Jerusalem: A Souvenir from the Armenian Quarter
In Memoriam: Vahik Aroustamian, Beloved Uncle (1955-2007)
By: Gayane Khechoomian
Last summer I woke up on the rooftop of a hostel in the Jewish quarter of Jerusalem’s Old City. Before the sun had a chance to let me know I had been sleeping outside, the Islamic ‘call to prayer’ sounding from the mosque speakers reminded me that even at 5 a.m., God is Great (“Allahu Akbar” in Arabic). Three hours later, the church bells commanded my attention. I was wide-awake, living a dream.
This ancient part of the world, where the four corners of the earth meet, is the site holiest to the three Abrahamic religions. The Jewish, Christian, Muslim and Armenian Quarters make up this 0.35 square mile fortress-like city. Here, the cobblestones of narrow streets are a time machine to a time long ago and every road has its own idea of the elevation and direction that humans should walk. The daytime bazaar is like a scene out of Disney’s Aladdin where everybody is “my friend” and everybody has something pretty to sell to a pretty girl.
The smell of herbs and pastries fill the Muslim Quarter, where a non-Muslim cannot venture too far without being stopped and told to return. The sounds of people gathering at the Western Wall on Shabbat (the Seventh Day of rest in Judaism) fill the Jewish Quarter every Friday. The sight of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in the Christian Quarter, which was once that of Jesus’ crucifixion, is headquarters to the Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem.
The story of how I ended up in the Old City doesn’t go back quite as far as the presence of Armenians in Jerusalem, which predates Christianity. It was five years ago in my Armenian history class at UCLA that Professor Richard Hovannisian described the age-old tradition of Armenian pilgrims in the Armenian Quarter. It was then I started dreaming about the day I would embark on a solitary journey to the historical city.
Out of the four quarters, the Armenian is the smallest and the most walled off. Home to roughly 500 Armenians, it makes up one-sixth of the city. Armenian cafes, taverns, restaurants and souvenir shops selling famous ceramics are found on streets with Armenian names written in Arabic and Hebrew scripts.
For hundreds of years, Christian pilgrims have made journeys to the Holy Land, taking with them one souvenir:
“What kind of tattoo do you want?” Wassim Razzouk, my Harley-riding tattoo-artist asked.
“Give me what you give Armenian pilgrims,” I said hoping he’d know what I was talking about.
Turns out he knew exactly what I was talking about. The year before, he had tattooed seven Armenians from New York, all around my age. In fact, one of the first tattoos done by Wassim’s ancestors was one of Armenian letters dating back to 1749. That was around the time his Coptic Christian family moved from Egypt to Jerusalem, where they have tattooed Christian pilgrims for the past 250 years.
My uncle hoped to be one of those pilgrims. As the ink settled into my arm, I thought about how he dreamed to one day be at the very spot I was. And it dawned on me that it had been exactly four years to the day since his passing. But if there were ever a time and place where surrealism reigns, it would be the Old City. Because here, there is no sense of time, no separation of modern and ancient. The religious air has pervaded throughout the centuries and permeates every corner of the old town.
I escaped into the Armenian Quarter where the St. James monastery has stood since the 14th century. The church that provided refuge to Armenians during the Genocide, now provided refuge to me from a world where the struggle for cultural survival follows each generation. The familiarity of the Priest’s voice echoing within the church walls resonated with my soul. I walked out of the ornate room and rounded the corner to a courtyard surrounded by Armenian dwellings. That’s where I saw the majestic cross-stone statue standing in front of me like an epiphany.
“I have no idea what it is like to be an Armenian,” William Saroyan wrote in his short story Seventy Thousand Assyrians. “I have a faint idea of what it is like to be alive.”
And looking down on the ink on my right forearm, I smiled to myself.