As his camera flash illuminates the hundreds of hanging lanterns and precious paintings on the walls, two assistants scurry around wearing only socks for the artifacts’ protection.
“Sometimes I have some pieces, I fall in love after finish it,” he tells CNN.
But Nalbandian is not only one of Jerusalem’s most sought after photographers. He’s also Armenian, a member of the dwindling Christian community still living in the Armenian quarter of Jerusalem.
A quarter he fears will soon be Armenian in name only.
Armenians first settled in Jerusalem over 1,600 years ago, with their community growing in the early 20th century as Armenians from other parts of the Ottoman Empire fled from genocide. One hundred years later, however, the Armenian presence in their quarter has shrunk significantly.
This property controversy comes as Christian Armenians have felt squeezed by Jewish extremists and the ongoing and worsening Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Among the Jerusalem Old City’s four quarters, the Armenian is the smallest. But now Armenians say they’re facing an existential crisis that could be the beginning of the end of the Armenian presence in the Old City. And it’s being perpetrated, they allege, by their own religious leadership.
A deal has been signed by the Armenian Patriarchate that will hand up to 25% of the quarter to a commercial entity for a 99-year lease, according to lawyers working to stop the deal. According to the lawyers and residents, the reported intention is to build a luxury hotel on some of the land that is currently a parking lot, but is on prime real estate nestled just within the Old City walls.
Few have seen the contract itself, and those who have are not commenting publicly on how much the deal is worth.
The drama has pitted the Armenian community against its religious leader, the Armenian Patriarch Nourhan Manougian. Regular protests have been held, with Armenian residents and supporters creating a human chain around the part of the quarter allegedly part of the deal.
‘Nightmares every night’
Nalbandian’s centuries-old home, which he and his family have lived in for more than 50 years rented from the Armenian church, is part of the land transfer, he says.
Sitting in his living room with his wife and granddaughter, his own stunning photographs line the wall, as well as a massive painting of Jesus’ last supper, Nalbandian grows emotional as he describes what he fears is happening.
“I’m having nightmares every night,” he said. “Where am I going to live with my family, with my children. We are 11 people around, you know. They’re putting us into parts and we are losing our culture.”
Nalbandian and his family’s small compound is directly across from the Armenian convent and within the shadow of the Old City walls. A steady stream of tourists and priests pass the front door every day.
“I love it here. I like to be here, forever. It’s our homeland. It’s most important for me, as an Armenian to be next to the Armenian convent next to the school, next to our culture, clubs, everything between Armenians, you know, all the friends,” he said.
Nalbandian says they’ve been betrayed by their own leadership, who he also accuses of not being forthright. Nalbandian said when he went to the Patriarch’s office to inquire what happened, a secretary told him his house is included in the deal but that they are “working to bringing it back.” But he says he has yet to be shown the contract or a full map of what has been handed over.
“They are hiding the contracts. They’re hiding all the maps and everything. They’re not telling they’re selling they say they gave 99 years. Okay, you give 99 years. Show. Show us, we don’t know what our future,” Nalbandian said.
Rumors abounded about who was leasing the land. A new sign on the parking lot used by the locals gave the most concrete clue – Xana Capital. The company and its chairman Danny Rothman were also identified as the lessee by a former priest for the patriarchate who was also its Real Estate Manager Baret Yeretsian, and spoke with CNN via text messages.
Yeretzian said the contract is with Xana Capital and its chairman Danny Rothman, and was signed in 2021 with the intent to “secure future financial stability for the patriarchate.”
Yeretsian shared photos with CNN which he said were taken during signing. Rothman, Yeretzian, the Patriarch Nourhan Manougian, and the patriarch’s deputy Archbishop Sevan Gharibian are all featured standing in front of an ornate tapestry. Another photo shows Rothman shaking hands with Manougian. CNN could not independently confirm when the photo was taken.
In recent months Yeretsian fled Jerusalem for the United States, his exit marred by angry protestors furious over the deal. Videos from the evening show Yeretsian leaving the Armenian quarter under Israeli police protection.
Yeretsian said he was acting on the Patriarch’s orders.
“The patriarch is the ultimate authority,” he said. Yeretsian added he feels like he’s now being used a scapegoat.
Xana Capitol and Rothman did not respond to a CNN request for comment.
But many of the residents say they don’t care who leased the land.
“It’s not important who bought it, I’m not blaming who bought it. I’m blaming why they sell it,” Nalbandian said. “This property is a property for all Armenians, all Armenians in the world.”
Earlier this month a group of volunteer Armenian lawyers from Armenia and the United States arrived for a seven-day fact-finding mission to help understand the situation and suggest remedies. A full report on the situation is expected to be published in the coming days.
At a community meeting on Sunday, the lawyers said it’s not just some homes that are at risk: The Armenian heritage museum as well as the Armenian cemetery are “possibly threatened.”
Garo Ghazarian, an attorney from Los Angeles, told the community meeting the deal “is more than just about the use of commercial purposes.”
“The task and challenge for everyone, the Armenian Church, the community, the clubs and Armenian organizations alike, is to overcome all risks which threatens the integrity and the indivisibility of our community within the Old City of Jerusalem,” he said.
Arman Tatoyan, a former Deputy Minister of Justice for the Republic of Armenia and human rights lawyer, told CNN that the group had already established “there will be violations if the contract is implemented is executed. And our purpose is to prevent the execution.”
Alongside the fallout from the community the Palestinian Authority as well as Jordan, which oversees Christian and Muslim religious sites in Jerusalem, has withdrawn recognition of the patriarch as a result of the real estate deal.
A missing Patriarch
Manougian, who declined CNN’s request for an interview, has been avoiding the community, residents say.
Last Sunday, a ceremony was held at St. James’ cathedral to install new Deacons. Typically, the Patriarch would attend such events, but he was not in attendance.
But his deputy, Archbishop Sevan Gharibian, did speak to CNN after the ceremony, acknowledging that a deal had been struck for part of the quarter, but claiming they’re working to cancel it.
“We have rented it to the other company that is all. But about 99 years there. But we are doing our best to cancel it if we can,” he said.
Gharibian said he did “not know” why the land was leased in the first place but defended the Patriarch’s relative silence on the matter.
“We don’t answer to any, every question, every talking. Let them talk. Later we will see who is right. Because these people also have their personal trouble with the Convert, you know they want something for some reason, revenge, I don’t know,” he said. “The body is working about these things. Not everybody must know what they are doing. They will spoil it or destroy it what we are doing,” he said.
But even if the deal is canceled, the damage has been done.
“They don’t have a God. They have money,” Nalbandian said of the Patriarchate. “If they have one blood of Armenia, they don’t do this.”