RETELLING THE SAGA OF ARMENIAN JERUSALEM
From Arthur Hagopian
When the great historians, particularly Ormanian and Savalaniantz, set out to wrest from the obscure pages of the past the history of the Armenians of Jerusalem, one of the main objective they achieved was the establishment of chronologically ascertained points of reference.
But despite the exhaustive tenor of their approach and perspective, their quills inevitably left some gaps in the narratives that have come down to us.
We know when Armenians first trod the dust-blown roads of Jerusalem, back in the days of empire, when Tigranes II led a conquering army to Syria and the borders of Judea (circa 1st-2nd BCE). We know how many Armenians were living in the Old City at the peak of their presence (over 15,000 circa 1945 CE). We have a list of their Patriarchs, bundles of documents embodying "firman"s establishing their rights and privileges, Daguerreotypes of the first photos they developed and copies of the first books they printed.
But we know nothing about what drove these people, this flotsam of humanity washed ashore at the Holy Land, a tribe afire with the perpetual flame of ingenuity and artistic abandon. We know next to nothing about their ancient culture, their traditions, their dreams and aspirations.
Some of the edifices and institutions they set up, among them the city's first printing press, are still standing. Others, like the first photographic studio and the refectory that fed thousands of refugees during the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, have been raked over.
A couple of years ago, an attempt was launched to close this unfortunate gap in the saga of the Armenians of Jerusalem, with the creation of a website family tree project targeting the native Armenians, the Kaghakatzis, a clan that boasts a unique distinction: every single member of the clan is related, either closely or at a distance, to every other Kaghakatzi.
The web site has so far succeeded in creating a database listing genealogical details of past Kaghakatzis, dating back a little less than two centuries, in an intriguing mosaic of interviewing lines that show the unbroken connection that binds all Kaghakatzis to their Jerusalem sojourn.
At the same time, the website has become a repository of the stories and legends of this clan, and a menu of whatever has been salvaged of their traditions and customs.
But despite the participation and contribution of Kaghakatzis all over the world, parts of the mosaic lie in tatters, glaring gaps in its fabric.
But that is not the only anomaly - until now, the project, dubbed the Kaghakatzi Armenians of Jerusalem Family Tree, has shied away from cataloguing the saga of the rest of the Armenians of the city, particularly the Vanketzis, survivors of the Armenian genocide or their descendants who had sought refuge in the Convent of St James.
The reasoning behind this obvious oversight is that there is no common genealogical link binding the Vanketzis together. They belong to various families and hail from different parts of the motherland, Armenia. They have been in Jerusalem for less than a century, unlike the Kaghakatzis who can lay claim to a presence of over two millennia.
However, the organizers feel it is time to remedy the anomaly.
"We plan to expand our horizons and tell the story of all the Armenians of Jerusalem, irrespective, " the organizers say.
The Vanketzis also have a story to tell, though it is mostly a tale of survival, of fighting to stay alive while others perished by the roadside, as they sought to evade the marauding Turkish hordes bent on their annihilation.
In more than one case, these miserable dregs of humanity had to face the utmost horror of having to abandon other members of their families to fates worse than death. They survived on the peels of oranges they picked off the ground, and hid in cemeteries where the Jinn, whom the Moslem marauders feared, protected them against the assassins.
The Kaghakatzis in Jerusalem received their refugee cousins with open arms, guarding and protecting them, and offering them a safe haven. During the first Arab-Israeli confrontation of 1948 it was the Kaghakatzis with their home-made Sten and Bren guns who defended the whole of the Armenian compound in the Old City.
While the Vanketzis would have set up the first printing press and photographic studio, establishing a tradition for innovation and modernity, the Kaghakatzis would have concentrated on the more practical aspects of civil administration, trade and government.
They infiltrated the topmost echelons of politics and government, a cadre of top professionals who passed their skills and expertise to successive generations.
Alas, despite their ponderous accomplishments, neither the Kaghakatzis nor the Vanketzis seem to have given any consideration to chronicling their deeds for posterity. They kept no records, or if they did, it has all perished.
Aside from three official ledgers in the possession of the Armenian Patriarchate that catalogue details of births, marriages and deaths of Armenians in Jerusalem. But these go back only to 1840. There might conceivably be older records buried somewhere in the Patriarchate archives: but trying to locate and exhume them is an option too far away.
No doubt there are also bits of memorabilia scattered here and there, gathering dust in forgotten or unheard-of locations.
Waiting for their day of discovery or deliverance from obscurity.
Which is what happened to the scrap of paper Hagop Terzibashian, erstwhile catering supervisor at the Patriarchate, had secreted in his house inside the convent. The paper was unearthed by his son, Abraham, an internationally renowned expert on Armenian theology and theological literature.
The document Hagop so painstakingly compiled, is a list of leading Kaghakatzi figures who plied their trades in the city, from the early 19th century onwards. It covers almost every aspect of life: there seems to have been no trade or occupation in which the Kaghakatzis were not apprenticed. Barbers rubbed shoulders with blacksmiths, carpenters, builders, shoemakers, goldsmiths, tailors, and bankers, among others.
Perhaps the most noteworthy revelation is the fact that the Kaghakatzis also controlled much of the seat of power in the city: Boghos Effendi Zakarian had risen to the lofty position of deputy to the Mutasarrif (Governor), while Sahag Nercessian became chief of police and Hovhannes Khatchadourian the tax collector.
Because of their diligence and trustworthiness, the Kaghakatzis were also singled out for special honors by power representatives of the foreign powers in the land.
Hagop Pascal was appointed vice-consul for Austria-Hungary, while Prussia singled out Haroutioun Torossian for the post.
Hagop Srabion Mouradian was a US consular officer in Jaffa, and a close relative, Onnig, became the US vice-consul in Jerusalem.
And among the builders, lurks the shadow and memory of Hovsep Hovsepian. Could this have been the vaunted Yousef el Banna (Hovsep the builder), whose name reverberates in the modern annals of Kaghakatzi Armenians?
Is this Hovsep the one from whose loins descended my own family line, along the way, the Hovsepian patronymic morphing into Hagopian?
Alas, there is no one to tell. One of the handful of the remaining elders of the Kaghakatzis, former teacher Arshalooys Zakarian, who might have known, passed away recently, taking her story with her.
Someday, we may yet stumble on another slip of parchment or paper telling us more.
Until such time, or when the time comes to write the remarkable history of the Armenians of Jerusalem, as it should be written, we only have the memories, or what we can salvage of them.
PIX CAPTION: The Armenians of Jerusalem, circa 1940