New archives enhance Armenian Jerusalem history project

by Arthur Hagopian

Published: Wednesday January 15, 2014

Archival photo of a Jerusalem Armenian family.

The Armenian Jerusalem website project, which has been set up with the objective of chronicling and preserving the culture, history and traditions of the Armenians of Jerusalem, is being enhanced in the wake of new archival material contributed by friends around the world.

The new material casts an intriguing light on the vicissitudes of members of this Jerusalem clan, and comes as a timely update to the existing records.

Catching up with modern social networking trends in its quest to reach a wider audience, the project has now created a Facebook page located at (https://www.facebook.com/armenian.jerusalem) and is on Twitter at (https://twitter.com/HagopianArthur).

Although the project is primarily of interest to Armenians, it welcomes non-Armenians - whether scholars, researchers or mere visitors - who are eager to learn more about the contribution of this clan of hardy survivors who have helped make Jerusalem the centre of the world.

Acutely sensitive to Jerusalem's unique character and the various conflicts raging around it, the project's Facebook administrators unequivocally stress that its basic tenet is research and scholarship, with absolutely no divergence into political or other controversy.

"Our whole aim is to portray the glory of Jerusalem and the vital role Armenians have played in the evolution of its history," they say.

Among the latest archival revelations, from a source in the United States, is the story of the Armenian mason, Kevork Nercessian, who arrived in Palestine, then under Ottoman rule, probably in the 1850's, from the town of Marash in Armenia (it is currently in Turkish hands), seeking business opportunities in the land of milk and honey. He owned a large tract of land in Safad in the Galilee, and eventually became mayor of the city. He later sold his property to the British who converted it into a hospital.

One of his descendants is the renowned Emeritus Professor of Philosophy at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Haig Khatchadourian, a very close relative of the composer/conductor Ohan Dourian.

Information from a source in Brazil reveals that another member of the Khatchadourian clan, named Eli or Elias, who is said to have spoken 15 languages, became an Ambassador in Palestine.

Armenians are scattered all over the world, the greater part refugees or descendants of refugees fleeing Turkish pogroms which culminated in the 1915 genocide, and spawned a mass exodus.

Thousands of children were orphaned, hundreds dying along the way from disease or malnutrition. One and a half million Armenians had perished.

Among the survivors was a 4-year-old girl who was sent to a Christian Approach Mission for schooling after her parents died. The mother had tried to save her 11-year-old son by changing the date of his birth so he could enter the priesthood but he ended up in an unknown destination, perhaps Lebanon.

Another rootless family, the father drowned in the Mediterranean, trekked to Jordan in a stumbling caravan of bedraggled refugees. In Amman, the two little grand-daughters were forced to stack street tiles in order to earn a living, while the grandmother, who had become so exhausted along the road, she had wanted to just lie down and go to sleep, suckled the babies of strangers for a pittance.

The paucity of documented chronicles has made the task of trying to unearth the variegated story of the Armenians of Jerusalem extremely difficult.

"Our major source of information, apart from official 'domar's [records of births, marriages and deaths] maintained by the Armenian Patriarchate of Jerusalem, remains anecdotal," the project administrators concede.

"The 'domar's we have accessed go back to only 1840," they note, adding more ancient documents exist in the Armenian Patriarchate, but access to those is problematic at the moment.

"At the moment, we have neither the manpower nor the means to unearth those archives and delve into them. It's a mammoth undertaking and would require years of work. Look how long it took one researcher, Haig Krikorian, to complete his omnibus tracking back the "Lives and Times" of the Armenian patriarchs of Jerusalem: eight years. We will just have to wait for more opportune times."

"Another factor complicating access and preservation of anecdotal data is the that the major repositories of such information, the elders of the community who are best equipped to regale us with their tales, are passing away at an alarming rate, one after another, taking a large, irreplaceable chunk of our story with them."

Among the most recent Armenian losses is Araksi Kaplanian, who had been living in Australia. Her husband, Kevork, a community leader, was instrumental in founding the leading Armenian youth club in Jerusalem, the Jerusalem Armenian Benevolent Club (JABU).

Earlier, Arshalooys Zakarian, a veritable encyclopedia of knowledge about her compatriots, and a lifelong teacher and educator with a son who became editor of a major US publication, had passed away.

Haig Khatchadourian's brother Khatcho and his cousin Ohan Dourian were other irreplaceable losses.

Perhaps, future researchers will fare better, now that the Armenian Patriarchate has begun computerizing its records, an initiative taken by the late Patriarch Torkom Manoogian, who wanted to unequivocally reinforce the place of Armenian Jerusalem on the map of the world.

Jerusalem has always been a battlefield for the nations, and seems likely to remain so until those nations beat their swords into plowshares and their weapons into pruning forks, and not learn war any more.

The relentless battles over Jerusalem have taken a heavy toll on the city's population, but in recent times, it is the year 1948 when the first major confrontation between the Semitic cousins, the Arabs and the Jews, took place, that stands out as seminal for the Armenians. Even before the hounds of war were let loose, the Armenian community had seen its numbers shrink drastically in the wake of an unprecedented return of large numbers, back to their homeland in Armenia.

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