By Antoinette Ferrand
In the very early centuries of the Christian era, the Syriac Orthodox Christians – also called Jacobites – settled in Jerusalem, in the so-called house of the Virgin Mary in the Armenian Quarter: this monastery, dedicated to St Mark the Evangelist, became the headquarter of the archbishopric, which had never been an important center of the Jacobite church. Indeed, its original location was in the Tur Abdin, in the Ottoman province of Diyarbakir (eastern Anatolia). But during the 19th and 20th centuries, the small community changed significantly, developing from a handful of believers attracting a few pilgrims from time to time in the Old City to a refugee center welcoming the survivors of the Seyfo, the genocide committed in Tur Abdin during World War I. Besides, their dependency on the Armenian authorities, from which they failed to free themselves, gradually resulted into their marginalization in Arab Palestine.
Thanks to Open Jerusalem team and Father Shimon, the librarian of Saint Mark’s Monastery, I have studied the baptismal register of the community, from 1831 to 1948. In fact, this document is a compilation of several census produced between the Tanzimat period and the beginning of the British Mandate for Palestine. As the opening text of the register explains, a member of the Syriac Orthodox of community named Sulayman Jalma began to collect all the papers related to baptized children in Jerusalem and Bethlehem in 1931 and ended his work the following year. Subsequently, monks have continued to register new baptisms to the present day.
The register comprises hundreds of medium-sized pages, on which columns and headings are printed. The text in the columns is mainly in Garshuni, the transcription of Arabic using Syriac letters, with few lines written in Arabic for entries between 1831 and 1948, after which most of the entries are in Arabic. The information contained in the register deals with the date of the registration, that of the birth and baptism, the names and places of origin of the baptized children, of their parents and godparents and of the priest who performed the baptism.
Because of the lack of other available archives, I have focused on this register and on the studies published by Andrew Palmer about the Syriac inscriptions of Saint Mark’s Monastery. Thanks to Flavia Ruani’s translation of the register from Garshuni into English, I first compiled statistics on the demography of the community of that period. I also identified the social networks organized around godparenthood and kinship, which were indeed very efficient integration mechanisms. My field survey, which was carried out in Jerusalem with the cooperation of the community and with that of the CRFJ, enabled me to overcome the difficulties I encountered, like the unmentioned citizenship or the political activities of Syriac believers during the interwar period. Paying attention to the importance of spiritual identity and ritual behavior, I tried to obtain an understanding of how these Christians succeeded in being a real community, well integrated in Jerusalem, despite the impact of political and social changes they experienced.
Read Antoinette Ferrand’s full dissertation (Ecole Normale Supérieure, Lyon): “La diaspora syriaque-orthodoxe de Jérusalem (1831-1948): Pèlerins, réfugiés et fabrique communautaire à l’époque ottomane et mandataire”