The Armenians of Palestine 1918–48
Bedross Der Matossian
The Armenians of Palestine 1918–48


The Armenians
of Palestine


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By Bedross Der Matossian
For the Armenians of Palestine, the three decades of the Mandate were probably the most momentous in their fifteen hundred-year presence in the country. The period witnessed the community’s profound transformation under the double impacts of Britain’s Palestine policy and waves of destitute Armenian refugees fleeing the massacres in Anatolia. The article presents, against the background of late Ottoman rule, a comprehensive overview of the community, including the complexities and role of the religious hierarchy, the initially difficult encounter between the indigenous Armenians and the new refugee majority, their politics and associations, and their remarkable economic recovery. By the early 1940s, the Armenian community was at the peak of its success, only to be dealt a mortal blow by the 1948 war, from which it never recoveredem>

THE ARMENIAN COMMUNITY of Palestine during the British Mandate has been a marginalized topic in Palestinian historiography. This stems partly from language constraints, as most of the relevant material is in Armenian, but the period represents challenges even for Armenian scholars because of the inaccessibility of the Armenian patriarchal archives and the absence of local Armenian daily or even weekly newspapers in the period under study. Other factors pertain to the community’s small size and its relative marginalization with regard to the great political issues that absorbed Palestine during the Mandate. For reasons that will be discussed below, but that mainly stem from the massive transformation of the community under the impact of waves of destitute refugees in the wake of the Armenian genocide, the community turned inward following World War I.

While this article addresses the Armenian presence in Palestine as a whole, it focuses especially on Jerusalem, which not only was the nucleus of the Armenian communities in Palestine but throughout the centuries also was a major spiritual center and principal pilgrimage site for Armenians worldwide. During the Mandate period, the dominant ethno-religio-cultural role of the Holy City and the Patriarchate of Sts. James 2 actually increased as a result of the greatly diminished role of the Patriarch of Istanbul after the Ottoman collapse and the inaccessibility of the great theological center in Echmiadzin, Armenia, following the Soviet takeover in 1920. As a result of a growing economy under the Mandate, Jerusalem continued to attract Armenians from nearby countries, especially Syria, Lebanon, and Egypt.

Historical Background 

The Armenian presence in Palestine dates back to the fourth century a.d., when Armenian pilgrims began arriving in Jerusalem after the uncovering of the holy places of Christianity (which had been built over by the Romans), ascribed to Saint Helena, mother of the newly converted Emperor Constantine I. A proliferation of monasteries, many of them Armenian, soon grew up in the Holy Land. The Armenian Apostolic Orthodox Church (also known as the Armenian Gregorian Church) had its own bishop in Jerusalem as of the seventh century.

The Patriarchate of Jerusalem in its present form came into being in the first decade of the fourteenth century, when the Brotherhood of Sts. James, an Armenian monastic order established in the Holy City, proclaimed its head, Bishop Sargis, as patriarch. Eventually, the Jerusalem Patriarchate exercised its authority over Armenians in Palestine, southern Syria, Lebanon, Cyprus, and Egypt, though by Mandate times its jurisdiction was limited to Palestine and Transjordan. An indication of the Armenian church’s importance in Jerusalem is its joint guardianship—shared with the far larger and more powerful Greek Orthodox and Latin (Roman Catholic) churches—of Christianity’s holiest sites, including the Church of the Holy Sepulcher and the Church of the Nativity, among others. Its status with regard to the various holy places was confirmed by the Ottomans in arrangements that have remained largely unchanged since the seventeenth century.

Understanding how and why these changes occurred not only gives us keen insight into the dynamics of Palestinian activism in Israel during this early period but also demonstrates that the direction of this activism was often bottom-up rather than top-down. Furthermore, it shows how al-Ittihad helped connect the geographically and politically isolated Palestinians in Israel to the rest of the Arab world, paving the way for a reunited Palestinian political entity in the post-1967 era.

During the Ottoman period, the Armenian Patriarch of Jerusalem had to cede his administrative autonomy to the newer Armenian Patriarch of Istanbul, established in the fifteenth century and recognized by the Ottoman state as the center of the Armenian Gregorian Church throughout the empire. However, because the subordination did not involve recognition of higher religious authority, 5 the Jerusalem Patriarchate adapted to the new situation. In fact, it may actually have benefited insofar as it now received financial assistance from the Patriarchate of Istanbul as well as the support of the wealthy Istanbul-based Armenian Amira (nobles) class in its struggle to preserve its rights in the holy places.

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BEDROSS DER MATOSSIAN is an assistant professor of modern Middle East history in the Department of History at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln.