Armenian Patriarchate of Jerusalem

The Armenian Patriarchate of Jerusalem

The Armenian Patriarchate of Jerusalem is located in the Old City of Jerusalem (Israel), in the Armenian Quarter which comprises one-sixth of the old city and occupies the entire southwest corner of the town. The Armenian Patriarch and the Brotherhood of St. James, together with the Greek and Roman Catholic patriarchs, are the sole guardians of the Dominical Sites, the holiest shrines of Christendom.

The Armenian presence in Jerusalem dates back to early Christian times. From as early as the fourth century we have records about Armenian monks in the Holy Land. Over the ensuing centuries Armenian monks and pilgrims built several monasteries, with as many as seventy institutions mentioned by a seventh century Armenian writer. Armenian mosaics with Armenian inscriptions from the fifth and sixth centuries indicate a very early Armenian presence in the city.         

Originally, the city of Jerusalem had one bishop and chronologically first in the line of bishops had been St. James, the Brother of the Lord. Armenian bishops from Greater Armenia visited the Holy Land and some may have lived there for extended periods of time. These pilgrim bishops, priests and laymen probably suffered persecution under Byzantine rule as a result of the schism in the church after the Council of Chalcedon in 451, since the bishops of Jerusalem adhered to the faith of the Byzantine Empire, whereas the Armenians remained true to the doctrines of the early church. When the Arabs seized Jerusalem in 637, the Armenians took the opportunity to set up their own bishop, a cleric named Abraham, to head he followers of the Armenian faith. It became traditional for the Armenian patriarchs to consider this Abraham as the first of the 91 succeeding bishops.

The original title of the Armenian patriarchs of Jerusalem was Bishop/Archbishop of Jerusalem. In the later Middle Ages the archbishops of Jerusalem assumed the title of patriarch and received recognition as such from the Mamluk rulers of Egypt, who were at that time in possession of the Holy Land.

Today the patriarchate of Jerusalem occupies the third place in the hierarchy of the Armenian Church after the Catholicate of All Armenians and that of the Great House of Cilicia. The Patriarchate of Jerusalem is subject to the jurisdiction of the Catholicate of all Armenians and its bishops as a rule are ordained in Holy Etchmiadzin by the Catholicos of all Armenians. Thus, the bishops are members of both the Brotherhood of Holy Etchmiadzin and the Brotherhood of St. James. There are also primates of dioceses under the direct jurisdiction of Holy Etchmiadzin who are members of the Brotherhood of St. James but are presently not resident members of the St. James Monastery.

The patriarchate of Jerusalem extends its jurisdiction over all of Israel and Jordan where there are a number of Armenian communities with churches and schools. The main preoccupation of the patriarchate, however, is to tend to the holiest sites in Jerusalem and Bethlehem. In the dominical sites in Jerusalem, the patriarchate occupies the monastery of St. James located in the Armenian quarter. Attached to it is the monastery of the Holy Archangels and close to these but outside the walls of the Old City is the monastery of Holy Savior where the Armenian cemetery is located. Near the garden of Gethsemane is the monastery of Dormition of the Holy Virgin, which was the residence of Mary Mother-of-God and subsequently her grave. The ancient subterranean church at that site is owned by the Armenians and the Greeks.      

Outside Jerusalem, the most important site is the church of the Holy Nativity in Bethlehem, which the Armenians share with the Greeks and the Roman Catholics. On the west side of the church and attached to it with a small vestibule is the Armenian monastery. In the vicinity of Bethlehem is the Armenian retreat of Baron Der. The olive orchards on this land surround a large three-storied structure, namely the local headquarters of the patriarchate, and several caves and hermits' cells.

The patriarchate also possesses a medieval monastery, named after St. Nicholas, on the Mediterranean in the town of Jaffa. Another monastery named after St. George is located in Ramleh. The town of Haifa has a small church that serves the Armenians in that area. The monasteries and the churches are headed by monks appointed by the patriarchate. They serve as abbots and deans and cater to the spiritual needs of the Armenians. Amman, the capital of Jordan, is the seat of a bishop whose office is referred to as that of patriarchal vicar. He presides over the Armenian parishes and communities in Jordan.

St. James Monastery is the headquarters of the patriarchate. The monastery houses an ancient cathedral and several chapels. It is surrounded with tall walls with gates that are closed in the evening and opened in the morning. Inside the complex there are monks who live in their quarters and scores of Armenian families. These are the progeny of survivors of the Genocide of 1915 or of refugees who sought shelter during the Arab-Israeli War in the late 1940s and early 1950s. the residence of the patriarch as well as the divan are all within the same complex, which also includes a large library, a museum, manuscript library, the old printing press (the oldest in the city) an Armenian day school and their institutions. Across the street that runs in front of the complex is a large building that is presently the seminary of the patriarchate and near it is the new printing press.

The seminary of the patriarchate has been the source of young clergy for several decades. A large number of primates and parish priests presently serving in various parishes throughout the world are graduates of the seminary.  At various times St. James Monastery has emerged as an important liturgical and intellectual center. It was also known for its artists and craftsmen, both religious and secular.

St. James Monastery is also known as one of the most prolific publishing houses outside of Armenia. Since the mid-19th century, it emerged as the main publisher of liturgical texts, especially those used in parishes all over the world. The press also published many valuable studies and reference works and is still in the process of publishing new works that are useful for both scholars and laymen.

The patriarch of Jerusalem is elected by the members of the General Assembly of the Brotherhood, which is the highest body that has a final say. The patriarch presides over the assembly, which consists of all the members of the brotherhood throughout the world. The assembly elects the Executive Council that conducts the business of the patriarchate under the immediate supervision of the patriarch. All the heads of divisions, the deans and people in administrative and managerial position are accountable to the Executive Council, which is also the body that appoints these people to their posts. The only exception to this is the Grand Sacristan, who like the patriarch, is elected by the assembly and is de facto in charge of liturgical matters and general monastic discipline.

The patriarch of Jerusalem is also the host of all the Armenians who visit the dominical sites as pilgrims. In that respect it has always been a home away from home for our people, and the truth of that became apparent in 1915 and 1947, when the Brotherhood hosted Armenian refugees by providing shelter and feeding them for several years. 

—Article by Fr. Krikor Maksoudian; excerpted from "Welcome to the Armenian Church" (2004).