RETELLING THE SAGA OF ARMENIANS IN JERUSALEM
By Arthur Hagopian

hetq
2011/03/01 | 16:40

diaspora

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.




From: A. Papazian