A Centuries-Old Presence in the Holy Land

By Dr. Abraham Terian

For Armenians, going on pilgrimage to the Holy Land is hardly a novel tradition. From the first recorded Armenian pilgrimage to Jerusalem in the 4th century to the early 20th century, when Catholicos Khrimian Hayrig penned his Invitation to the Promised Land, Armenians have felt a profound devotion to the cradle of their spirituality. 

The first recorded Armenian pilgrimage to the Holy Land is that of an Armenian delegation of priests attending the dedication of the Constantinian edifices over the site of Calvary and that of the Tomb of Christ early in the 4th century. The visit is alluded to in an Armenian translation of a Greek letter sent by Patriarch Makarius of Jerusalem to his contemporary, St. Vertanes, the son of our Illuminator. This was in the wake of Emperor Constantine's conversion to Christianity and the discovery of the Cross of Christ by Constantine's mother, Queen Helena. Since then, Armenian pilgrims have always been attracted to Jerusalem. In fact, there is no history of Christian Jerusalem without the Armenian presence.

Early in the 5th century, St. Euthemius, the Armenian bishop of Melitineh in Lesser Armenia, moved to Jerusalem. By 426 he became one of the founders of monasticism in the Holy Land. Among his many disciples was St. Sabas, who formed another such community not far away in the Judean Desert. The ruins of the Euthemian monastery, including a chapel that housed his tomb beneath the altar, were recently excavated by Israeli archaeologists near the traditional Good Samaritan Inn, between Jerusalem and Jericho. According to The Life of St. Euthymius by Cyril of Scythopolis,[i] a group of 400 Armenian pilgrims from Melitineh visited Euthymius on their way to the Jordan River.

The Armenian community of Jerusalem must have had its beginning in early Byzantine monasticism. By the 6th century there were spacious Armenian monasteries around the city; this is attested by ruins with Armenian inscriptions, found in the vicinity of the Damascus Gate (to the north of the city) and on the Mount of Olives (to the east). These inscriptions, which appear in beautifully elaborate mosaic floors, are the oldest examples of Armenian writing in the world. Additional discoveries in more recent years have revealed the extensiveness of the site just north of the city. Jerome Murphy-O'Connor, a renowned archaeologist of early Christian antiquity, has this to say about the Armenian mosaics near Damascus Gate: "This mosaic floor is perhaps the most beautiful in the whole country."[ii]

The earliest Armenian document written in Jerusalem also dates from this period.[iii] It is the letter of Grigor, Bishop of the Ardzrunis (c.500-570). This letter, written in c. 560 and sent to followers in Armenia, stresses the necessity of celebrating Candlemas or Penthesis, a festival in honor of the purification of the Virgin Mary and the presentation of the infant Christ in the Temple forty days after His birth (Dyaruntarach), on the traditional date of February 14. Grigor also describes some miracles he witnessed, including the healing of an Armenian pilgrim: a woman named Soghovmeh from Mog. 

Next on our chronological "tour" of Jerusalem's Armenian treasures are three eyewitness accounts by 7th-century Armenian pilgrims to various sites in the Holy Land. A vivid description of Mount Tabor by an anonymous pilgrim is found at the end of a homily, "The Epiphany of the Lord on Mount Tabor."[iv] A description of Armenian churches in Jerusalem, Bethlehem, and the Jordan Valley by the hermit Hovsep of Artzakh, is preserved in the "History of the [Caucasian] Albanians" by Movses Gaghangatooatsi. The account has been known in Holy Land studies for more than a century. So too has the report to Vahan Mamikonian by Anastas Vartabed Akoretsi (c. 636-650),[v] recounting his visit to 70 monasteries in and around Jerusalem built by Armenians and Caucasian Albanians, the Aghuank, likewise preserved by Gaghangatooatsi.

The accounts of Armenian pilgrimages to the Holy Land are too numerous to explore every route taken by every group over many centuries. Suffice it to say that even during the most difficult times—such as the destruction of nearly all the churches in the Holy Land by the Persians in 614, and the ensuing rise and spread of Islam—Armenians continued their extensive pilgrimages.[vi]

A remarkable publication by Michael Stone, Professor of Armenian Studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, documents some 114 Armenian inscriptions from four major sites in the Sinai, left by Armenian pilgrims to the St. Catherine Monastery. The dated inscriptions are from the 9th to 15th centuries and are valuable sources for the study of Armenian paleography.[vii] Other documentary sources show the kind of hardships our ancestors faced, even early in this century, to fulfill their lifelong dreams to see the Holy Land. No wonder one of the two Armenian words for "pilgrim" is Mahdesi, used exclusively for pilgrims to the Holy Land. It means literally "one who has seen death"—i.e., on the hazardous journey. The other Armenian word for "pilgrim" is Ookhdavor; literally, "one who has made a vow" (i.e., to see the Holy Land or any sacred place). 

A rather unusual pilgrim was the cleric Hovhannes Karnetsi (c. 1180-c. 1245), a missionary and writer on moral maxims, who was known also as a healer and miracle-worker. During his short stay at the St. James Monastery (1222/3) he witnessed several miracles. One of them, reported in the 13th-century Armenian History of Giragos Kantsagetsi, involves talking murals at the St. James Cathedral! Karnetsi covered nearly every site on the pilgrim's itinerary, in conformity with a favorite prayer he wrote for the safety of fellow travelers. While at the River Jordan, his prayer was interrupted by three Iranian Moslems who wanted to be baptized by him. Doubtful of their sincerity at first, he yielded to their request when the eldest among them recounted visions with familiar sites, and identified our pilgrim priest as the baptizer in one of the visions. Karnetsi also reports a pilgrimage to Mount Sinai by a group of forty Armenians, himself among them, and the miracles that accompanied them at the monastery of St. Catherine.

The boundaries of the present-day Armenian Quarter, covering nearly a sixth of the Old City at the southwestern corner and around the monastery of St. James, were fairly well established by the end of the 11th century. The community thrived under the Crusaders, whose Latin kings of Jerusalem were proud of their Armenian queens—the local benefactors. Unlike other communities in the Armenian diaspora and in Armenia itself, the Jerusalem community was seldom disturbed and hardly ever displaced from its present quarter. Its continuity enabled it to flourish as a religious and educational center, and to become territorially the largest monastic establishment in the medieval city. Armenian pilgrims over the centuries contributed all kinds of religious artifacts to its renowned treasures. The chapel of St. Toros within the St. James compound houses some 4,000 ancient Armenian manuscripts. In sheer number of documents, it is second only to the collection in Yerevan. 

Several of the Armenian kings of Cilicia came as pilgrims to Jerusalem, leaving behind some of their prized possessions, including royal scepters and Bibles with marvelous illuminations. Many more Armenian Church hierarchs came to venerate the places touched by our Lord. These prelates paved the way for countless clerics to follow. Among them was Vartan Vardapet Aykegtsi (c. 1170-1235), a noted preacher who also composed a prayer book while in Jerusalem.[viii] His experiences in the Holy City apparently inspired Aykegtsi for yet another work: an encomium dedicated to Sts. James and John, the sons of Zebedee, and the rest of the Apostles.[ix]

It should be noted that the Sts. James Cathedral is dedicated to two Biblical figures of that name. The cathedral itself marks the traditional site of the Apostolic Council held in Jerusalem in A.D. 49 under the leadership of St. James, "the brother of the Lord" and the likely author of the Epistle of James in the New Testament.[x] His remains are believed to have been interred beneath the main altar. There too, in a side chapel within the cathedral, is the traditional burial spot of the head of the other St. James, "the son of Zebedee" and brother of St. John, who was beheaded by Herod Agrippa I in A.D. 44.[xi] Such an edifice with its twin apostolic traditions must have had a great impact on Aykegtsi.

The Armenian prayers written to be read at various sacred sites, such as those by Karnetsi, anticipate many such compositions in subsequent centuries and in various languages—most immediately by Catholicos Krikor VII Anavarzetsi (in office 1293-1307), who wrote meditations on the sacred sites in Jerusalem.[xii] Likewise, Yeremia Chelebi Keomyurjiants (1637-1695), the prolific chronicler of life in his native Constantinople, wrote meditations on the sacred sites during his visit in 1665.[xiii] A century after Chelebi, a certain Archbishop Martiros wrote a verse "Laudation to Jerusalem" while at St. James in 1773.[xiv] Early in the 19th century, Hovhannes Karnetsi (Nodar) wrote several poems on the holy sites,[xv] published in "A Notebook of Praises."[xvi] Two later (and better) representatives of this genre of meditations in the Holy Land are Catholicos Khrimian Hayrig (Mkrtich I, in office 1893-1907)—who on his visit to Jerusalem in 1850 wrote his Invitation to the Promised Land[xvii]—and in the 20th century Harootyoon G. Murmurian, author of the prose "Alleluia in Jerusalem."[xviii]

The Holy Land continues to attract travelers and pilgrims. Jerusalem in particular never fails to inspire the writer, and it awaits to inspire a new generation of Armenian pilgrims and writers. So much more could be said about this place. But you have to see it for yourself—and don't forget to bring your notebook. You may be another Simeon Tubir Lehatsi (1584-1637) who wrote on his travels through the Holy Land, including a description of the St. James brotherhood—the first such travel account in Armenian literature.[xix] 

Given today's modes of comfortable travel, the convenience of travel arrangements, including fine accommodations, and the security provided by the local authorities, a new and strong presence of Armenian pilgrims is more than timely.

This article is reprinted from The Armenian Church Quarterly, Winter 1999 issue. Professor Terian is the former Academic Dean and Professor of Armenian Patristics, at St. Nersess Armenian Seminary in New Rochelle, New York, U.S.A.


[i]  Scythopolis is today's Beit-Shan in Israel.

[ii]  The Holy Land: An Archaeological Guide from Earliest Times to 1700 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1980), p.  106.

[iii]  Of course, the original is lost.

[iv]  The homily, wrongly attributed to Yeghisheh, appears in Surbo horn mero Yeghishei Vartabedi Madenakrootyoonk' (Writings of Our Holy Father Yeghisheh Vartabed).

[v]  Akoretsi later served as catholicos, in 661-667.

[vi]  See, e.g., the correspondence between Patriarch Modestus of Jerusalem and Catholicos Gomidas (in office 617-625), preserved in the History of Heraclius ascribed to Sebeos.

[vii]  Armenian Inscriptions from the Sinai (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1982).

[viii]  Manuscript nos. 939, 1130, 1576, 1690.

[ix]  Jerusalem manuscript nos. 1,154.

[x]  Galatians 2:1-10; cf. Acts 15:1-30.

[xi]  Acts 12:1-2.

[xii]  Venice, manuscript no. 742.

[xiii]  Unfortunately, no copy of this book published in Chelebi's own press in Constantinople, in 1677, has survived.

[xiv]  Nicosia manuscript no. 62.

[xv]  E.g., Jerusalem manuscript no. 1844, a miscellany of the year 1812, has one "On the Sea of Tiberias" written in 1805.

[xvi]  Jerusalem: St. James Press, 1914.

[xvii]  Constantinople: Hovhannes Myoohentisian Press, 1851; reprinted with a new preface, Jerusalem: St. James Press, 1892.

[xviii]  Constantinople: Zartarian Kradoon, 1903.

[xix]  Ooghekrootyoon, published by the Viennese Mkhitarists in 1936.