The Fourth Quarter

The Old City of Jerusalem invokes myriad images for inquisitive tourists and regular pilgrims alike — from the Church of the Holy Sepulcher to the Western Wall, from the Tomb of King David to the Dome of the Rock, anyone with a simple interest in theology, history or breath-taking scenery can find a place of interest. Tucked in-between the quarters of the three Abrahamic religions stands a fourth, less known and more secluded one: the quarter of the Armenians.

The day before we set out to explore the Old City, I had talked to Amir about the possibility of touring the Armenian Quarter. Myself a child of the Armenian diaspora, I could not logically understand why, but I did find something eerily appealing about visiting the oldest Armenian community outside of Armenia’s borders. After all, I thought, I might not have a second chance to see the Cathedral of St. James, better known as the church-of-choice for the baptism of Kim Kardashian’s daughter, North West, and less known as the seat of the Armenian Patriarchate of Jerusalem.

On the day of our visit to the Old City, as we stood in front of Zion Gate splitting into two groups, I approached Amir again asking which group to join. Then, he dropped an unexpected surprise: one more person inquired about the Armenian Quarter. “Marc”, he smiled and introduced us to one another. We then walked through Zion Gate and Amir prompted us to run after him. After 3–4 minutes of sprinting, we faced a large, cobble-stone arc that led to a small tunnel. To the left stood a security kiosk, to the front a small plaza and to the right a sign barring any entry beyond.

We passed by the security guard straight upfront to the plaza no larger than a common room in any Harvard house. The Cathedral of St. James overlooked the space, but some heavily ornamented gates of steel rendered the temple closed at the time of our visit. “Only from 7am to 11am and 3pm to something”, the guard informed us in Armenian. “The compound remains closed only for residents”, he continued.

Entrance of the Cathedral of St. James

Marc, Amir and I exited, and I remember a very clear sense of determination to see more of that world bustling through my mind. As we strolled back to Zion Gate by the outer walls protecting the Quarter, we stopped at a store named Yerevan after Armenia’s capital. Marc began conversing with the owner who introduced himself to us. After few short minutes, he identified as a leader in the Quarters and offered to tell the guard to let us enter into the compound.

Moments later, we walked through the same arc, passed by the tunnel on the right and ended up on a sizeable cobble-stone square glistening under the bright sun. St. James now stood somewhere to the left. In front of us and to the right, a small medical center, the community club, the patriarch’s residence and numerous two-story houses covered the landscape. Small cobble-stone alleys spiraled out of the boundaries of the square in multiple directions. All signs read in Armenian. I could see no one around. The crowds of tourists had disappeared. The heavy security presence outside had dissipated on the way to quietude inside.

The three of us moved toward the other end of the square and looked around. The door of the patriarch’s residence was cracked open despite no noticeable presence of people inside. A couple of minutes later a middle-aged man appeared at the corner from which we entered. We approached him and as Marc conversed with him for some 15–20 minutes, I stood aside with Amir translating the gist of every 3–4 minutes of conversation from the few key words I could recognize with my remarkably limited command of my mother-tongue.

The man, cordial and welcoming, recounted the story of the compound and the daily routine. “About 3,000 people live here today”, he mentioned before pointing to the medical center where any Armenian can receive free healthcare and to the community club where the compound gathers every evening. He then told us about all the institutions the Quarters sustained — a school, a museum, numerous artisan shops, three churches, a health office, two restaurants and a community center, among others. Before the man had finished his congenial introduction, two boys appeared on the square. He called them over and sooner than I had realized, we were following their trails on a tour of the entire compound.

The boys led us through one of the narrow alleys and we emerged on another cobble-stone plaza where olive trees coiled out through the tiles. A small convent encircled one of the corners and in the yard of that convent stood a tree of particular importance. “That’s the olive tree, to which Jesus was tied before trial”, mentioned one of the guys. Around us also appeared a magnificent, white façade, doors closed — the home of the Armenian museum. As we descended down a hill, on the left side stood the Armenian School and to the right — a sports field and some large edifice under reconstruction.

After about 40 minutes of wondering around the quarters and treading the pristine, empty alleys, we circled back to the main square. Amir then gently noted that we should head back to Zion Gate in 10. The boys, however, had a different plan — we would not leave before we saw everything. “Are you ready”, one of them asked and no sooner had we said yes, then the five of us were sprinting together throughout the entire compound. Backyards of houses, balconies, even tinier allies separating homes, uphill and downhill, by the three convents, the school and the museum…after a couple of minutes of top-speed bolting around, we crossed the finish line and yet again we stood on the main square. We parted ways with the boys and wished them best of luck as they headed to a soccer game.

Last, we returned to St. James from an alley that led out of the closed compound behind the steel gates that separated the public part of the Quarters from the private one. The doors of the Church still remained closed, yet just some hour-and-a-half later we stood closer to St. James than any logic would dictate at the beginning of our journey. We passed by the Yerevan store, thanked the owner and purchased some souvenirs to keep as memorabilia from the day. Then, Zion Gate.

Leaving the Old City, I could not understand or express what I felt. I do remember, however, a rather idiotic sense of juvenile bliss, the one you would feel after receiving a bar of chocolate at the age of four. The quiet alleys exuded a sense of peace. The generosity of the middle-aged man and the boys exuded a sense of homeliness. The seventeen-century survival of the Quarters exuded a sense of hope and unimposing magnificence. All combined, they made the Armenian Quarter my Holy Sepulcher, Dome of the Rock and Western Wall.

Looking back on the memories from that day, I cannot help but smile in an expression of a very particular sense of contentment. Prior to our little detour, my head was spinning with thoughts about talks, school, work, and the like. In the Armenian Quarters, I did not have to reason or emote in one way or another; I could perceive and absorb what I perceived and absorbed right then and there. Setting out to explore the compound, Marc, Amir and I would often stroll around individually, without losing distant sight of each other, as the two boys would insert a few pithy comments to orient us around. Then, we were in the presence of each other, but free to venture and understand on our own terms. In the silence of the Quarters I found the stillness for reflection. And, in the disconnect of the Quarters from the outer side, I found the connect of the Quarters to my inner side.

To Marc and Amir.