Sunday, January 04, 2009

Armenian Jerusalem.

Tracing the birth of the Armenian Apostolic Church to the conversion of King Tiridates III by St. Gregory the Illuminator in 301, many Armenians take pride in their status as members of the first nation to adopt Christianity as a state religion. From the time of its foundation, the Armenian Church has preserved a unique liturgical and spiritual tradition. One distinctive aspect of Armenian practice is the celebration of the Nativity and Baptism of Christ on one and the same day, January 6th. The commemoration of the Theophany or Epiphany of the Lord on this date actually predates the celebration of Christmas on December 25th, giving the tradition of the Armenian Church a venerable precedent.

In acknowledgment of the Armenian Church's celebration of the Nativity of Christ, I thought I would take the opportunity to post some photos of Armenian Jerusalem. Home to a small but vibrant Armenian community for more than a millennium, the Old City of Jerusalem contains an Armenian Quarter largely occupied by the Armenian Patriarchate of St. James. Shown in the series of photos presented above, the Armenian Patriarchate includes a cathedral and two other churches as well as residential quarters for priests and monks as well as several thousand Armenian laypeople. The Patriarchate is in some sense a self-contained city within a city, including schools and medical facilities as well as businesses run by some of the lay residents. The only parts of the compound that are generally open to visitors (and then at very limited times, principally during religious services) are the Cathedral of St. James and the courtyard linking the cathedral with the main entrance to the Patriarchate.

The sequence of photos above gives a sense of the journey that the visitor takes from the street (appropriately named 'Armenian Orthodox Patriarchate Road') to the interior of the Cathedral of St. James. As you can see, the entrance to the cathedral is marked by some fine metalwork (third and seventh photos) and mosaics (ninth photo) as well as paintings (eighth photo) and crosses carved in stone by professional artisans (fifth photo) and pilgrims (sixth photo) alike. The interior of the cathedral (tenth photo) is strikingly beautiful but also very difficult to photograph, both because it is lit only by oil lamps and a small amount of natural light and because photography is effectively discouraged if not entirely forbidden. As the website of the Armenian Patriarchate states, "Limited photography is allowed, and visitors are requested to seek permission from the Cathedral Sacristan prior to photographing or filming." What is not stated is that the Cathedral Sacristan (who may be seen, albeit from behind, in the third photo) may revoke his approval when he feels a particular photographer has crossed the line - usually after taking more than two or three photographs. Attending daily vespers at the Cathedral of St. James during my time in Jerusalem, I saw a number of shutter-happy visitors chastened by the icy stare of the aforementioned sacristan, who in all cases effectively conveyed his wordless disapproval with a mere glance.

Though this is my first time writing about the experience on this blog, attending Armenian vespers represented one of the real highlights of my retreat in Jerusalem. Despite not knowing a word of Armenian, I found myself unspeakably moved by the services and particularly by the haunting and quite unique sound of Armenian chant. The services were chanted a cappella by Armenian seminarians, with much incense dispensed by what I took to be clerics in minor orders and Gospel readings and prayers offered by monks I took to be priests. It's hard for me to describe the experience in greater detail - partly because it's been about six months since I was in Jerusalem - but I strongly urge you to take part if you ever find yourself in the Holy Land. For more on my adventures in Armenian Jerusalem, stay tuned for another post tomorrow. AMDG.


At 8/26/2010 6:38 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

just found your photos/blog; enjoyed visiting the Armenian convent very much. Thanks for putting up the photos and your impressions.

At 8/26/2010 11:55 PM, Blogger Joseph Koczera, S.J. said...

Thanks for that, Anon - I'm glad that you had a positive experience.


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