The Cathedral of St. James in Jerusalem’s Old City is one of the hidden gems of the Armenian Quarter. The 12th-century cathedral compound stands near the Zion Gate and is the seat of the Armenian Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem. Two of the cathedral’s chapels date back to 420 AD but most of the structure is from the 12th-century. The ornate cathedral is unique in being one of the few intact Crusader churches in the Holy Land. The church is dedicated to two Chrisitan martyrs. Saint James, one of the Twelve Apostles, whose head is believed to be buried in the church, and James the Just, (James the Less) the brother of Jesus and perhaps the first Bishop of Jerusalem.
Who Are the Armenians of Jerusalem?
The land-locked nation of Armenia lies between Turkey and Azerbaijan in Asia. The country adopted Christianity as its official state religion in 301 AD and Armenian Christians began making pilgrimages to the Holy Land. Jerusalem’s Armenian Quarter grew in the 11th-century to accommodate and provide for the pilgrims, many of whom eventually settled in Jerusalem where the Armenian Quarter stands today.
Survivors of the 1915 Armenian genocide by Ottoman Turkish took refuge in Jerusalem and remained. Jerusalem is home to a small but active community of Armenian Christians. The Armenian Patriarch shares jurisdiction over the Nativity Church in Bethlehem, and the Chapel of St. Helena in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.
About the Cathedral of Saint James
The site’s unassuming entrance is through an arched doorway and leads into the walled compound that contains the cathedral, accommodation for nuns and priests, a hospice, school, printing press, and social clubs. The doorway leads into a courtyard and the cathedral entrance which is adorned with elegant metalwork archways, and frescoes.
The church’s magnificent interior features a high vaulted dome ceiling. Hanging from the ceiling are massive candle chandeliers, brass prayer lamps, and ceramic eggs made in Kutahya. The Kutahya tiles also cover the Chapel of Etchmiadzin and blue, green, and white tiles line the bottom section of the cathedral walls. The only sources of light in the cathedral come from the windows, candles, and oil lamps.
The cathedral has typical Eastern Orthodox decor with detailed gold decorations around the shrines, gilded altars, intricate metalwork, wood carvings with mother-of-pearl inlaid, bronze engravings, and paintings of religious icons in thick gold frames. Armenians are known for their brilliant stonework which can be seen in the cathedral complex. Look out for numerous examples of stone-carved khachkar or the Armenian cross-stone. The marble floor is covered with richly colored carpets.
Visiting the Armenian Cathedral in Jerusalem’s Old City
The Armenian cathedral compound holds many fascinating features like the two ornate thrones dedicated to St. James the Less and the Armenian Patriarch. The Cathedral of Saint James is an active place of worship. Together with many parts of the Armenian Quarter, the cathedral is not usually open to the public except for religious services.
A wood and brass symandron (sounding board) hanging in the church courtyard, is beaten to call worshipers to prayer. The symandron has been used here since the 14th-century when Muslim rulers forbade the use of church bells. The complex can be visited on request, or with an organized tour, and includes entrance to the Mardigian Museum exhibiting Armenian art, and the Gulbenkian Library, which holds written works including Armenian newspapers, and periodicals.
If you would like to visit Cathedral of Saint James, consider booking one of the Jerusalem Private Tours.