Armenian museum reopens in Jerusalem's Old City

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Winter sunlight fills the Armenian Museum in the Old City of Jerusalem, Wednesday, Jan. 11, 2023. A hundred years after taking in scores of children orphaned in the Armenian Genocide, a 19th century orphanage in Jerusalem's Armenian Quarter has reopened its doors as a museum documenting the community's rich, if pained, history. (AP Photo/ Maya Alleruzzo)

JERUSALEM – A hundred years after taking in scores of children whose parents were killed in the Armenian genocide, a 19th-century orphanage in Jerusalem's Armenian Quarter has reopened its doors as a museum documenting the community's rich, if pained, history.

The Mardigian Museum showcases Armenian culture and tells of the community's centuries-long connection to the holy city. At the same time, it is a memorial to around 1.5 million Armenians killed by the Ottoman Turks around World War I, in what many scholars consider the 20th century's first genocide.

Turkey denies the deaths constituted genocide, saying the toll has been inflated and that those killed were victims of civil war and unrest.

Director Tzoghig Karakashian said the museum is meant to serve as “a passport for people to know about the Armenians" and to understand their part of Jerusalem's history.

The museum reopened in late 2022 after a more than five-year renovation project. Before that, the building — originally a pilgrim guesthouse built in the 1850s — served as a monastery, an orphanage for children who survived the genocide, a seminary and ultimately a small museum and library.

Jerusalem is home to a community of around 6,000 Armenians, many of them descendants of people who fled the genocide. Many inhabit one of the historic Old City's main quarters, a mostly enclosed compound abutting the 12th-century Armenian cathedral of St. James.

But the Armenians' link to the holy city stretches back centuries, from monks and pilgrims during the late Roman Empire to Armenian queens of Crusader Jerusalem.

The museum's centerpiece, filling the sunlit courtyard, is an exquisite 5th or 6th century mosaic adorned with exotic birds and vines discovered in 1894 on the grounds of an ancient Armenian monastery complex. It bears an inscription in Armenian dedicated to “the memorial and salvation of all Armenians whose names the Lord knows.”

For decades, the mosaic remained in a small museum near the Old City's Damascus Gate. In 2019, the Israeli Antiquities Authority and the Armenian Patriarchate undertook the laborious task of removing the mosaic floor and transporting it across town to the newly refurbished museum.

From elaborately carved stone crosses known as “khachkars” to iconic painted tiles and priestly vestments, the museum showcases Armenian material art, while also excelling in telling the Armenian story of survival. While Jerusalem changed hands as empires rose and fell, the Armenians remained.

“Surviving means to not be seen," said Arek Kahkedjian, a museum tour guide. “We survived without people knowing what or who we are, and today we feel ready to show you and teach about the history and heritage, about the culture, and to show you how we advance and modernize with the times.”