Standoff at the Cows' Garden

An Armenian Masada: The Saga of the Armenian Cow Pasture

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By Arthur Hagopian

CE 72 – Jerusalem

Lucius Flavius Silva stands at the head of his command, the vaunted Xth Legion of Rome, ready for a foray into the bastion of the Jewish zealots who have barricaded themselves in the fortress of Masada, by the Dead Sea, and are preparing to defy one of the world’s greatest powers.

They are even ready to lay down their lives for their cause.

CE 2023 – Jerusalem

Fast forward two thousand years, and like taking a page from that historic heroic resistance, it is the turn of the Armenian residents of Jerusalem to hold fast against an attempt to disenfranchise them.

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And just as the battle cry “Masada shall not fall again” resonates in the heart of Jews all around the world, so Armenians all over the world vow that their cherished plot of land in the Old City of Jerusalem, the “Cow Pasture” (aka “Cows’ Pasture” or “Cow Garden”) shall not fall into unscrupulous hands.

The prized real estate, lapping languidly against the 500-year-old walls of the city, has been in the possession of the Armenian Patriarchate of Jerusalem, one of the three Guardians of the Holy Places (the other two are the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate and the Franciscan Custodia), for two millennia.

But sometime last year, through what Armenians allege was legerdemain chicanery, the property stands in danger of being expropriated by a Jewish Australia-based company, XANA.

The company claims that it has in hand a contract for a 99-year lease signed jointly by the Armenian Patriarch of Jerusalem, Archbishop Nourhan Manoogian, and the then director of the Patriarchate’s real estate department, Father Baret Yeretzian.

But the Patriarchate now claims the signatures were obtained fraudulently and has sought legal advice to rescind the alleged agreement, particularly since it is convinced the 99-year lease is a ploy by XANA to acquire the property.

Reportedly XANA plans to build a 7-star (sic) hotel on the site. But this correspondent’s efforts for an explanation or clarification from XANA’s CEO Danny Rubinstein, proved unsuccessful.

My calls went unanswered.

Under intense pressure from local Armenians and from their diverse communities in the diaspora, the Patriarchate withdrew its “consent” and initiated legal proceedings to have the alleged “contract” declared null and void.

And in tandem with that move, the Patriarchate promptly defrocked Yeretsyan and sent him packing, under heavy police protection.

(Yeretzian, whose baptismal name was Khatchig, was a nondescript student at the Tarkmanchats parochial school in the Convent of St. James, classmates recall, with no hint of the discombobulations his conduct would later cause).

With alarm bells ringing uproariously, both Jordan and the Palestinian Authority suspended their recognition of Manoogian.

That measure was followed by a denunciation by the heads of the Holy Land’s Christian churches, rallying to the Armenian cause, voicing “grave concern over the recent events taking place within the Armenian Quarter of Jerusalem,” in a statement they issued.

“In recent days, a contested contract for development on a considerable portion Of the Armenian Quarter has been declared canceled. Instead of it being handled through the proper legal channels, the alleged developers have decided to hire armed provocateurs, obstruct parking entrances, and begin demolition work,” they said.

The Christian churches expressed concern “that these events potentially endanger the Armenian presence in Jerusalem. as they set a precedent for similar engagements.”

“The illegal actions taken by the alleged developer against the Armenian patriarchate and community are not conducive for the social order that the peaceful and law-abiding Armenian community,” they said.

They accused the alleged developers of using “incendiary tactics threaten to erase the Armenian presence in the area, weakening and endangering the Christian presence in the Holy Land.”

“We are convinced that matters of this nature should be handled only through legal negotiations and procedures to avoid further escalations and violence,” they said.

The property, mellifluously called the “Cow Pasture,” comprises more than 20 percent of all the properties that belong to the Armenian Patriarchate.

During my tenure as Press Officer under the late reformist Armenian Patriarch, Archbishop Torkom Manoogian, he confided to me his dream of developing the land with the construction of either a hotel, or blocks of apartment houses.

“We could easily accommodate a large number of residents, tourists and pilgrims, all within a stone’s throw of the city’s holy places and other facilities and attractions,” he told me, wistfully.

The pasture had been left in abeyance for years, waiting for some auspicious moment that never came.

Its value in dollar terms has soared over the years: recent archaeological discoveries have added another icing on the cake: a khatchkar (a typical Armenian cross stone) bearing an Armenian inscription, along with a mosaic floor and copper coins possibly from the Byzantine era.

As schoolchildren, we used to picnic and camp in the pasture, the carpet of soft grass cushioning our wild shenanigans under the watchful eyes of our teachers.

A few meters away, the Kalayjian family had set up a flour mill that mainly serviced the Arab market, and whenever we got the chance, we would creep there and pick the ears of wheat scattered all around for a tasty snack.

But earlier in its history, the pasture also served as a temporary home for the swarm of displaced Armenian refugees fleeing the Turkish massacres who sought sanctuary in the Convent of St James, seat of the Armenian Patriarchate, and the second most important fount of spiritual rejuvenation for Armenians.

As the cold November nights descend upon the city of light and of gold, groups of Armenian faithful gather under a makeshift tarpaulin, determined to spend the night there, to protect the pasture against marauders.

Was such a pasture in his mind when the Muslim mystic-philosopher Ibn Arabi declared that his heart had become “a pasture for gazelles?”

For Armenians, who have given Jerusalem its first printing press and photographic studio, helping place it on the map, every single blade of grass in the Cow Pasture is a gift for gazelles.

(Arthur Hagopian, now a Sydney resident, was the former Press Officer of the Armenian Patriarchate of Jerusalem.)

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