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 Virgin Mary in the Armenian quarter: this monastery dedicated to St Mark the Evangelist became the headquarter of the Archbishopric which had never been one of the most important centers of the Jacobite church; its original location was indeed in the Tur ‘Abdin, in the Ottoman province of Diyarbakir (East Anatolia). But during the XIXth and XXth centuries, the small community had changed significantly moving from a handful of believers with a few pilgrims arrived from time to time in the Old City, to a refugees center welcoming the survivors of the Seyfo, the genocide committed in the Tur ‘Abdin during World War I. Besides, their dependency to Armenian authorities from which they failed to release, turned gradually into their marginalisation in Arab Palestine.
Thanks to Open Jerusalem team and Father Shimon, the librarian of Saint-Mark 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 Tanzîmât period and the beginning of the British Mandate on Palestine: as it is explained in the opening text of the register, a Syriac orthodox of the community named Sulayman Jalma, began to collect all the papers related to baptized children in Jerusalem and Bethlehem in 1931 and ended his work in 1932. Then, the following monks continued to record the new baptized believers until today.
The register gathers hundreds of middle format pages, in which columns and headings are printed. The garshuni language used to complete the columns, is the transcription of the Arabic in Syriac letters; between 1831 and 1948 few filled lines are written in Arabic. The reverse of that trend is observed after World War II. The information completed in the register deal with the date of the registration, these of birth and baptism, the names and places of origin of the baptized children, of their parents and godfathers/mothers and of the priest who celebrated the baptism.
Because of the lack of others available archives, I have focused on this register and on the studies published by Andrew Palmer about the Syriac inscriptions of Saint-Mark monastery. Thanks to Flavia Ruani’s translation of the register from garshuni to English, I have first studied statistically the demography of the community at that period. I have also identified the social networks organized around godparenthood and kinship, which were indeed very efficient integration mechanisms. My field survey cargried out in Jerusalem with the cooperation of the community and with that of the CRFJ enabled me to overcome difficulties I encountered, like the unmentioned citizenship or the political involvement of the Syriac believers during the interwar period. Paying attention to the importance of spiritual identity and ritual behaviours, I have tried to better understand how these Christians succeeded in being a real community fitted in well in Jerusalem, despite the impact of political and social changes they went through.
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”