The lost Jews of Armenia Traces of a previously unknown Jewish community dating back to the Middle Ages have been discovered by chance.

By Daphna Lewy

The excitement stirred by the unusual letters - engraved on the rounded stone pillars that were unearthed in boggy soil covered by thick vegetation in the area of Eghegis of southern Armenia - was justified. A chance excavation there had exposed an ancient Jewish cemetery in a place where no one had imagined that a Jewish community had ever existed. A contingent of researchers from Hebrew University in Jerusalem, led by Prof. Michael Stone, the head of the Armenian studies program, set out for the site to carry out a preliminary survey. This spring, after the snows melt, he will return there to continue the research. Prof. Stone is a frequent visitor to Armenia for his research but, he says, it never occurred to him that evidence would be found of the existence of a Jewish community, and certainly not of a flourishing and wealthy community like the one whose traces have been unearthed.

"In Armenian sources, there is an account from the first century CE describing how King Tigranes II the Great brought thousands of Jews from the region into Armenia. There is a tradition about Jewish life [existing] there during the seventh decade of the first century, but no traces of it remained," says Stone.

"There are Jewish communities in Georgia and in Azerbaijan, but in Armenia, there were only a few thousand Jews who came there from Bukhara, Russia and so on. They left for Israel or for other places and only about 700 people remained. We had never heard of an ancient community."

The pillars uncovered turned out to be the elegant tombstones of about 40 graves: They bore Hebrew inscriptions, quotations from the Bible and various Hebrew names, and constitute "a tremendous find," according to Stone. The researchers have concluded from them that there had been a Jewish settlement in the area during the Middle Ages, which was associated with the rulers of the region. Presumably, it was not isolated but part of a larger community settled in the surrounding region.

The Ben-Zvi Institute for the Study of Jewish Communities in the East and the Israel Antiquities Authority also helped fund the expedition, which included David Amit and research student and photographer Yoav Loeff, who speaks Armenian.

Cooperation with Bishop Abraham Mkrtchian of the Armenian Church of the See of Siwnik produced the necessary permits for dealing with the antiquities, which were scattered over an area of about a dunam and a half, above the southern bank of one of the tributaries of the Arpa River, which feeds into the Araxis, the largest river in Armenia, in the Ararat Valley.

"Niftar baba dar David behodesh Tamuz shnat aleph-taf-resh - dokhran tav lenichot nafshata" read one inscription, which marks the death of one of themembers of the community in the year reckoned by the calendar used by the Jews of the East (and still used by the Jews of Yemen) which is equivalent to the year 1289 CE. In Aramaic, the inscription wishes the deceased "good memory and rest for the soul."

In another epitaph, a father mourns his young son and expresses his belief in the eternity of the soul, citing passages from Isaiah's prophecy on the resurrection of the dead. On a third tombstone is cited a blessing of Aaron the priest from the Temple, in beautiful Hebrew. Important status After the tombstones had been exposed for many years to the depredations of the weather, the inscriptions on some of them were eradicated. Some of the stones are positioned on open graves and other on sealed graves, according to Prof. Stone, and there are no Christian symbols or words in Armenian on any of them.

"There is a hypothesis that the Armenians in the region knew Hebrew, but from what I have seen it is clear that these were Jews who founded the graveyard, and these large and beautiful granite stones are no trifle: The village located at the site today was a thriving city in the Middle Ages, the provincial capital.

"On the other side of the same town there was the cemetery of the Orbelian family, the royalty of the region, and its tombstones are made of the same material and in a similar style, and were perhaps even produced in the same workshop."

All of the tombstones were erected over a period of only 20 years, but the researchers are convinced that this was not a wandering Jewish community that stopped in the region temporarily, but rather an established community that led a rich life and whose members held an important position in the life of the province.

"After the initial excitement over the encounter with Hebrew in a place where we never thought we would find it," explains the professor, "it is possible to focus the search in the historical sources. I have already found in the historical literature and documents clues to the existence of Jewish communities in that area during that period. For us, this is a new page in the study of Jewish history. This is a diaspora no one had known about."

According to Stone's hypothesis, these Jews came on foot, perhaps from Persia, to the region that was far, but not too far, from the Silk Route, following the routes used by merchants from China and the East before sea trade evolved. "I assume that they lived there for several hundred years, maybe 300. The research that awaits us is vast, and I assume that when the nearby city is studied in depth, there too traces will be found of a synagogue and houses and other findings that will yield a picture of a community that had a very high standard of living.

"We are on the trail of a lost Jewish community," adds Prof. Stone, who is now engaged in organizing the research expedition that will set out for Armenia again in May. Preparations for the spring also involve detailed planning for the preservation of the location as a historic Jewish site and in-depth study of the city of Eghegis and the Armenian cemeteries. It is thought that some of the decorative elements and burial customs in the Jewish cemetery were influenced by them.

"When the Mongols invaded Georgia, Armenia and Persia in the 13th and 14th centuries, the rulers of this region wisely surrendered. They did not fight and they were not slaughtered, and it became the most flourishing and the wealthiest region of the period," says Stone. "Very important things in the history of Armenian thought were determined there at the time, and into this a new element has now entered: the Jews. This discovery is like getting hit on the head.

"As a researcher, you were sure that you knew it all, and along comes something completely new as a result of which you find lots of unexpected things. On the wall of a church about half-an-hour's drive away from there, an inscription was found that no one had paid any attention to before, which says that the plot of land on which it stands was purchased from 'the Jew.' "In the Europe of that period, no one imagined a Jewish landowner. From this we assume that we will find many additional and surprising things concerning Armenian Jewry. This is only the beginning.


Originally published in Ha'aretz, Israel


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