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The Church of Saint James

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Is the Head of the Apostle James Buried Here?

Location - The Armenian Quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem

Map Coordinates - 31.774616, 35.229058

The Cathedral of Saint James is a 12th-century church in the Armenian Quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem. It is dedicated to two Christian saints: James, the Great, the Apostle of Jesus, and James, the brother of Jesus, who was also the first Bishop of the Church at Jerusalem. Both of these men called James were martyred. James the Great was the first Apostle to be beheaded by Herod Agrippa I, grandson of Herod the Great, around AD 44 (Acts 12:1-2). James the Just was martyred by Temple authorities about 20 years later by being thrown from the Temple platform, and then stoned and clubbed to death.


According to Armenian tradition, within the church are buried the head of 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 James the Just.


History of the Church.


Built during the crusader-era, this cathedral was constructed on a previous church that was dedicated in 420 AD. Today it is the main cathedral of the Armenian Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem.


While most of the cathedral dates from the 12th century, it incorporates the remains of two churches built in the 5th century. In fact, this is one of the few remaining Crusader-era churches in the Holy Land to have survived intact.


The Armenian Orthodox still have jurisdiction over part of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem and the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. The peaked hoods worn by their priests, shaped like the dome of a typical Armenian church, are intended to make the priest look like a walking church in the world.


About the Armenian Quarter.


The Armenian Quarter now occupies about one-sixth of the Old City, and the Convent of Saint James takes up two-thirds of the quarter. The compound is like a miniature city with residences for more than 1000 families. Behind its fortress-like walls are the patriarchate, a hospice, living quarters for nuns and priests, a school, social clubs and a printing press.


The Armenian Patriarch shares jurisdiction over the Nativity Church in Bethlehem, and the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.


Who are the Armenians?


Armenia, a land-locked country in southwest Asia, was the first nation to adopt Christianity as its state religion in AD 301, and Armenian Christians established the first “quarter” in the Old City of Jerusalem.


Many of the residents of this compound are descendants of survivors of the Ottoman Turkish genocide who sought refuge in Jerusalem between 1915-1917 AD, and remained. Today Jerusalem is home to a small but very active community of Armenian Christians.


Site Description.

High-set windows, oil lamps and candles are the only light sources, since there is no electricity in this building, and there are no pews.


In the front of the cathedral are two thrones. The larger is dedicated to Saint James the Just. A low iron grille behind it encloses the saint’s reputed burial place. The smaller throne is the seat of the Armenian Orthodox patriarch.

This is the site believed to be where James, the brother of Jesus, is buried.

Planks of wood hanging outside the entrance are hammered with mallets to call the faithful to prayer. Called a semantron, these planks were introduced when a 14th-century Muslim edict forbade churches to ring bells. Rich clerical vestments (ceremonial attire), incense and chanting give the cathedral a mystical eastern character during services.


On the left side of the church is its most important shrine - the small Chapel of Saint James the Great. This altar not only marks the spot where he was beheaded, but where his head is now buried.

Here I am kneeling in front of the Altar of Saint James - the spot believed to be where his head is buried.


The church’s magnificent interior features a high vaulted dome ceiling. Hanging from the ceiling are massive candle chandeliers, brass prayer lamps, and ceramic eggs.

The cathedral has typical Eastern Orthodox decor with detailed gold decorations around the shrines, gilded altars, intricate metalwork, wood carvings with mother-of-pearl inlaid, bronze engravings, and paintings of religious icons in thick gold frames. The marble floor is covered with richly colored carpets.

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