The Armenian presence in the Holy Land dates back to the earliest years of Christianity, even before the conversion of Armenian King Tirdat the Third on or about 301 A.D. There is recorded historical evidence that as early as 254 A.D. bishops of the Armenian Church, in cooperation with bishops of the Greek Orthodox Churches in Jerusalem and Alexandria, Egypt, were actively engaged in the discovery and confirmation of Holy Places deemed to be related to the activities of Jesus Christ, and the construction of edifices for the preservation of these early Christian treasures.
Further, from the inception of Christianity, Armenian pilgrims began trekking to the Holy Land on spiritual journeys in steady and continuous numbers, braving disruptive political upheavals and other hardships. A large number of them chose to remain in Jerusalem, and to take up residence in the proximity of the sanctuaries owned by the Patriarchate (the Armenian Convent), with the St. James Cathedral as its centerpiece. Eventually, these areas near the Patriarchate, located in the southwestern corner of the Old City of Jerusalem, constituted the Armenian Quarter, which today takes up one-sixth of the geographic area within the walls of the Old City. The pilgrims also built houses, churches, and convents in other areas, some no longer standing, like the one at the Musrara Quarter, a stone's throw from the 15th Century walls of the Old City where, in 1991, archaeologists uncovered an incomparable mosaic, laid down by an unknown Armenian priest, Eustadius, in the 7th century. At its peak, the Armenian presence in Jerusalem numbered 25,000.
According to historical records, as early as the 3rd century A.D., the Armenian Church, under the uninterrupted leadership of successive bishops, not only maintained the integrity of the Holy Places, but also had a leading role in their protection and reconstruction following their repeated destruction by invading armies.
From the 4th through the 8th century A.D., monasticism took strong root in the Christian world, from the mountains of Asia Minor through the Holy Land, the Sinai Peninsula and the deserts of Egypt. Considered to be an honorable profession in the service of God, it attracted scholars, educators and artisans of all kinds. With the influx of thousands of monks and pilgrims from Armenian cities, Armenian monasteries were established in the Holy Land, particularly in the hills outside Jerusalem, near the Dead Sea, and the Sinai Desert in the south. The monks became an influential creative force and pioneered the enrichment of the Church with an invaluable trove of manuscripts and archives. The development of the Armenian Lectionary, consisting of a comprehensive anthology of Armenian church readings, hymns and celebration of feasts, liturgical calendar, and numerous saints' days, was a unique accomplishment. These elements and others have become an integral part of the tradition of the Armenian Church in the Holy Land thus making the Armenian Patriarchate a very unique institution throughout the world.
Because of the Armenian Church's enhanced prestige, the leading bishop of the Church was elevated to the status of Patriarch sometime in the 5th century A.D. The first formally recorded Patriarch of Jerusalem was named Abraham who, in the middle of the 7th Century A.D., received a charter and official recognition from the Arab Caliph Omar Ibn-Il-Khattab of the Omayyad (Damascus) Dynasty. The charter enumerated the rights and privileges of the Armenian Church in the Holy Land, guaranteeing its integrity and security.
On the back wall facing the main entrance to the St. James Convent there is an elaborately carved inscription in Arabic which, loosely translated, warns all intruders: `This decree from our Lord Sultan and King Al-Daher Abu Sayid Mohammed, cursed be to all those and their sons through generations, and may Almighty God curse whoever harms or inflicts any injustice to this Holy Place. Abu Kheyer Razan hereby guarantees this to the St. James Armenian Convent in Jerusalem. In the year of Mohammed 854 (1488 A.D.)'. This and previous protective edicts have helped strengthen and perpetuate the integrity of the Patriarchate and have provided a basis for succeeding conquerors to honor these pledges.
The final and most important pledge was made by the written declaration of the Turkish Sultan, Abdul Majid, in 1852. This declaration officially established the principle of "Status Quo" (i.e. existing "as is" condition) in the Holy Places, which defines, regulates and maintains, without change, the proprietary rights in the Holy Places granted exclusively to the three major Christian rites--Greek, Armenian and Latin Catholic--thus making the Armenian Church equal in stature to the Catholic and Greek Orthodox Churches despite its relatively small size.
As a result of the "Status Quo", one interesting aspect unique to the Holy Places is the cadre of guards, caretakers, called "Kawasses" who were primarily Moslem, a choice seemingly inspired by logic. Not being Christian, they could impartially administer any Holy Place, thus eliminating points of contention between the three major Christian rites. Over the centuries, these functions were passed from father to son throughout succeeding generations. The Kawasses protecting the Armenian Patriarch have become such familiar figures over the past hundreds of years that the successive generations have learned Armenian and speak it fluently.
Throughout the ensuing decades the resident Armenian community continued to grow and prosper, yielding tradesmen and merchants who shared their prosperity with their Church by donating land and assisting in the construction of new churches, commercial buildings and housing. The need for printed materials in the Armenian language resulted in the establishment of the first printing press in Jerusalem in 1833 within the walls of the St. James Convent. The first issue of "SION", the official monthly publication of the Armenian Patriarchate was first distributed to the public in 1866. In 1841 the first Armenian Theological Seminary was founded just north of Jerusalem, in the town of Ramle, and in 1845 that Seminary was physically moved to a newly-built complex within the confines of the Convent.
As World War I ended, and Palestine was liberated from the Ottoman Turks by the British, there was a large influx of Armenian refugees who were welcomed by the Patriarchate and settled in available facilities. With the increased population in and around the Patriarchate, children's education became a growing matter of concern. Fortunately, the Seminary afforded a ready-made system for the education of boys at the elementary level. This approach, by its nature, must have provided future candidates for the Seminary and subsequent ordination into the priesthood. However, without the inclusion of girls in the scheme, the endeavor was not deemed to be complete. Finally, in the 1860's, a small building was erected adjacent to the Seminary, thus creating the first girls' elementary school in Jerusalem. These schools continued to operate well into the early 1920's.
In 1925, through the efforts of the newly-elected Patriarch Yeghishe Tourian, a staunch believer in education, a unified elementary school came into existence. Patriarch Tourian set about modernizing the curriculum of the Seminary and acquiring highly-qualified instructors from the cadre of talented teachers and educators who had come to Jerusalem as refugees. He envisioned the construction and establishment of an educational institution under one roof to accommodate the growing number of children in the community. In 1929, the unified elementary school officially opened its doors. By consolidating disparate locations, including the St. Gayane Girl's School, this elementary school became the first co-educational institution in the Holy Land and was renamed School of the Holy Translators ("Serpots Tarkmantchats Varjaran") after the Sts. Sahag and Mesrob, the inventors of the Armenian alphabet in approximately 400 A.D. It is in existence today.
These organs of the Armenian Patriarchate of Jerusalem--the School, the St. James Cathedral, the Patriarchate, the Armenian Seminary, the Calouste Gulbenkian Library, and the Edward and Helen Mardigian Museum -- together with its custodianships of the Holy Places -- form the core of the Armenian presence in Jerusalem today.