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Albert Tours Blog-  A Licensed Tour Guide - Israel

The Armenians in Jerusalem

The recent reopening of the Armenian Museum in the Old City of Jerusalem allows us to look into the history of this people and their presence in the holy city.


Visitors to Jerusalem soon learn that the city is divided into four quarters: Jewish, Muslim, Christian and Armenian. The reason why the word 'quarter' exists (also 'quartier' in French, and 'cuarto' in Spanish) is precisely because the holy city was divided into four. But then the question arises: Aren't Armenians also Christians? So why did this small nation benefit from a dedicated quarter, while the Christian quarter is shared between Catholics and Orthodox, whose presence in the Holy Land is much greater? This is because the Armenian nation adopted Christianity as its state religion from the very beginning of the 4th century, even before Emperor Constantine authorized this religion in the Roman Empire (by the Edict of Milan in 313). But Christianity would not actually become the state religion in the Roman Empire until Theodosius in the year 380. By virtue of being the first nation in the world to adopt Christianity, the Armenian Church has always had the honour of a presence in Jerusalem, and therefore it has its own quarter today. It is however, area-wise, the smallest of the four quarters.


When Constantine authorized Christianity in the Roman Empire, the new religion had to be organized. The first ecumenical council was held at Nicaea in 325. It was followed by many others whose decisions were sometimes not always adopted by minority churches. Notably, the Armenian church came into conflict with mainstream Christianity at the Council of Chalcedon in 451 CE because it was adopted that Jesus had both divine and human nature. Let us note that, before this decision, it was forbidden to represent Jesus in human form because God could not be human: Jesus was then represented only in allegorical forms (fisherman or fish, shepherd, peacock, etc.) But, from 451, Jesus took on a human face (his oldest representation in the world is that which is in the monastery of Saint Catherine at Mount Sinai) and, also, people began to represent him on the cross.

The Council of Chalcedon, 451

The Armenian Church was not the only one to refuse this decision since the Coptic, Ethiopian and Syriac churches did the same. These four churches form what is now called the Oriental Orthodox Churches. By disengaging from both Rome and Byzantium, the Armenian Church then established its own patriarch under the title of Catholicos, equivalent to the Pope for Latin Christianity.


The conquests of Jerusalem by the Persians in 614 and then by the Muslims in 638 did not really affect the Armenian community, considered by these conquerors as different from those of the sworn enemy, namely the Byzantine Empire (which was the Eastern Roman Empire, Christianized). In 885, the Caliphate even allowed the Armenians to set up their kingdom as a vassal of Baghdad. But, this fragile kingdom was later annexed by the Byzantines in 1021. In Jerusalem, things also went wrong at this time with the conquest of the city by the Fatimids in 970 whose Caliph Al-Hakim ordered the destruction of the Christian churches in 1009. Fortunately, he was replaced in 1021 and the Byzantines were authorized to rebuild their churches in 1059, including that of the Holy Sepulchre. Meanwhile, in 1053, a Great Schism took place which led to a reciprocal anathema between Catholics and Orthodox (this anathema would only be cancelled during the pilgrimage of Pope Paul VI to the Holy Land in 1964). This split between the Christian churches caused many conflicts of interest in the Holy Land to seek control over the holy places.

Then the Muslim Seljuks conquered Asia Minor from the Byzantines in 1071. The Holy Land and Jerusalem fell too in 1073. The Byzantine emperor saw his empire threatened and appealed to the Pope to defend Jerusalem in particular. The city's bishop had been Orthodox since the schism, and Catholics had little control over holy places. This call for help thus gave the Pope the perfect opportunity to gain back control over Jerusalem, and he launched the First Crusade. The Barons who led it arrived in Constantinople in 1097 and retook Asia Minor from the Seljuks. Further south, Jerusalem returned to the hands of the Fatimids in 1098, a few months before the arrival of the Crusaders who had been delayed in front of Antioch because of a siege which lasted several months. It was only with the help of a certain Firuz, an Armenian convert to Islam, that the Crusaders were finally able to enter the besieged city in June 1098.

One of the most important queens of the First Crusade era was Queen Melisande, of Armenian origin, wife of King Foulques who died too early in Saint John of Acre: she thus found herself in regency for about ten years until to the maturity of her son, Baldwin III. During her tenure, she embarked on a vast program of construction of churches and monasteries including, probably, the complex and the Church of Saint James in the city of Jerusalem. When Saladin took Jerusalem in 1187, Abraham the Armenian Patriarch (who died in 1192 and was buried in the courtyard of Saint James) was able to negotiate Armenian protection and rights to Christian holy sites.

Map of Grunenberg, 1486, showing Saint James church with a truncated dome (decapitation)

After the Mongols conquered all of Asia, they reached the Holy Land. But they were stopped in 1260 by the Mamluks of Egypt at the battle of the Source of Goliath (source of Harod in the Jezreel Valley in Israel) and were pushed back to the North. There the Armenians formed an alliance with the Mongols and thus halted the expansionist desires of the Mamluks at the Battle of Homs in Syria (1299). The Mamluks remembered this and began to threaten Armenia in turn. The fear of the loss of Armenian sovereignty then pushed certain influential Armenians to propose an agreement with the Pope to bring the Armenian Church under the protection of Rome. Pope Gregory IV did not hesitate to confirm the Armenian possessions in Jerusalem, including the complex of Saint James. But the Council of Sis in 1307 failed to reconcile the Armenians with Rome. The small Armenian nation then found itself increasingly isolated, both religiously and politically as their Mongol allies changed sides and moved ever closer to an alliance with the Mamluks: the Mongol leader of Persia himself converted to Islam ! So, the Mamluks ended up conquering the Armenian kingdom in 1375. The last queen of Armenia, Mary of Korikos, was taken captive to Cairo and then authorized to end her days in Jerusalem where she died in 1377. During the Mamluk domination, the Crusades ended because they allowed Christians to come on pilgrimage to the Holy Land under their protection. Several travellers of these times recounted their journey and spoke of their encounter with the Armenian community of Jerusalem.

Then, in 1516, Sultan Selim ended Mamluk rule in the region and established Ottoman power there for the next 400 years. The Ottoman sultans also confirmed Armenian rights to the sites in the Holy Land. Every year on Easter, 10,000 Armenian pilgrims travelled to Jerusalem and stayed in the complex of Saint James. In 1799, Bonaparte arrived in the Holy Land. The Catholics were suspected of potential connivance with this conqueror and, in Jerusalem in particular, the Muslim crowd attacked them. They found refuge in the Armenian complex for 170 days. In Jaffa, Saint Nicolas monastery was requisitioned by Bonaparte for his patients. Back in France, he later sent to the Patriarch of Jerusalem a ceremonial outfit in gratitude for the services of this monastery to the French patients.

Ottoman rule in the Holy Land and Jerusalem lasted until the fall of the Ottoman Empire in 1917 during the First World War. Previously, the Armenian community in Jerusalem feared the worst from the Ottomans as their people were victims of genocide at the hands of the Turks. It is therefore not surprising that walkers in the Armenian Quarter of Jerusalem see it surrounded by thick walls giving little access to the alleys, and with large gates for only passages: it gives the impression of a fortified quarter !

An alley in the Armenian Quarter


It is the focal point of the Armenian Church in Jerusalem and is dedicated to James the Just (also called James the Minor), brother of Jesus, founder of the first church in Jerusalem. He was stoned around the year 62-69. According to Armenian tradition, his head was kept under the altar of the cathedral.

Entrance to Saint James cathedral

But the cathedral also houses the place of execution of another Jacques, apostle of Jesus and brother of John the Evangelist. He was beheaded by order of King Herod Agrippa in 44 CE (Acts 12:1-2). The venerated place is in a niche on the left side when entering the cathedral: an altar has been erected there above the place where he was beheaded and where his head was buried. A red marble slab covers the place, lit by six votive lamps. Note that the headless body of the apostle was taken to Santiago de Compostela, according to a medieval tradition. For some historians, it was the execution of this James the apostle that caused the other apostles to leave Jerusalem to spread the "good news" (= gospel, in Latin and Greek) to the world.

Altar of John the apostle, brother of John the evangelist


This word means "stone cross" in Armenian. These crosses carved in stone are erected to mark the grave or the memory of a great character or to commemorate a particular event. They were used until the end of the Mamluk era. Several can be seen in the courtyard of the Cathedral of Saint James in Jerusalem.

Khachkar in Saint James cathedral


Just north of the Damascus Gate, there used to be an Armenian monastery. During constructions towards the end of the 19th century, a large mosaic was discovered. It has since been preserved and recently transposed to the courtyard of the Armenian Museum. The mosaic features 40 medallions, most with representations of birds including two peacocks (this animal is the ancient symbol of eternity and was used for Jesus, because God is eternal). An inscription at the top of the mosaic says: In memory and salvation of all Armenians whose names the Lord knows.

The Byzantine-era mosaic in the Armenian museum


It is located in the Armenian Quarter and the entrance is some 100 meters past the entrance to Saint James Cathedral on the left as you head towards Zion Gate. Admission is charged (25 NIS per adult, payable in cash only). It is open daily from 9:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. but closed on Sundays and Mondays. Upon entering the large courtyard, one can admire the large mosaic mentioned above. On the ground floor are the rooms that trace the history of Armenia from its adoption of Christianity until the 19th century. The first floor is dedicated to the Armenian Genocide, with history, key figures, photos and video.


The rest of the Saint James complex is unfortunately not open to the public. However, a visit can be arranged with a member of staff. The most important site to discover is the Chapel of the Holy Archangels.

Chapel of the Holy Archangels, Armenian Quarter

Aside from the Armenian Quarter, you can see sites of the Armenian church in the Holy Sepulchre and in all the sites ruled by the Status Quo in Israel (Nativity, Tomb of the Virgin, etc.)

Wishing you a good visit to this museum to better understand the history of this little-known people who nevertheless have a large diaspora throughout the world. If you wish to be guided there, do not hesitate to contact me.

Albert Benhamou

Tour guide in Israel

December 2022


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