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The roots of Jerusalem's Armenian family tree

by michael September 12 2008
News
Armenian Quarter
The quiet alleys of the Armenian Quarter

Wedged into an modest corner of the Old City behind high walls and locked gates, Jerusalem's tiny and ancient Armenian community has weathered two full millennia amidst the chaos of one of the world's most historically turbulent cities. They've been squeezed by demographic pressure, buffeted by the will of invaders and conquerors, and borne witness to countless wars - but they're still here, still living and dying in the shadow of their venerable cathedral, St. James. And finally their long history and colorful traditions are being investigated and preserved for future generations by a special historical and genealogical study initiated by community members: The Kaghakatzi Family Tree Project.

The project focuses only on a distinct group within the greater Jerusalem Armenian population, the Kaghakatzis ("city dwellers"), whose roots stretch back 2000 years to the first Armenians in the city. The other subgroup of Old City Armenians, descendants of those Armenians who fled to Jerusalem during the Armenian Genocide at the hands of the Turks during World War I, are not included, apparently still considered newbies. That's a century of hazing.

In the process, the "Kaghakatzi Family Tree Project" will create a permanent record of the wisdom, culture, history, arts and crafts, and traditions of this community, the genealogical oddity whose every single member is related to every other member, in an unbroken chain stretching over the centuries.

[...]

Armenians had established a presence in Jerusalem even long before King Tiridates III proclaimed Christianity as Armenia's state religion in 301, making it the first nation on convert to the new faith.
They had trekked to the region in the wake of the conquering armies of King Tigranes II, who had invaded Syria and Palestine and whose empire extended from the Caspian Sea to the shores of the Mediterranean. Many had opted to stay in Jerusalem, building homes and setting up a nucleus that evolved into the Armenian Compound.

Over the centuries, the Kaghakatzi enriched the city's multifaceted ethnic and social fabric with a proliferation of talent, vision and hard work, creating a unique culture and identity, unlike any other in the Armenian diaspora.

The Kaghakatzi ancestors were great teachers, artists, goldsmiths, carpenters, and story-tellers but they were poor record keepers. Except for a register of births, deaths and marriages maintained by the Armenian Patriarchate of St James in Jerusalem, and some family heirlooms, they have left few archives or documents detailing their way of life.

The efforts to preserve the Kaghakatzi history and culture, the Kaghakatzi Armenian Family Tree project, are encapsulated in a website, located at www.kaghakatzi.org.
The website houses copies of the Armenian Patriarchate registers, old pictures, family trees of the leading Kaghakatzi clans (numbering over 50), old photographs, personal reminiscences and mementoes, and snippets of their way of life, including their cuisine, traditions and wisdom.

Hopefully the project's organizers will share their results with non-Armenian Jerusalemites; even though Armenians are an important part of the city's history, the Armenian Quarter is mostly closed off, with only a poorly-tended (if interesting) museum, a couple restaurants and some gift shops affording the average tourist a peek into Jerusalem's Little Armenia.

Photo of the Armenian Quarter courtesy of Weitwinkelsubjektiv from Flickr under a Creative Commons license.

 

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