THE UNEXPECTED DISCOVERY OF VESTIGES OF THE MEDIEVAL ARMENIAN JEWS

Kevin Alan Brook



INTRODUCTION


      In 1996, an unexpected and remarkable archaeological discovery of Jewish significance was made by an Armenian bishop, Abraham Mkrtchyan. The bishop came upon a number of large inscribed gravestones in a river and an adjoining forest at the edge of Eghegis, in the Siwniq region of southeastern Armenia. These stones, which were shaped from granite into oblong cylinders, contain Hebrew and Aramaic inscriptions and are the first known physical evidence of a Jewish community in Armenia prior to modern times. The community existed contemporaneously with Jewish communities in neighboring regions like Georgia, Iran, Azerbaijan, Dagestan, the Crimea, and Ukraine. It may have consisted of about 150 people, according to Frank Brown, writing in the Jerusalem Report ("Stones from the River"). The stone inscriptions contain dates ranging from the middle of the 13th century to 1337.

      An archaeological team was assembled from Israeli and Armenian experts, thanks in large part to Bishop Mkrtchyan. Israeli participants included the archaeologist Michael E. Stone (of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem), the archaeologist David Amit (of the Israel Antiquities Authority), the Armenologist and photographer Yoav Loeff, and the archaeological assistant Sheila Bishop. Igor Dorfmann also participated. Armenians who helped with the research and excavation work included not only Bishop Mkrtchyan but also Mayis Mkrtchyan, Hussik Melkonian, Niwra Hagopian, Gohar Muradyan, Aram Topchyan, and several others. A preliminary survey of the Jewish cemetery took place during October 2000. The second phase of excavation took place in May 2001. The third phase is scheduled to take place in the spring of 2002.


ARCHAEOLOGICAL EVIDENCE FOR ARMENIAN JEWRY


      To date, over 62 Jewish gravestones have been located at various sites in Eghegis -- including the Jewish cemetery, the foundation of a mill, and the lower support of a foot-bridge. At the cemetery, some of the stones are positioned on open graves while others are on sealed graves. A number of the stones had magnificent ornamentation. Some of the symbols on the Jewish gravestones -- like a spiral wheel -- were also in use on Armenian Christian stonecrafts around the same time. It is most interesting that the same decorative motifs were shared by Jews and Christians. While some of the inscriptions were worn down over the centuries, a lot of them are decipherable. Here are some examples:

      * A gravestone dated the 18th of Tishrei of the common era year 1266 contains an inscription dedicated to the memory of "the virgin maiden, the affianced Esther, daughter of Michael. May her portion be with our matriarch Sar[ah]..." The opposite side quotes "Grace is a lie and beauty is vanity" from Proverbs 31:20 of the Hebrew scriptures and continues with a statement that Esther was "God-fearing". This stone was found in the bank of a flour mill.

      * A gravestone in the bank of the same flour mill read "Rachel, daughter of Eli, may her repose be in the Garden of Eden." Rachel's stone also contains geometric ornamentation.

      * A gravestone recorded the death of Baba bar David in the month of Tamuz in 1600 (the equivalent to the year 1289 of the common era). The other side of this stone reads "A good memorial and rest for the soul" in Aramaic.

      * One gravestone includes a Hebrew blessing of Aaron the Priest from the ancient Jewish Temple in Jerusalem.

      * There is a gravestone containing an emotional statement from a father mourning his son's passing. In this inscription, the father claims that the soul is eternal and cites passages from the Book of the Prophet Isaiah that relate to the resurrection of the dead.

      It is evident from the gravestones that many typical Hebrew names were in use among the Jews of medieval Armenia.

      The archaeologists learned that the cemetery of the Orbelian royal family of Armenia, at the other side of Eghegis, had gravestones made of the same material and in a similar style as the Jewish gravestones. Michael Stone thinks it is possible that an identical workshop had produced both the Jewish and the Christian stones.

      At the time of Jewish settlement in Eghegis, the city was an important commercial, cultural, intellectual, and governmental center, serving as a provincial capital. Apparently, Jews were wealthy and important members of the society at Eghegis, though Armenian Christians predominated in the city's population. The Mongols ruled Armenia during the period of Jewish habitation.

      On the wall of an Armenian church outside of Eghegis, an inscription mentions that the plot of land where it stands was purchased from a Jew.


WRITTEN EVIDENCE FOR ARMENIAN JEWRY


      Traces of Jewish settlement in medieval Armenia are also found in written records. The Armenian philologist Aram Topchyan located record books of monasteries that refer to property transfers to Jews. The medieval Armenian historian Movses of Khorene wrote that King Tigran II the Great, king of Armenia (95-55 B.C.E.), settled thousands of Jews from Syria and Mesopotamia in Armenian cities (including Armavir and Vardges) during the 1st century before the common era. It appears that some of these earliest Jewish settlers later converted to Christianity. The Armenian vardapet T'ovma of Metsob explicitly declared in "The History of Tamerlane and His Successors" that captured Jews brought to Armenia had converted to Christianity and subsequently become princes and kings in Armenia and Georgia.

      The Roman historian Josephus wrote that Judean Jews were taken by the Armenian king Artavazd II (55-34 B.C.E.) and resettled in the Van region of Armenia, again during the 1st century B.C.E., but some years after Tigranes's resettlement. A Jewish presence in Van persisted for many centuries. There may have also been Jews in Eruandashat and Nakhichevan. Jacob Neusner wrote that a large Jewish population existed in the central Armenian city of Vagharshabat.

      Itzhak Ben-Zvi speculated that Jews from Adiabene, a part of northern Mesopotamia that was ruled by Jewish kings during part of the 1st century of the common era, may have resettled in Armenia. This possibility was also raised by Neusner in his article "The Jews in Pagan Armenia". Neusner thought that the royal family of Adiabene might have arrived in Armenia during the reign of the Roman emperor Trajan (98-117 C.E.).

      The significance of a reference in the Jerusalem Talmud's Gittin Tractate to an ancient Jewish scholar named "R. Jacob the Armenian" is not known.

      The "Cambridge Document", discovered by Solomon Schechter in the late 19th century and also known as the "Schechter Letter", the "Schechter Text", and the "Letter of an Anonymous Khazar Jew", discusses how Jewish men fled either through or from Armenia into the Khazar kingdom in ancient times, escaping from "the yoke of the idol-worshippers". Some words, phrases, and sentences in the document were lost to the ravages of time. The document related how the Jews "intermingled with the gentiles" of Khazaria so that they "became one people". Norman Golb's excellent reconstruction of the document (as published in his co-authored 1982 book "Khazarian Hebrew Documents of the Tenth Century") nevertheless had to leave open the question of where the Jews had come from originally. While one gets the impression upon reading Golb's summary of the document on page 102 and his footnotes on pages 106 and 107 that Golb assumed that the Jews had in fact come from Armenia and that Armenia was illiterate and pagan, this is far from established fact. Armenia was actually Christian since the 4th century and had its own alphabet since the 5th century, and the Khazars were not really a cohesive entity until after Armenia was already literate and monotheistic. Golb's co-author, Omeljan Pritsak, offered the suggestion on page 130 that these Jews had been persecuted in Sassanian Iran, rather than in Armenia, and this is more plausible. I asked Michael Stone what he thought of the document. Stone responded that the document probably refers to Jews migrating through Armenia, rather than from Armenia, because not only were the Armenians Christians rather than pagans, but there is no evidence that the Armenians persecuted Jews in the time of the Khazars. So, it turns out that the "Cambridge Document" probably has no bearing upon the existence of an ancient Jewish community in Armenia. What was the fate of the Armenian Jews? While there are no definite answers yet, many scholars have attempted to answer the question. Abraham Poliak, a 20th-century Israeli historian, claimed that part of Armenian Jewry merged into Kurdish Jewry. Neusner argued that the Adiabenian Jews of Armenia could have adopted Christianity just as did countless of their coreligionists in other parts of the northern Middle East. What is known is that the Persian king Shapur II (309-379 C.E.), who conquered Armenia towards the end of his reign, deported many Jews from Armenia to Persia.

      But what about those Jews who remained in Armenia and kept their Judaism for a long period of time? Iosif Abgarovich Orbeli reported that members of Van's peasantry regarded the citizens of Van to be Jews as late as the start of the 20th century. Perhaps some modern Armenians, especially those living in Van, are descended from Jews. Researchers like Michael Stone wonder whether some Armenians living in the Eghegis region today may also have Jewish ancestors.

      The present-day Jewish community of Armenia does not have deep roots in Armenia, having arrived during the 20th century from Georgia, Belarus, Russia, and Ukraine.


PROSPECTS FOR FUTURE RESEARCH


      Much research remains to be done. Experts think that Jews might have also lived in Dvin (an ancient capital of Armenia) as well as in Ani (once called "the city of 1001 churches"), though this has not yet been demonstrated. The full extent of Jewish settlement in old Armenia is not yet known. Might other graveyards -- or even synagogues -- be located in the future? Scholars also wonder whether Armenian Jews played a significant role in trading between Armenia and other countries.



SUGGESTED READINGS

Brown, Frank. "Stones from the River." The Jerusalem Report (September 24, 2001), pp. 44-45.
Golb, Norman and Pritsak, Omeljan. Khazarian Hebrew Documents of the Tenth Century. Ithaca, NY, USA: Cornell University Press, 1982.
Lewy, Daphna. "The Lost Jews of Armenia." Ha'aretz (February 4, 2001).
Neusner, Jacob. "The Jews in Pagan Armenia." Journal of the American Oriental Society vol. 84 (1964), pp. 239-240.
Neusner, Jacob. Judaism, Christianity, and Zoroastrianism in Talmudic Babylonia. Atlanta, GA, USA: Scholars Press, 1990.

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