay him the prescribed poll tax. The patriarch requested the sultan to reaffirm all privileges previously guaranteed to the community in the charters allegedly granted to the Armenians by the Prophet and by the Caliphs Umar and Ali. The text of the charter issued by the sultan reconfirmed the " sacred and benevolent acts " of his revered predecessors. The sultan enjoined that not only his successors but also the Muslims generally should faithfully honour the new pact granted by him...

The records involving the control of the Holy Places and intercommunity rivalries and disputes are much more abundant beginning with the dominion of the Mameluke sultans of Egypt. Under Mameluke rule the seemingly loyal and trustworthy Armenians, and their communicant Copts, Syrians, and Abyssinians, enjoyed relatively greater freedom in the exercise of their religious rites. The special privileges granted to them enabled not only the perservation but also the extension of their sanctuaries, monasteries, and other possessions, after due payment, of course, of regular taxes and bribes...

The four centuries of Ottoman dominion in the Holy Land produced a marked change in the fortunes of the various Christian communities in the Holy Places. From the second half of the l6th century until the l9th century time and again the praedominium alternated, although generally the Greek Ortodox secured the balance of power in their favour at the expense of the Latins. Since the Latins were subjects of powers with whom the Ottoman empire was constantly engaged in war, the sultan's Greek and Armenian subjects in particular were treated with favour at the expense of the " Franks ". During these centuries the possession of the Holy Places almost always remained in the forefront of international politics. The European Latin powers, especially France, supported Latin interests; the Orthodox cause was championed by the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople and, beginning in 1774, by Russia. The Armenians, deprived of such political protection, had ,to rely on their own resources, particularly their patriarchate and influential secular magnates in the capital. The Porte generally was inclined to defend its subject communities from Latin encroachments in the Holy Places, but the Catholics nonetheless could, through the payment of appropriate fees and bribes, secure concessions... The strongest and almost continuous challenge to the Armenians and their holdings in the Holy Land came from the Greek community, despite the fact that the charters issued in March 1517 to the Armenian and Greek patriarchates by the Ottoman conqueror of Jerusalem, Sutan Selim I, did no more than sanction the status quo...

[Not to enter into details, it should only be noted that] during the four centuries of Ottoman dominion the rivalry and interminable struggles among the major guardians for aggrandizement at the expense of each other were marked by an almost fanatical zeal and frequently were attended by violence. The community disputes invariably involved the local and central authorities, who were called upon to adjudicate between contending Christians. The role which the Ottomans played in these cases was sometimes motivated by considerations of justice, law, and order. More often than not, however, the Ottomans played one community against the other. Ouite frequently they were influenced by factors extraneous to the merit of the issues, chiefly the possibility of financial gain and the requirements of international diplomacy.

The status quo in the Holy Places as enunciated in the 1850's and as reconfirmed time and again in subsequent years was the sum of a historical evolution whose beginnings are traceable to the early centuries of Christianity, and as a result it established a most complicated network of rights and privileges. This was made more problematical by the difficulty of defining and regulating possessory rights, the doubtful validity of earlier contradictory edicts, and the mutual distrust, suspicion, and jealousy of the rival communities. Yet the Ottoman government was able to maintain the status quo, and no appreciable change in the holdings and privileges of the major custodians occurred after 1850.

From the standpoint of political protection and material resources, the Armenian community was considerably weaker than the much more powerful Latin and Greek rites. As head of the monastic congregation of St. James and as a chief custodian, the primary function of the Armenian patriarch of Jerusalem was to safeguard not only the private institutions of his relatively small community but also its age-old privileges in the commonly held sanctuaries. In this most difficult task the patriarch relied upon the moral and material support of the local monastics and secular community, the other hierarchical sees of the Armenian church, pilgrims, and the Armenian people as a whole. The local monastics had to be especially vigilant. The safeguarding of their status in the Holy Places and other interests necessitated the prompt and unfailing performance of religious services, especially in the commonly held sanctuaries, at precisely designated places and times, for any laxity would certainly result in losses by default to the rival parties. The Armenian tenacity in the Holy Land is impressive testimony to the national resolve of the Armenian people.


Patriarchate of Jerusalem - Continue >
An excerpt from the Book
The Armenian communities in Syria under Ottoman Domination
By Avedis K. Sanjian.
Updated 30 August 1999 ..
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