Courtyard of the Armenian Museum in Jerusalem


Arda Aghazarian for Jerusalem Story

Newly Renovated, the Armenian Museum in Jerusalem’s Old City Reopens

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A 200-year-old seminary that sheltered hundreds of children orphaned during the Armenian Genocide over 100 years ago has been converted and renovated into a newly refurbished Armenian museum in the Armenian Quarter of the Old City.

The Armenian Museum of Jerusalem opened its doors at the end of 2022 after almost a decade of renovation. The museum covers 1,600 years of art, culture, and history of Armenians in the Holy Land. Among its holdings are jewel-encrusted exhibits and manuscripts dating back to the 10th century.

With somber prayer playing in the background, the museum also tells the history of the Armenian Genocide and the survival of a people.

The compound, built in 1853, had been used as the Armenian Patriarchate’s theological seminary’s dormitory. As of 1969, it was established as a small museum, yet it was closed for several years and needed organization of its collections.

Thanks to a generous donation by the Mardigian foundation, the Edward and Helen Mardigian Museum of Armenian Art and History was renovated in 2022. Three renowned French Armenians—Claude Mutafian, mathematician and medieval Armenian historian; Harout Bezdjian, producer and former head of the audiovisual division at the Centre Pompidou; and Raymond Kevorkian, historian and leading scholar of the Armenian Genocide—led the effort to bring the museum to life. Theirs was the difficult task of combing through more than 25,000 artifacts gifted to the Armenian monastery over more than a thousand years and selecting the ones that could tell the story of the Armenian community in Jerusalem.

At its current stage, the museum has a new roof and contains two floors. The entrance presents a precious mosaic floor (described in more detail below), and the first floor has rooms showcasing the rich history of the Armenians in Jerusalem. By and large, the museum chronicles the history of Jerusalem as a city and the transformations it underwent in the Roman, Byzantine, Mamluk, Crusade, Mongol, Ottoman, and British Mandate eras.

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Precious Items Showcase Life in Jerusalem

Armenians first came to Jerusalem during the reign of the Armenian king Tigranes the Great in the first century BC. Father Theodoros Zakaryan, Dean of the Armenian Theological Seminary in Jerusalem, dates it to 49 BC, to the Legion XIII of the Roman times, when Armenians had a presence in the Holy Land. Armenia was the first country to adopt Christianity (in around the year 301), when St. Gregory the Illuminator converted King Tiridates III. Father Zakaryan notes that by the seventh century, 72 Armenian monasteries and churches had been established throughout Jerusalem.

Tzoghig Aintablian Karakashian, general manager of the museum, summarizes the museum’s significance as demonstrating “the existence and importance of the Armenians in Jerusalem from the years before Christ to the present.”

The museum narrates the rich history of the Armenian community in Jerusalem. On display is the order given by Salah al-Din al-Ayyubi, founder of the Ayyubid dynasty who defeated the Crusaders and captured Jerusalem in 1187, that no harm should be done to Armenians. At the end of the 12th century, Salah al-Din “confirmed their [Armenians’] rights in the Holy Places, including the Golgotha, as well as the property of the Saint James Cathedral, and specified the methods of payment of taxes.”

The museum includes a copy of the Covenant of the Prophet Muhammad (a decree in the sixth century wherein the Prophet pays respect to the Armenian Patriarch Abraham and grants the Armenians patronage and protection for their lives, properties, and churches), as well as miniatures by the Armenian manuscript illuminator Toros Roslin. A garment made out of a piece of Napoleon’s tent was given by the emperor to Armenian monks as an expression of gratitude for allowing their convent in Jaffa to serve as a hospital for the plague-stricken French soldiers in the early 19th century. The museum displays other intricate artifacts, ceramics, crosses, miters, embroidery, copper cauldrons, rugs, coins, tiles, illustrated books, and ancient maps.

An illuminated manuscript from the Armenian Museum of Jerusalem

An illuminated manuscript from the Armenian Museum: the illustration on the right-hand page is a portrait of Prince Vasak and His Family—Second Prince Vasak Gospel Book, Sis, 1268–85. Ink, tempera, and gold on parchment; 323 folios 10¼ x 7⅞ in. (26 x 20 cm), Armenian Patriarchate of Jerusalem, (ms 2568/13), fol. 320r.


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Highlights: The Printing Press and the Mosaic Floor

The Armenians in Jerusalem were the first to bring the printing press (and photography) to the city. The first printing house in the Middle East was at the St. James Armenian Printing House, established in 1833 at the Armenian Patriarchate of Jerusalem. Perhaps as a result, the first book printed in Jerusalem was in Armenian.

The museum displays a replica of Gutenberg’s original printing press, which is believed to be the first such machine used in Jerusalem.

Jerusalem’s first printing press machine displayed in the Armenian Museum of Jerusalem, December 22, 2022


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Meanwhile, featured at the heart of the museum is a marvelous mosaic floor, dubbed the “unknown soldier,” which dates to the sixth century (sometime between AD 580 and 620). It was found by chance by a family that was digging to buiild a house in the Musrara neighborhood (across from Bab al-Amud) in 1894. Clearly, the mosaic floor came from an Armenian church and was transported thereafter to the Armenian monastery.

The mosaic floor is rich with details, including 40 different types of birds, vine shoots, and the tree of life. The latter is a motif that frequently appears in Armenian medieval art with connections to the Christian view of human fulfilment and resurrection after death.

Interestingly, the floor highlights the pelican bird: Father Zakaryan mentions that it is believed that the pelican, in times of danger, would pierce its own skin and use its own blood to feed its hatchlings. This sacrifice has been represented in Christian art, and, as Father Zakaryan explains, “it has become symbolic of Christ’s sacrifice for humankind.” Images of bread and grapes are suggestive of the Holy Communion, and the various birds (such as one in a cage) give rise to various interpretations.

Vardan Karapetyan, one of the museum staff members, explains that it is worth reading the mosaic floor from down upwards: On top of the caged bird are suggestions of freedom and emancipation. At the very top is a final inscription in Armenian that reads: “The mosaic is dedicated to the memory and salvation of all Armenians whose names God knows.” It is likely that the unknown soldiers were Armenian bishops and hundreds of soldiers who were killed between AD 250 and 300, and who represented assemblies of the Christian church under the Patriarch of Antioch (Antakya).

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The mosaic floor of the "unknown soldier” in the new Armenian museum in Jerusalem

The mosaic floor of the “unknown soldier” with the Armenian inscription, as discovered in 1894 in the Musrara neighborhood of Jerusalem and displayed as a centerpiece in the new Armenian museum in the Old City of Jerusalem.


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The Armenian Genocide

Like most of the Armenian community in Jerusalem and the Mardigian patrons of the museum, the three French Armenian team members’ immediate families had directly suffered the atrocious consequences of the Armenian Genocide.

More than 1.5 million Armenians perished in the genocide of 1915, whether through mass burnings, drownings, or death marches. At the orders of Talaat Pasha (former minister of the interior of the Ottoman Empire) and later Mustapha Kemal’s evacuation orders, over a million Armenians were sent on death marches to the Syrian desert (through Deir Zor), deprived of water and food, and subjected to robbery, rape, and massacres. The museum’s upper floor provides ancient maps of the region, as well as documents, images, and descriptions of the victims and survivors. It lists a handful of the key intellectuals that the Ottoman government arrested on the night of April 24, 1915, who were ultimately killed.

The Armenian Quarter played a pivotal role for survivors of the genocide. The Armenian monastery, which had served as a hospice for pilgrims, was converted to a shelter for more than 4,000 Armenian refugees. By 1922, this figure included more than 800 orphans.

The Armenian Quarter played a pivotal role for survivors of the genocide.

It is not surprising that so many Armenians resorted to Jerusalem, seeing that the Armenians had had a strong presence in Jerusalem for centuries. Thousands of pilgrims visited the Armenian Patriarchate, particularly during and after the Byzantine period and during the period of Caliph Omar (638 CE).

The museum explores this period in various ways. Among the unforgettable photos displayed is one depicting the emaciated Armenian children who were found in the desert of Deir Zor (eastern Syria) between 1918 and 1920 and who were sent to Jerusalem.

Orphans of the Armenian Genocide rescued and relocated to a Jerusalem orphanage

Armenian orphans assembled in the Jerusalem orphanage after having been found in the desert of Deir Zor during the Armenian Genocide. The original photo is displayed at the Armenian Genocide Museum Institute (Memorial Complex) in Yerevan, Armenia.


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Rawan, a 33-year-old Palestinian Jerusalemite, recalls her horror when she visited the Armenian Museum in December 2022 and learned about the genocide, but she found it “heartwarming to see how these orphans, the survivors of the Armenian Genocide, managed to find a safe haven in Jerusalem.”

The Museum’s Key Location at the St. James Monastery

After the Armenian Genocide, about 18,000 Armenians resided in Palestine (mainly in Jaffa, Haifa, and Jerusalem). After 1924, some orphans were sent to Soviet Armenia and other destinations. With the 1948 War, the number of Armenians in Palestine sharply declined, as Armenian historian George Hintlian points out; thousands took refuge elsewhere (mostly in Beirut and Amman, and later in Canada, the United States, and Australia). Several Armenians lost their homes and businesses due to the war, and a few of those in the Old City lost their lives. After the war, between 1949 and 1958, around 1,500 more Armenians had to flee the city.

The Old City, which includes a few restaurants and exquisite shops with hand-painted Armenian ceramics and pottery, demonstrates that despite the dwindling numbers of Armenians in Jerusalem, they have nevertheless maintained their presence in the Holy Land. As part of the Armenian diaspora around the world, they have preserved their language, culture, crafts, and contributions to society.

The Armenian Quarter “is the only quarter in the Old City of Jerusalem that has not moved,” points out historian George Hintlian. “It has remained in the southwest of the city, while other quarters have moved.”

It was as far back as 638 when the Armenian Apostolic Church appointed its own bishops for Jerusalem. The Armenian monastery (inside the Armenian Quarter) was developed in 1163 following the reign of Queen Melisende (r. 1131–61), an Armenian monarch known for founding and organizing the markets of the Old City of Jerusalem. It was during the Mamluk rule (AD 1250–1516) that the Armenian Quarter evolved into its present form.

St. James Monastery in the Armenian Quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem

The main entrance to the St. James Monastery in the Armenian Quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem. On the wall above is a carved Arabic inscription that dates back to the Mamluk sultan Jaqmaq (1373–1453), ordering the cancellation of the tax imposed upon the monastery. The same inscription is included upon the entrance of the convent.


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Today, the monastery of the Armenian Apostolic Patriarchate of Jerusalem comprises the Theological Seminary of the Patriarchate. The compound is also home to the Armenian Apostolic Church’s Brotherhood of St. James, and houses some of the Armenian community, as well as the Calouste Gulbenkian library (with thousands of volumes—mostly in Armenian), a clinic, three community clubs, and the Sts. Tarkmanchatz Armenian School (built in 1929). The quarter also has ancient churches, including the Church of St. James, one of the few remaining churches in the Holy Land to have remained intact across the centuries. It is believed that the head of St. James the Apostle is buried in this Armenian church of Jerusalem (while his body is buried in the shrine of Santiago de Compostela in Spain).

With such valuable and historically significant collections, the Armenian Museum in the Old City of Jerusalem is yet to expand as it tells a story of a people who have always had a solid and meaningful connection to Jerusalem.