One of the consequences of the rise of the Cilician kingdom was a new prominence for the Armenian secular and religious community of Jerusalem.
An Armenian presence in that city can be traced back as far as the first centuries of the Christian era. By the seventh century numerous Armenian monasteries had been built there. After the break with the Greek Orthodox Church, Armenians were subject to discrimination by the city’s Byzantine rulers.
Following the Arab conquest in 638 A.D., control over the Christian holy places of Jerusalem became the avenue to and symbol of power for the City’s Armenian and Greek communities. Although, the Armenians in Jerusalem numbered fewer than the Greeks, they enjoyed better relations with the Arabs, who saw the Byzantines as their common enemy.
The Armenian Church was, therefore, initially granted custodianship of a number of important Christian shrines, although disagreements between the Greek Orthodox and Armenian Churches over their control continued through the years. The arrival of the crusaders improved the Armenians’ position considerably and enabled them to acquire a site from the Georgian Church over which they built the “Cathedral and Monastery of St. James”, and founded the monastic order of the ” Brotherhood of St. James”. St. James became the heart of Jerusalem’s Armenian community, providing accommodations for pilgrims and visiting merchants.
At the beginning of the fourteenth century, the St. James Brotherhood refused to accept the Latinophiles policies of the Catholicosate of Cilicia and proclaimed its head the Armenian Patriarch of Jerusalem, and the guardian of the Armenian-controlled holy places. The Armenians retained their favored status and were exempted from the “jizya” after the Muslims retook Jerusalem under Saladin. During the Mamluk period the Armenians managed to forestall attempts by the Georgian Orthodox Church to take over St. James, but were forced to share custodianship of parts of the Holy Sepulchre with the Georgian and Greek Churches.
The Armenians had both lay and clerical residents in the city, and the monastery of St. James served as Educational and Cultural center for all.
The Armenian population of Jerusalem was never large, and seems to have decreased after the Ottoman conquest. The community revived somewhat in the nineteenth century, when a Seminary was established in 1843. The economic gains of Armenians in Egypt and Syria in the nineteenth century enabled the wealthy bankers to support the Patriarchate in Jerusalem and to help it maintain its historical custodianship of the houses of Annas and Caiaphas, and its shared custodianship of the “Church of the Holy Sepulcher, the Tomb of Mary of Gethsemane, the Church of the Ascension, and the Church of the Nativity”.
After the Greek Orthodox and Roman Catholic Churches, Armenians rank third in their jurisdiction over the Holy Places of Jerusalem.