Ann George recalls angelic singing by Armenians in the Old City
I was shown round my prospective accommodation in the Old City by a small, plump, happy-faced woman in her 60s, dressed in an old-fashioned housecoat and with her greying hair pulled back into a neat bun. The living quarters comprised: a small room with a high, generously-wide single bed, a wardrobe large enough to find Narnia in, a long sofa and a very small window. On the other side of the courtyard was the rest of my flat: a tiny kitchen leading into a similarly sized shower and toilet area. The whole deal cost $500 dollars a month, quite a large hole out of my wages – but Jerusalem accommodation was expensive. I took the package, and I never regretted it.
Auntie Mary was a Melkite (Greek Catholic) from the Lebanon, and she was married to a Jerusalem Armenian called Uncle Joseph, a good thirty years older than her, whose family had lived in the same premises next to the Armenian Cathedral since Crusader times. The standard joke in the local community was that it was a pity that they never had any children. Auntie spoke French but had a smattering of English. By the time I had stayed with her two years, her English was getting pretty fluent; we had many a philosophical-cum-theological discussion in the courtyard, which contained a circular table, just right for two people to gossip over, whether with a glass of Carmel wine or a cup of Lebanese coffee, in the relative cool of the Jerusalem evening. There were potted plants, and a large loquat tree stretching its arms into the dark blue of the night, and there were the snores from Uncle, sleeping the sleep of the just on the sofa just inside their front door.
But the courtyard had a mysterious late-night magic also. Once, not long after I took up residence, I woke up at about 3 a.m., and of course then needed to cross the courtyard. There was no need for a torch as the Jerusalem sky was bright with stars. I stopped suddenly under the loquat tree. There was a heavenly sound, angels surely, singing in the distance. As I listened, entranced, I realized that I was hearing the choir of the Armenian Cathedral singing their night office. How long did I stop there? It was ages, or perhaps only a moment, but the beauty of that experience has stayed with me ever since.