Arthur Hagopian, the former press officer of the Armenian Patriarchate of Jerusalem currently residing in Australia, has just returned from a short visit to the Old City after a 15-year hiatus. This is the third in a series of articles he will be writing during his brief sojourn there.
In the warm, reinvigorating summer air, walking along the cobblestoned alleys of the Old City of Jerusalem becomes a rediscovered pleasure, denied in Sydney where the use of a pedestrian’s feet is confined primarily to pressing a brake or an accelerator.
I can believe friends who have been to Jerusalem claiming they had lost pounds, pounding the streets of the Old City.
I am carrying a long mental list of all the people I hope to meet. There is always the possibility that some of them might not even be there. There are so many places I yearn to see during my flying visit, this “ziaret, tijaret” (a common Turkish expression, broadly translated as “business with pleasure”).
Inevitably, my peregrinations along the streets are punctuated by frequent intervals of hugs and back slappings as I stumble across the old guard of my youth, remnants of the friends and relatives who have remained behind. It is comforting to discover that among the relentlessly wilting population of the Old City, the pillars of the “minority” communities still hold their ground and their standing.
Mostly, the years have been kind to them—even the palpably tell-tale scratchings of cares and worries and uncertainties in a land wallowing in the maelstrom of martial mayhem have failed to leave any scars on the faces I encounter. The men look distinguished, the women more genteel and mature. There are a withered few, unavoidably.
As I tick their names off my list, I also become aware of a subtle change in their demeanor since I had last known them: Despite the general sense of a relaxed, laid-back acceptance of and approach to life, Jerusalemites have succumbed to an undercurrent of urgency, as if they have belatedly come to realize that time will not stand still for them and that they have to make the best of what they had, and fast.
Kevork Hintlian, a former Armenian Patriarchate official whose knowledge of Jerusalem verges on the phenomenal, has just returned from a speaking tour in Canada.
“How long are you staying?” is his first question to me.
He is not thrilled with the answer.
“You are needed here,” he tells me. It is a standing offer I have difficulty coping with. I cannot conceive of a life away from my grandchildren in Sydney. At one time, Kevork and I had served together at the Patriarchate and ours had been a cohesive, efficient, and forceful contribution.
Kevork, who has encapsulated his encyclopedic knowledge of the city and the history of the Armenians in the Holy Land into a tiny 70-page booklet that is regarded as quite authoritative on the subject despite its brevity (I constantly urge him to expand it), lives inside the Convent of St. James, a few meters away from the domicile of Dr. Albert Aghazarian, a close friend who has been a lecturer and director of public relations at the Palestinian university of Bir Zeit.
Between them, the two comprise a formidable library of knowledge covering the social, religious, cultural, and political history of Jerusalem, and their expertise is valued and sought by both local and international scholars alike.
Among the other luminaries who represent the soul and essence of the Armenian presence in the Holy Land, Yeghya Dickranian has opted for retirement from his arduous duties as deputy headmaster of the parochial high school; but draftsman, artist, and painter Apkar Hagopian continues to create meticulously crafted canvases.
The Sandrouni brothers have carved out a niche for themselves in the highly competitive ceramics market, and Saro Nakashian, the former head of the business education department at Bir Zeit, has started his own consulting business. Raffi Safieh, who with Saro ran the Armenian Patriarchate’s audio-visual department, carries on in the tradition of his father Hanna, the well-known Jerusalem photographer.
But of their children, there is little evidence. Not that I will have recognized many of them—after all, it had been 15 years since I last saw them. Where are they, I ask? The query is one I would unabashedly pose to virtually every person I met.
And the answers are disturbingly and distressingly uniform: The remorseless Pied Piper of attrition has passed this way, enticing away the bloom of youth.
“Both my children are away,” says Dickranian. “The boy married a Jerusalem girl and they have moved to the States. My daughter is working there, too.”
Aghazarian’s eldest daughter is getting married in Sweden.
“My son is studying in the States,” says another.
“I’ve packed my children off to America,” an Arab intellectual confides to me. “They have a better future there.”
Hagop Antreassian, a pottery-maker turned businessman, tells me his children have his blessing if they want to emigrate. But neither he nor his wife will think of moving.
The streets and alleys of the Armenian Quarter bask in the summer stillness, each tile and cobblestone recumbent with untold tales of woe and wonder, of adventure and misfortune.
There is no sound of laughter. No shouts or reprimands to naughty children. No music. No pitter patter of tiny feet.
It is like a surreal ghost town. Nothing but memories.
The steady demographic erosion has seen the number of Armenians in Jerusalem slump from a peak of over 15,000 prior to the 1948 Arab-Israeli war to an estimated 1,000 today, while the total number of Christians has been slashed by half, to 12,000.
But despite the differences among them, the Christian communities share a common concern. Although some, like the Armenians and Greeks, are sometimes at loggerheads over their interpretation of the status quo—an Ottoman legacy that attempts to instill some sort of harmony in bilateral relations—they are united in the face of any external threat to their presence.
Unity is the resounding refrain I am to hear from Greek Patriarch Theophilos III when I call upon him.
“We must be united, not divided,” he stresses.
And time and again, I am forcefully reminded by various church leaders in Jerusalem that even if not a single lay member of their community is left, the church will still be there.
“All things pass, the church remains,” echoes Dr. John Tleel, a retired dentist and a leader of the Roum (or Greek) community.
He reads to me from a speech he has made at an interdenominational gathering: “Whatever the circumstances, it is we who are and will remain the guarantors and the determiners of the history of all who came, who come and go and we remain. We are in the middle now because we were before and will be after, we have to be conscious and proud. Our mission is enormous and this makes our responsibility and indispensability still grater and unique.”
“There are many historians but history is one,” he adds.
In their relations with non-Christians, the churches are loath to make waves.
“We are destined to live together,” notes Tleel, who has just published a massive tome called I Am Jerusalem.
But Jerusalem does not belong only to Arabs, Jews, Christians, or Muslims. It belongs to the world, and the world must ensure that its special status as a fount of spirituality is kept sacrosanct, I am told.
In the words of Tleel, a Jerusalemite has to be a little of everything: “an Arab, a Greek, a Roum, an Orthodox, a Christian, a Muslim, Ramallah, Gaza, West Bank, East Bank, Palestine, Jordan, Transjordan, Israel, Israel the old, Israel the modern, Israel the new, and the entire world.”
I walk on, past the Roman Cardo, into the Market of the Spice Merchants, and come face-to-face with an almost forgotten, erstwhile mentor, “Abu Ahmad.” (He does not want his real name published). Perched on a stool in his little shop in the Market of the Spice Merchants, adjacent to the resurrected Roman Cardo, he nods to me.
“You’re back,” he says, simply.
“Not for long,” I reply.
He nods again.
We talk. And I come away with a lesson I shall never forget because it will serve me well in life.
“Whenever there is a moment of pain, unhappiness, or difficulty in my life, I mentally fast-forward to another moment where I know there will be peace and joy and comfort. When my heart is heavy, I anticipate the moment when I will be putting my feet up, reading a book I love, or watching my favorite show on TV. And the pain is forgotten. If it comes back again, I fast-forward again.”