Nestled within a walled compound in the ancient Armenian Quarter of Jerusalem’s Old City, the Church of St James is one of the most ornately decorated places of worship in the Holy Land. This ancient church, part of which dates to AD 420, is the cathedral of the Armenian Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem. Map.
Armenia — a land-locked country in south-west Asia — was the first nation to adopt Christianity as its state religion, in AD 301, and Armenian Christians established the first “quarter” in Jerusalem.
The Church of St James is dedicated to two martyred saints of that name — St James the Great, one of the first apostles to follow Jesus, and St James the Less, believed to be a close relative of Jesus, who became the first bishop of Jerusalem.
St James the Great was beheaded by Herod Agrippa I, grandson of Herod the Great, around AD 44 (Acts 12:1-2). St James the Less was martyred by Temple authorities about 20 years later by being thrown from the Temple platform, then stoned and clubbed to death.
According to Armenian tradition, within the church are buried the head of St James the Great (the rest of his body is believed to be in the Spanish pilgrimage shrine of Santiago de Compostela) and the body of St James the Less.
Most of the cathedral dates from the 12th century, though it incorporates the remains of two chapels built in the 5th century. This is one of the few remaining Crusader-era churches in the Holy Land to have survived intact. Entry from Armenian Orthodox Patriarchate Road is through a dog-legged porch leading to the church courtyard.
Stone crosses (called khatchkars) carved in relief on the walls include early Armenian examples of the so-called Jerusalem cross. The church is open to the public only during services. Lengths of wood and brass hanging outside the entrance are hammered with mallets to call the faithful to prayer.
Called symandra, they were introduced when a 14th-century Muslim edict forbade churches to ring bells. The interior, under a vaulted dome, offers a splendid spectacle of gilded altars, massive chandeliers, myriad lamps with ceramic eggs attached to them, paintings, carved wood, inlaid mother-of-pearl, bronze engravings, and blue and green wall tiles.
The marble floor is usually covered with purple, green and red carpets. Rich vestments, incense and chanting give the cathedral a mystical Eastern character during services. High-set windows, oil lamps and candles are the only light sources, since there is no electricity. Sunlight produces dazzling reflections on the church’s treasures, but cloudy days cloak the interior in darkness.
- Administered by: Armenian Patriarchate of St James.
- Tel.: 972-2-6282331.
- Open: 6.30-7.30am and 3.00-3.40pm Sun-Fri; 6.30-9.30am and 3.00-3.40pm Sat.
- Modest dress required.