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The Armenian Patriarchate of Jerusalem

The monastery of St. James

By Assadour Antreassian

he Armenian Monastery of St. James occupies the entire summit of Mount Zion, with an area of about 150,000 sq. m (300 acres). It is one-sixth of the entire area of the Old City of Jerusalem within the walls. Apart from the cathedral of St. James, there are many buildings and historic sites located within the monastery.

Entering the convent and passing through the first door on the left, one comes to the courtyard of the cathedral of St. James, which, in the past, served as the resting place of the Armenian patriarchs and members of the monastic community. Some of the tombstones are very interesting records of the history of the monastery and the patriarchate. Among the oldest is that of ... " Bishop Abraham and Patriarch of the Apostolic See of Jerusalem during the reign of Sultan Saladin 1192 A.D. " Besides these, there are many old khatchkars, beautifully designed cross-stones dating back to different periods.

The St. James Cathedral stands on the spot where [according to tradition ] the head of St. James the Major, brother of John, who was beheaded by Herod Agrippa in 44 A.D., was buried (under the northern wall of the present church)... The remains of St. James the Less (the first bishop of Jerusalem) were trasferred from the Cedron valley in the 4th century, and buried in his home. At present, both graves are within the cathedral.

According to tradition; a chapel was built on the spot of the decapitation of St. James the Major, as early as the 1st century. However, there are many evidences that the foundations of the first church built upon these sacred spots were laid in the 4th century. , The original church was partly destroyed by the Persians in 614, repaired in the 8th century, finally reconstructed in the 1lth century. Numerous additions were made on the main body of the church during these reconstructions. During a minor restoration work in 1957, a wail dating back to the 4th century was found in the cathedral. According to an inscription, the oldest part of the cathedral is the portion which falls directly under the northern wall of the present construction, including the chapel of the decapitation of St. James the Major and the chapel of St. Minas. The cathedral, with its arches resting on four massive columns, the magnificent gilded altars, the old paintings, the precious Kutahya blue tiles of the walls and the shafts of light piercing through the high windows of the dome, has an atmosphere of religious fervour. Its length is 24 m, with a width of 17.5 m. It is divided by four pillars into three aisles, which support the main dome of remarkable structure, set on eight interlaced arches. All the walls and the massive columns, from the floor to a height of 2 m, are covered by blue tiles made by Armenians from Kutahya in the l7th century.

At the entrance to the Cathedral, a large plaque marks the site of the grave of Jerusalem's 94th Armenian Patriarch, the late Archbishop Guregh Israelian. One of the city's most popular and charismatic men of the cloth. Israelian died in 1949, of a broken heart it is said, after witnessing the intolerable suffering of his war-ravaged flock, caught in the crossfire of war-time hostilities. More than once, he would cradle in his own arms, the shrapnel-shredded body of an Armenian who had been the latest casualty in the unrelenting war. 

Another unpretentious grave sits under an archway a few paces away, at the other end of the vestibule. This one is the last resting place of the Armenian Patriarch, Abraham, a contemporary of Saladdin. 

Upon entering the Cathedral, one is immediately captivated by the interior bedecked by centuries old "ganteghs" (oil lamps) dangling from the soaring vaulted dome and tallow candles dotting the three altars. The only source of light, the oil lamps, are still lovingly tended by altar boys who replenish them with oil at regular intervals. The candles, made by the Patriarchate's own candle-maker, try vainly to dispel the elemental darkness that pervades the church, imparting a mystical significance to Armenian church rites. 

To the left, within the north wall of the cathedral, is the chapel of St. Macarius, bishop of Jerusalem. Further on is the entrance to the chapel of St. Minas, which is considered to be the oldest part of the cathedral, dating back to the 4th c,entury. The chapel of the Decapitation of St. James comes next. Further on, another door leads to the chapel of St. Stephen, which serves also as the vestry of the cathedral. In this chapel is the baptismal pond.

The cathedral has three main altars : the one in the centre is the high altar, which is named after St. James the Less; the one on the right after St. John the Baptist, and that on the left after Virgin Mary. All the ornaments and wooden panels were decorated and gilded in 1721. A passage in the southern wall of the cathedral leads up to the upper chapels of St. Paul and St. Peter, which are above the altars of Virgin Mary and St. John the Baptist. This passage has two very ancient doors; the most interesting is the one which is behind the outer door,built in 1371 with great artistic taste.

Near to this door, and on the south wall of the cathedral, is the entrance to the narthex of the l2th century. The outside arcades have been walled up since 1633, but the beautiful portal can well be recognized. This is called the Church of St. Etchmiadzin. On its walls there are many tile pictures (ceramics) representing the life of Christ and biblical stories, reproduced from ancient Armenian manuscripts. These tiles are mostly dated 1718 and are believed to be the work of Kutahya Armenians. From this church sixteen steps lead up to the upper room of the cathedral, erected in 1835. During the construction of this vestibule, many khatchkars and tombstones were discovered, the oldest of which dates back to 11 51: it can be seen at present on the west wall of the cathedral facing the courtyard.

The Church of St. Theodoros was built by the Armenian King Hethum of Cilicia in 1266, in memory of his son Thoros who was killed in the battle of Mari against the Egyptians. It is a beautiful church, 18 m long and 9 m wide. All the walls are covered with Kutahya tiles. There are also some very old and historically interesting khatchkars. In this church is the Library of Armenian Manuscripts. There are, in all, 3,815 manuscripts. Bishop Norayr Bogharian was the custodian of this library. He has prepared a complete and detailed catalogue of the manuscripts in eight volumes.

On the south-western corner of the courtyard of the cathedral of St. James, a stairway leads up to the residence of the Armenian Patriarch and the administrative offices of the Patriarchate. Leaving the courtyard of the cathedral through the west door by turning left, one walks along an arched passage and soon comes to the main courtyard of the monastery. On the south and west of this courtyard are the buildings of the old Printing Press, established in 1833 by Patriarch Zacharias, thus having the distinction of being the first press in the Holy Land. It is now the main provider of Armenian religious and liturgical books to churches spread all over the world. The Patriarchate publishes its own official bimonthly in Armenian, called " Sion ", the first issue of which was printed in 1866, in the same printing press.

Crossing the main courtyard of the monastery to the south, and passing through a small door and a narrow lane, one finally arrives at a small courtyard, around which the cultural institutions of the Patriarchate are located. The Gulbenkian Library was founded in 1929, through the generous donation of the late Calouste Gulbenkian, in memory of his parents. It contains almost 50,000 volumes, of which 20,000 are in Armenian, the rest being in foreign languages, mainly in English and French. It receives about 300 different kinds of periodicals. It has also a complete collection of Armenian newspapers and magazines, including the first Armenian newspaper called " Azdarar ", which was published in Madras (India) in 1794. It has one of the finest collections of old printed books in Armenian, including a rare copy of the first one dated 1512 and printed in Venice.

Close to the Gulbenkian Library is the the Edward and Helen Mardigian Museum of Armenian Art and Culture housing historical and religious artifacts including precious rugs, Armenian coins and scraps of evidence of the presence at the site of the Tenth Legion of Rome.

The Theological Seminary is one of the very important institutions of the patriarchate, where young candidates for priesthood are trained and educated. It was established in 1843, and has many buildings for the use of the seminarians. Recently, under the administration of Patriarch Torkom Manoogian major renovations have been undertaken to upgrade the cleric quarters and various parts of the Seminary. The new Theological Seminary complex, (a gift of the late Armenian-American philanthropists Alex and Marie Manoogian) which is found outside the main Patriarchate, opposite the main gate of the Patriarchate, houses a new printing press, a large hall used for graduation ceremonies and various other events, a dormitory which can accommodate over 100 young men, who readily enter the service of the Church and the congregation, classrooms and various other administrative offices.

There have been many educational institutions established by the Patriarchate in the past, for the education of the Armenian young generation in Jerusalem. It could be noted that the first girls' school in Jerusalem was the Gayaniants Armenian School, established in 1863. St. Targmantchats School was established and built in 1929, with kindergarten and elementary classes. The secondary classes were added in 1953.

Leaving the building of this National School, and going down some steps, we reach the Convent of St. Archangels (House of Annas), which is also called in Arabic Deir-el-Zeituneh (convent of the Olive Tree) named after the walled up tree outside the church, and to which, so it is piously held, Christ was tied on the night when he was brought to be judged by Annas, the high Priest. According to tradition, there has been a chapel built on this site as early as the 4th century, in honour of the Angels who, according to the expression of the Church Fathers, covered their faces, when their God was struck by a servant of the high priest; this happened, by tradition, in the house of Annas. However, the present church was built in the l2th century. The Armenian king Leo III of Cilicia repaired the church in 1286, when the outer wall of the convent was built. Entering the convent by a vestibule, one may turn right to enter the church by a portico, on the walls of which can be seen many khatchkars: the oldest one is dated 1362. At present, the church of St. Archangels is the parish church of the Armenians in Jerusalem. Also, within the walls of its grounds lived the Armenian Sisters of the monastery.

It is worth mentioning that a small Armenian community (about thousand and five hundred or so) reside within the walls of St. James Armenian convent.


Patriarchate of Constantinople  - Continue >
An excerpt from the Book
"Jerusalem and the Armenians". Jerusalem, St. James Press, 1968
By Assadour Antreassian

With some modifications and updates

Updated 30 August 1999 ..
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