At the end of the third century, Armenia was just another pagan country like dozens of others in Europe and Asia. At the time, the country was ruled by King Tiridates III, with the help of his indispensable secretary, Gregory.
One day, when Gregory refused to put flowers on a statue of pagan gods, the king discovered that his secretary had become a Christian. The hapless Gregory was thrown into a deep pit, an abyss from which no one ever returned.
A few years later, in 301, King Tiridates III became ill with a peculiar disease. After his sister dreamed three nights in a row that only Gregory could save the monarch from certain death, the former secretary, who had somehow survived the pit, was released and cured the king. Not long afterward, Armenia became the first country to declare Christianity to be the official state religion — a full 79 years before Roman emperor Theodosius the Great asserted the supremacy of the Christian faith over all others in the empire.
An Armenian patriarchate was established in Jerusalem in 638, and since that time, despite all the wars and massacres that have taken place over the centuries, there has been an uninterrupted Armenian presence in the Holy City.
During the Byzantine era, which lasted between the fourth and seventh centuries, dozens of lovely Armenian churches were built in the Holy Land, only to be demolished by the conquering Persians in 614. Fortunately, a number of stunning mosaic floors were almost perfectly preserved under the debris.
One such exquisite floor was discovered in 1894; a family digging foundations for a house near Jerusalem’s Damascus Gate was astounded to discover a glorious mosaic floor beneath the rubble. It turned out to be part of a fifth- or sixth-century Armenian church, and further excavations revealed that below one corner of the mosaic lay the remains of an Armenian unit attached to the Roman army (or, perhaps, martyrs who died for their faith).
Jerusalem’s Armenian patriarch purchased the lot on which the mosaic was found, and for a few decades any interested parties (such as ourselves) could come into the yard of the house that was built there and take a look. For a long period afterward, visitation was possible only with the permission of the Patriarchate.
This year, the mosaic was meticulously transferred into the Armenian Convent, located in the Armenian Quarter of Jerusalem’s Old City, and is now the focus of the convent’s brand-new Edward and Helen Mardigian Armenian Museum, which opened this past week. The mosaic covers almost the entire first floor of the magnificent building, constructed in 1853 as Jerusalem’s Armenian Theological Seminary. Its creator was Turkish-Armenian artist Sarkis Balyan, a member of a distinguished family of artists and architects. In fact his father, Garabet Balyan, designed the sumptuous Dolmabahçe Palace, the largest of its kind in Turkey.
The seminary operated until its students were recruited to serve in World War I by the Turkish rulers of the country in April of 1917, just before the British conquest of Jerusalem. It stood empty until 1922, when the Patriarchate opened orphanages for children from the Armenian genocide. In all, 616 young boys found refuge within the former seminary walls. Armenian priest Fr. Koryoun Baghdasaryan relates that one of these orphans even went on to become the Armenian patriarch.
In 1927 the Theological Seminary was reopened, but in 1975 it moved outside the monastic complex. Four years later, the original seminary building was transformed into a modest museum.
Over the last five years the remarkable structure was renovated, in part by an Armenian artist who worked in the Louvre, and the result is wonderful to behold. But, of course, the main centerpiece is the Bird Mosaic, which Baghdasaryan calls the world’s earliest known Monument to the Unknown Soldier. That’s because the inscription at the top of the mosaic translates as: “For the memory and salvation of the Armenians whose names the Lord knows.”
Just over six and a half meters (21 feet) long, and four meters (13 feet) wide, the mosaic is filled with bird medallions and has been the subject of numerous interpretations. Baghdasaryan offers a theological explanation, noting that the center tile depicts a bird in a cage, which he likens to the soul in a state of sin. According to Baghdasaryan, it requires the taking of communion (receiving bread and wine from the priest during mass), to free the bird (soul) from its enclosure. He adds that the same holds true for the pearl, shown inside the shell of an oyster.
Other tiles, all in the center row, depict bread, and grapes that represent the wine. Just above the inscription, a chalice holds both bread and wine. A wide variety of birds found in Israel, like storks, pheasants and swallows, surround the center tiles.
Around the mosaic are various unusual exhibits, including inscriptions scratched on the walls by the orphans and giving their home cities, ages, and the name of the orphanage (Araratian — for Mount Ararat in Turkey where, according to many traditions, the biblical Noah parked his ark). One colorful exhibit is a copy of a grant written by Saladin after he conquered the land of Israel in 1187. In his decree, Saladin gave the Armenians exclusive rights to the holy Christian sites in Jerusalem. This after the Patriarch handed him letters favoring the Armenians and written by the prophet Muhamad and by Muslim leaders who had conquered the city over the previous several hundred years.
Other exhibits on the first floor include ancient copper engravings and drawings by Armenian artists, as well as a touching video of the reburial here of the bodies discovered under the mosaic.
The entire history of Armenia is found within a graceful series of arches in a hall behind the mosaic. The exhibits are colorful and interesting, and simply by pressing a button you can read the excellent explanations in English, French, Arabic, Hebrew, or Armenian.
We liked the true story of an exquisite Armenian robe on display: Napoleon’s army was defeated at Acre in 1799 and his wounded soldiers were cared for in the Armenian complex in Jaffa. He was so grateful for the treatment they received that he asked how he could show his appreciation. What the Armenians asked for, and received, was a piece of his tent which was used to create the stunning garment.
Also on display are some of the handsome objects used during the Armenian mass, baptism and ordination. And one room (visitors should be sure to enter any room with an open door) holds unusually beautiful ancient, hand-painted illustrated books.
Not everyone knows details about the Armenian genocide, which began in 1915 and lasted for several years. Black and white exhibits on the second floor give visitors an exceptionally clear picture of that catastrophic event.
Armenians are proud of the contributions they have made over the centuries. They brought the first camera into the city, along with photography as an art; they opened Jerusalem’s first printing press in 1833 with the machine that is on display. And of course Jerusalem’s wonderful ceramic art creations are the work of Armenian artists who first arrived in 1919. Armenians were also the very first in Jerusalem to establish a school for girls – not a trade school to teach cooking and sewing, but a school where they would be educated just like the boys.
Note: An elevator should be operational by next week; those who require one to access the second story should call ahead to ensure that it is running.
Hours: Tuesday through Saturday 9:00 a.m. – 4:00 p.m.
Price: Adults NIS 25, Children NIS 15; visitors in groups pay NIS 20 each.
Location: across from the Armenian parking lot in the Old City
The museum takes cash only, and it must be in shekels.
Aviva Bar-Am is the author of seven English-language guides to Israel.
Shmuel Bar-Am is a licensed tour guide who provides private, customized tours in Israel for individuals, families and small groups.
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