Armenian Jerusalemites fight to keep their musical legacy alive

From Palestinian rock to modern folk, generations of Armenian musicians have thrived in Jerusalem. But Israeli attacks threaten the community’s future.

A performance by The Flintstones. (Courtesy of Hagop Kaplanian)
A performance by The Flintstones. (Courtesy of Hagop Kaplanian)

As Israel’s genocide of Palestinians in the Gaza Strip continues into its seventh month, the Armenian community in Palestine and worldwide today commemorates the nearly 1.5 million Armenians killed in the 1915 genocide under the rule of the Ottoman Empire. Many of those who escaped that genocide fled to Palestine, and specifically to Jerusalem, where they joined one of the oldest established Christian and Armenian communities, also called the kaghakatsi

Over a century later, Jerusalem’s Armenian community still faces a daily struggle for safety. Earlier this month, the Lemkin Institute for Genocide Prevention issued a red flag alert for the Armenian Quarter, where extremist Israeli mobs have been attacking the community in an effort to confiscate the piece of land known as Goverou Bardez (“the Cows’ Garden”). 

A sanctuary for Armenian pilgrims and refugees, the Cows’ Garden is strategically located at the southwest corner of the Armenian Quarter on the historic Mount Zion, adjacent to the Christian Quarter. The land has been owned by the Armenian Patriarchate for nearly 700 years. In October 2021, however, it transpired that the Patriarchate had illicitly signed a lease agreement with a private company called Xana Capital, owned by the Israeli-Australian businessman Danny Rothman (Rubinstein), giving away some 60 percent of the area and thus endangering the community’s cultural and social heritage (the Patriarchate later sought to void this agreement, leaving the land in a state of legal flux). The fears of the community mounted when they discovered that Rothman had ties to Israeli extremists. 

Yet the recent attacks on the Armenian Quarter were not a mere result of the discovery of the controversial deal. The community faced attacks all throughout 2023, as tensions mounted across historic Palestine ahead of October 7 — and long before that, there seems to have been a conscious attempt to slowly empty Jerusalem of its historic diversity and beautiful heterogeneity. 

Armenian Patriarch of Jerusalem, Nourhan Manougian, and clergy members lead the ceremony of the Washing of the Feet at the Saint James Church in the Armenian Quarter of Jerusalem's Old City, on Maundy Thursday, during Easter week, April 28, 2016. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)
Armenian Patriarch of Jerusalem, Nourhan Manougian, and clergy members lead the ceremony of the Washing of the Feet at the Saint James Church in the Armenian Quarter of Jerusalem’s Old City, on Maundy Thursday, during Easter week, April 28, 2016. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

To find out more about this phenomenon, we don’t need to investigate the manifestations of violence per se. As French philosopher Jacque Attali tells us, “What is called music today is all too often only a disguise for the monologue of power.” And hence I set out to interview a varied group of musicians from the Palestinian Armenian community, listening to their stories and musics and trying to piece together the threads of different generations of Armenian musicians who have made Jerusalem their home over the past seven decades. 

The birth of Palestinian rock

The faded recording that’s piping out of my phone and into my headphones sounds like a rock band playing in a large hall with the echo of a fully-packed audience, the reverberations regularly punctured by the ecstatic screams of women and occasional whistles. “Can you hear that?” exclaims Serop Ohannessian on the other side of the line. “That was our first concert!”

The recording took us back to Jerusalem in 1966, when the first Palestinian rock band, The Flintstones, played to a hungry audience of music lovers in the performance hall of Schmidt’s Girls College. Ohannessian reminisces about the early days of rock, in the mid-1960s: “There was this big change in music, and we were all influenced by listening to the radio. There were hardly any TVs around back then. There was no Israeli TV and our cultural references came through magazines and mainly radio. 

“The Beatles made a big impression all around the world, and teenagers were reacting in their unique way across England and America,” he continues. “It came as a natural response that Palestinians attending a concert at the time were jumping up and down, whistling, screaming, and moving to the music.”

Not exactly a native genre to Palestine, rock music trickled slowly into the Palestinian music scene in the 1960s, following the lead of a global craze driven by the distorted and amplified sounds of electric guitars. In Palestine, this story is intertwined with the story of the Armenian community, mostly centered in Jerusalem. 

“A lot of Armenians came to Jerusalem after the [1915–1923] genocide, including my parents,” says Ohannessian. “They had a strong connection with their history and they had clubs in Deir El-Arman — the Armenian Quarter — and the cultural clubs played an enormous role in preserving Armenian poetry, drama, and music. It was a big part of expressing our pain, our agony, and our happiness.” It is there, somewhere between the nadi (“club” in Arabic) and the performance spaces, that a new musical identity transcended the confines of separate religious spaces and traveled down the streets and into the performance halls of Palestine and beyond.

Joseph Zaarour playing duduk. (Courtesy)
Joseph Zaarour playing duduk. (Courtesy)

The Armenian community first arrived in Palestine in the third century CE and settled in Jerusalem as monks. This community was replenished by a new wave of arrivals from 1915 onwards, as thousands of Armenian families arrived in Jerusalem, Bethlehem, and Haifa, fleeing the Ottoman massacres of Armenians and other religious minorities in the region. 

This fraught history is captured in the community’s music. Joseph Zaarour, a Palestinian duduk (a double-reed wind instrument used predominantly in Armenian music) player and a tour guide of Armenian heritage, tells me of his great-grandmother, who was part of the kaghakatsi community — the natives who have lived in Palestine for centuries.

“The music of the Armenians is sad,” Zaarour explains. “I would spend time in the Armenian Quarter and hear the music coming out of the nadi or from the convent, and I would ask my father [a musician] about the sound of the [duduk] spilling out and filling the surrounding streets.” Those encounters with the community’s music were the pivotal inspiration that sparked Zaarour’s interest in music, as it did for many a Jerusalemite musician like him. 

An infectious musical force

Within the confines of the Armenian Quarter, two main nadis raised generations of artists and cultural enthusiasts, serving as a space to bring the Armenian community together. One of them, the Homenetmen, is loosely associated with the political party that persistently resisted the Turkish massacres of the Armenians. There, the new arrivals would “often sing patriotic songs which kept the spirits of the refugees who fled the massacres,” Ohannessian says. 

In Jerusalem, the Armenian convent provided those fleeing the genocide with a safe space and a shelter until they found a way to settle in. “The songs played there evoked emotions of survival, and urged us to never give up and to preserve our language and religion,” he explains. 

The other club, known as the Hoyechmen, was more of a creative space and was filled largely with Armenians who came from the Soviet Union. It produced poets, playwrights, and other cultural personalities within the community.

While a majority of Armenians sent their children to the Armenian school, some chose to send their children to local missionary schools, a choice that would impact the formation of The Flintstones. “Me and Hagop went to the Collège des Frères, where every morning between 7:30 and 8:00 we would sing in the mass. And we couldn’t wait to go there to sing,” recalls Ohannessian with a touch of nostalgia. 

The piano teachers known as The Kalaidjians: Vahe, and his sister Arsho (also known as the Burghuljis, or The Abyads). The photos were taken after the piano recitals given at the Seminary Hall of the St. James Armenian Convent in the Old City of Jerusalem. (Courtesy of Serop Ohannesian)
The piano teachers known as The Kalaidjians: Vahe, and his sister Arsho (also known as the Burghuljis, or The Abyads). The photos were taken after the piano recitals given at the Seminary Hall of the St. James Armenian Convent in the Old City of Jerusalem. (Courtesy of Serop Ohannessian)

The musicians who went to the missionary schools seem to have developed a more adventurous palate, according to Ohannessian. “Armenians who stayed in the Armenian Quarter would be immersed in Armenian culture,” he says. “Arabic and English were different cultures from ours, but for [those of] us who went to schools like Collège des Frères, where Armenians were a minority, we became involved in them.”

Those cultural influences included being exposed to British and American media and music. And so it was that, after seeing the famous movie “Rock Around The Clock,” featuring Bill Haley and His Comets, along with Alan Freed, The Platters, Tony Martinez and His Band, and Freddie Bell and the Bellboys, Ohannessian and his friends were inspired to form their own band. 

“I went to Hagop and Peter [Sarkissian, one of the founding members of The Flintstones alongside his brother Mardo] and told them that I’d teach them to play and we’ll form a band and the girls will be screaming!” Ohannessian says. “We went to the principal of the school and told him we wanted to form a band.”

The rest is history: The Flintstones were born. At the time there were no shops for musical instruments in Palestine, so the group decided to order electric guitars from England through a music magazine. The instruments raised the suspicion of the customs officers at Jordan’s Aqaba port, where they had arrived by ship, and the band members had to send a respectable emissary to negotiate the release of their musical hostage. 

“We convinced one of the monks at the school to intervene in order to clear the customs and bring the guitars to us,” Ohannessian recounts. “The guys at the customs didn’t know what to do, and at that time Jerusalem was under Jordanian rule. We convinced the monk to go to Amman to explain what guitars are and that they were used for educational purposes.”

The Flintstones performing at Birzeit University. (Courtesy of Hagop Kaplanian)
The Flintstones performing at Birzeit University. (Courtesy of Hagop Kaplanian)

Learning to play the instruments and finding spaces to perform was another story. “It helped us to attend other musical performances, which were taking place at venues like the Grand Hotel in Ramallah over the weekends, or the Orient House in Jerusalem,” Kaplanian, one of the founding members of The Flintstones, explains. “These venues had visiting musicians from Italy, Spain, or France. By mingling with them, some members of The Flintstones learned a few tricks in playing the drums or other instruments.” 

Living in Jerusalem, Kaplanian points out, also meant being exposed to a diverse array of cultures, especially through the radio, due to the varied radio broadcasts set up by the British and, later, Jordanian governments.

The Flintstones proved an infectious force in the mid-1960s, inspiring the formation of a host of other bands — among them The Yarnies, The Mosquitos, and the all-influential Al-Baraem. The band toured widely, playing mostly rock covers, but also performing original songs. 

“We went to different concerts in Amman, we performed in the U.S. Cultural Center, Cinema Rivoli in Amman, Cinema Al-Hamra in Jerusalem, Schmidt’s Girls School, the Chamber of Commerce, in the Frère College hall, Birzeit University, and many different places,” Ohannessian recalls.

The Flintstones’ surviving recordings are on reel-to-reel, and need significant audio work to restore them to better sound quality. They did make one professional recording, however: when the famous Armenian radio presenter Robert Beneyan, who used to present a number of programs on Radio Jerusalem, came over to visit the band in 1966, they recorded three songs at Ohannessian’s parents’ apartment. The radio station was just beside the Ritz Hotel in Jerusalem. Sadly, the station’s archive was lost, and the whereabouts of its recordings remain a job for another research project.

A performance by The Flintstones. (Courtesy of Hagop Kaplanian)
A performance by The Flintstones. (Courtesy of Hagop Kaplanian)

Fighting for survival

Yet this golden era of rock music across the 1960s and ’70s did not last long: the occupation of Jerusalem in 1967 caused a massive rift in the native community, as Armenians began leaving the city in waves.

 “There were 10,000 Armenians in Jerusalem [before the occupation], and now there’s only 200 families in the convent, and everyone is leaving,” Zaarour laments. While one of Palestine’s most pioneering bands, Sabreen, was formed in the 1980s, along with the music scene’s expansion into further genres, the influence of Armenian musicians within the city decreased as the Armenian and Christian communities left Jerusalem; to this day, they continue to be subjected to forced displacement.

Nonetheless, members of the community are still playing music at church and in the convent, and to some extent in the nadi. As musician, singer, and songwriter Apo Sahagian attests: “The church and the Patriarchate are always going to stay in Jerusalem, but the [non-clergy] will come and go.” 

Sahagian is known for his Bethlehem-based rock band, Apo and the Apostles. Although they mostly sing in Arabic, Sahagian notes that one “can hear influences of Armenian, Balkan, and Greek music” in their songs. 

Apo and the Apostles. (Courtesy)
Apo and the Apostles. (Courtesy)

The grandson of an Armenian refugee who escaped the genocide and arrived in Jerusalem after 1915, Sahagian has been working on solo projects reinterpreting Armenian folk music and preserving some Armenian dialects. He released his album, “Menk,” in 2022, where the inherited influences of his surrounding Armenian culture can be heard through its instrumentation and language. Sahagian’s frequent stays in Armenia also mean that he maintains direct contact with “the motherland” and the cultural changes happening there.

Despite the success of Sahagian, as well as a small number of other musicians still working in Jerusalem, a large portion of the Armenian community feels under direct threat. Last year played host to numerous attacks on the Armenian Quarter by extremist Israeli Jews, sparking considerable debate within the Armenian community about its safety and how Armenians are perceived within the wider society. 

“The community realized how weak we are within the system,” Sahagian says. “It was a demonstration that if you’re not Jewish, you’re not part of the system. The Israeli soldiers waved their guns at the Armenians [during the January 2023 attacks]; in the eyes of the soldiers they only see us as outsiders.” 

One year on, the violence has only escalated, as Israeli settlers accompanied by police continue their attempts at seizing the historical Cows’ Garden. 

If you walk through the streets of the Old City nowadays and listen closely, rarely does the sound of an instrument seep through the crack of an open window. But the legendary nadi still stands, diffusing Armenian cultural riches to those who remain — albeit mostly through liturgical or patriotic songs. It is estimated the number of Armenians in Palestine has dropped from 27,000 in the first half of the 20th century to less than 5,000 today. 

Armenians attend a Baptism Ceremony the St. Stephen North Chapel in St James Cathedral in the Armenian Quarter, in the Old City of Jerusalem, October 8, 2018. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)
Armenians attend a Baptism Ceremony the St. Stephen North Chapel in St James Cathedral in the Armenian Quarter, in the Old City of Jerusalem, October 8, 2018. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

The absence of the more secular and transgressive music is perhaps a marker of the absence of those who used to play it. There are, nonetheless, voices springing up and individual attempts breaking through the mechanized noises of arms, machinery, and vehicles jamming the streets of the Old City — voices such as that of Jerusalemite guitarist, rapper and composer Ivan Azazian. 

Formerly active with the Ramallah-Jerusalem band El Container, Azazian has been forging his solo career through a diverse range of compositions — as can be heard in his latest release, titled “Textures.” 

“There are barely enough musicians in the Armenian-Jerusalem community. You can count them on your fingers, and the reality is sad, especially with what is happening now,” Azazian says from his new home in Brussels. “I personally don’t feel that I can represent the Armenian community, as I have been abroad for many years. Now I only keep up through friends.” 

But the tradition, he says, is still alive. “Through the nadi some people are still trying to preserve the traditions and music, in addition to traditional Armenian dance. It has not died out. Through the scouts [Christian groups that march through cities on holidays], current generations train the next generations.” 

And alive may it remain, in spite of all the challenges and hardships that the Palestinian, Armenian and other indigenous and marginalized communities across historic Palestine are currently undergoing.