By Arthur Hagopian*
Jerusalem owes an immense debt of gratitude to the Armenians, that sturdy clan of indestructible survivors who refuse to be consigned to the rubbish bin of history, in more ways than one, it seems.
It is common knowledge that Armenians not only gave the city its first printing press but also its first photographic studio, under the patronage of the visionary Patriarch Yessayi Garabedian.
But it is less known that Armenians also contributed the first known Christian pilgrims to the Holy Land, as leading armenologist Michael Stone** pointed out during a lecture stopover in Sydney, Australia.
Speaking to an audience representing the city's diverse Armenian communities, Stone even gave the date the first Armenian pilgrim, from Satala (new Melitene/Maghatia), set foot in Jerusalem: around AD 360, half a century only after Armenia became the first nation in history to accept Christianity as its state religion.
"His name was Greek, Eutaktos, and he is mentioned by Epiphanius, the fourth-century Church Father," he said. (Armenians were still using the Greek alphabet and Greek names then, years before Sts Sahag and Mesrob created the Armenian alphabet).
The pilgrims would come by sea or overland, often in large groups. But they were not satisfied with just a cursory visit to the sacred shrines of Jerusalem: they were determined to explore every nook and cranny of Palestine, to venture to the farthest corners of the land made holy by Jesus and the prophets.
In their wake, they left inscriptions and monuments attesting to their travails and odysseys.
And, endearingly and refreshingly, even their humor.
One exhausted pilgrim, heaving and panting at the top of Mt Sinai after a steep climb, has just about enough strength to carve out a message, and a plea, to God asking Him to have mercy not only on himself, but on his camel guide, too.
"And get me out of this heat!" he begs.
In Nazareth, two Armenian pilgrims, Anania and Papken, left inscriptions on a rock under the Basilica. The date? before AD 447, not long after the Armenians acquired their alphabet.
"This is the oldest writing in Armenian anywhere in the world," Stone said.
But Anania and Papken did not stop there. They trekked on to the Sinai, and left their mark there, too, on another rock.
"You can tell it's the same handwriting," Stone told his audience.
Near the Jaffa Gate, another pilgrim carved out a prayer on a marble slab, asking the Lord to have mercy on Sourp Harutiun, the Holy Sepulchre.
Stone, a Jew, who has been instrumental in deciphering and publicizing the story of the Armenian inscriptions in Sinai, believes the first Christian monastery of any notable size in the Holy Land was established by an Armenian monk, St. Euthymius, at what is known today as Khan el Ahmar (the red khan), on the road to the Dead Sea and Jericho
He noted that some pilgrims overstayed their visit to the Holy Land, extending their sojourn in the monastery over a year. Many became monks.
In the 5th Century, an unprecedented group of 400 pilgrims made the trek from Armenia to the Holy Land, and visited the monastery.
"Can you imagine what a journey of this kind entails, in terms of logistical efficiency only? The number of camels involved alone?" Stone wondered.
But this record was broken a couple of centuries later when 700 pilgrims made the trip.
Many of the travelers settled in and around Jerusalem.
These, then, would have been the ancestors of the Armenians of the Holy Land, including the Kaghakatzi contingent that has held the fort for a millennium and a half.
Jerusalemite Chris Dikian, a modest scholar and voracious history fan, picks up the story of the Armenian presence in the holy land.
Sitting in his house in Chatswood (a Sydney suburb), surrounded by books and memories, and pining for a return to the home of his childhood, he tells of the day he met some of the most incongruously placed Armenians in the world, within the distant enclaves of Jordan.
He had been acting as interpreter on a Mennonite expedition distributing provisions to the Bedouin settlements in the Hashemite Kingdom.
The trip took them to the town of Kerak, made famous by the encampment there of a Crusader force.
The city had one pharmacy only, and the owner turned out to be a fellow Jerusalemite.
But he was apparently not the only Armenian there.
"Look around you," he told Dikian, "you are surrounded by Armenians."
"I looked but all I could see were women dressed in traditional embroidered dresses," Dikian recalls.
"They are all Armenian," the pharmacist told me.
But hardly any of them spoke Armenian. And they had changed their names as well.
At some stage, there had been an Armenian church in the city (but it had been placed under the aegis and protection of the Greeks) and that is where the Armenians worshipped.
Another leg of the Mennonite humanitarian mission took them to the town of Ma'an where food parcels arriving from the port of Aqaba were stored pending distribution. The depot supervisor was an Armenian.
"I asked if there were other Armenians around. He said there was at least one other, a washerwoman," Dikian recounts.
"I could not wait to meet her. Next morning, I went to see him. I asked him where the Armenian woman was," Dikian continues.
"There she is," he said, pointing to a woman nearby who was tending to some clothes.
She was dressed as a Bedouin.
"Are you Armenian?", I asked," Dikian asks.
"Yes," she said.
"Who are you?"
"I am the sister of Serop Aghpyour's mother,' she said," Dikian says.
"I was stunned! Serop Aghpyour was a national hero during the Armenian resistance struggle against the Turks, and had been martyred," he adds.
He cannot ask her what she is doing there. For the same reason you cannot ask another "bantoukhd" Armenian what he is doing wherever he or she is.
Another chapter in the evolving annals of the Armenian nation whose history is now being written a new under an independent motherland.
Armenians will always yearn for Yerevan and Etchmiadzin, but when the last chapter is written, Jerusalem will feature in every single page.
For this humble, troubled enclave, fought over by countless antagonists through the centuries, and considered the centre of the world by many, remains the spiritual lodestone of every Armenian.
* Arthur Hagopian is a Jerusalem Armenian and has worked at the Patriarchate as Press Officer and personal secretary for His Beatitude Patriarch Manoogian. He has worked for major news organizations like Reuters and AP, and holds a MA in educational administration, authoring, web development. He is the Project Director of The Kaghakatzi Family Tree Project.
** Professor Michael Stone of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
Source: The Kaghakatzi Family Tree Project (http://www.kaghakatzi.org/)