Gravestones show mystery Jewish community flourished in medieval Armenia

(Photo: © Robert Evans)

YEGHEGHIS, Armenia - Granite gravestones carved with Hebrew inscriptions and symbolic whirligig roses lie scattered on the banks of a fast-flowing river in the shadow of a towering Armenian cliff.

They have set researchers on the track of a mystery community of Jews living comfortably in a busy Christian town in troubled Armenia in the early Middle Ages.

They have had nearly 20 years of archaeological and documentary digging.

Armenian and Israeli historians and experts in the region, however, remain baffled over where the Jewish citizens of 13th and 14th century Yegheghis, in mountainous country some 100 kilometers (60 miles) east of Armenia's modern capital Yerevan, came from and where they went to.

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To a visitor today, Yegheghis is a little more than a forlorn village.

Its Jewish cemetery is the only site to lure tourists into a region close to what was, until just before the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the open border between the neighbouring – "fraternal" in the communist jargon of the time – republics of Armenia and Azerbaijan.

The relationship between peoples with deep Christian roots in Armenia and of historic Muslim tradition in Azerbaijan was always dubious.

ARMENIA AND AZERBAJAN FEUD

It broke down over an historic territorial question in 1988. The warfare dragged on for nearly six years as both moved into independence sending Armenians fleeing west and Azerbaijanis eastwards, replacing each other in many villages along the frontier.

"It seems the Jews who lived here back then got on better than the Azerbaijanis with us Christians," muses Serozh Alkamyan, a one-time mechanic.

He keeps watch over the partly-restored cemetery outside the village and ensures that the wandering cows he and his neighbours put out to pasture along the Yegheghis River do not push their way onto the site.

(Photo: © Robert Evans)Jewish graves in Armenia, 2015.

Alkamyan, a wiry 55-year-old, clutches a wooden staff that he uses to prod the cows away from the fence and from the partly open blue-painted gate bearing the Jewish Star of David symbol.                                                                                 

It was erected over a decade ago with funds from Israel. Like him, all the modern inhabitants of the village are refugees from Azerbaijan, he says.

"I lost everything I had when I and my family had to flee. I had an orchard and a good wine cellar," he tells a visitor in Russian.

His family was settled in an empty Yegheghis, abandoned by its Soviet-period Azerbaijani inhabitants, and tried to pick up the pieces of a shattered life. "We found fruit trees, but no wine. The Muslims don't drink it," he grins ruefully.

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The cemetery is reached down a cart-track off the road east out of the village and across a shaky wooden bridge over the river.

It was found by chance in the mid-1990s by Bishop Abraham Mkrtchyan, head of the Armenian Orthodox Church in the region, when he was looking for a spring to provide water for a camp he was setting up for the children of refugees.

The bishop reported the discovery to specialists in Yerevan.

They contacted Michael Stone of Jerusalem's Hebrew University, an expert on ancient Armenia, which two millennia ago covered much of modern Turkey and part of Syria as well as the landlocked territory in Transcaucasia.

It is now home to the almost mono-ethnic 3-million population of today's independent republic.

Ancient Jewish settlements were widespread in Persia, modern Iran, to the south and east, and also in Georgia to the north and in Azerbaijan to the east.

None had, however, been previously recorded in what is now modern Armenia, which claims to have become the world's first officially Christian state in the year 301.

LOST JEWISH COMMUNITY

"We are on the trail of a lost Jewish community....This is a new page in the study of Jewish history," the British-born Professor Stone said after his first visit to the Yegheghis site six years after Bishop Mkrtchyan stumbled on it.

"This is a diaspora no-one had known about."

Subsequent study of the area by Israeli and Armenian archaeologists established a total of 64 gravestones, many of them oblong-shaped with a rounded upper side and a flat underside.

Still in place but now protected by the stone wall put up during the excavations, most bear inscriptions, mainly in Hebrew but some in Aramaic.

Many of the texts can still be read despite the ravages of some 800 years during which they have remained unattended and overgrown in a region where summer heat alternates with sub-zero temperatures in winter.

Analysis of them gave the experts good indications of the life of the community and its place in local society.

At the time the cemetery was used in the later 13th and earlier 14th centuries, Yegheghis is known to have been a flourishing trading centre, capital of the local region and a key market.

It was close to the Silk Road linking Europe with Persia, modern Iran, and the East.

The Jews, experts surmise, were involved in that commerce.

That they achieved a good degree of prosperity is indicated by an old inscription at the entrance to an Armenian church a few kilometers away and built around the same period.

It declares that the Christian place of worship was built on land bought from a member of the Jewish community.

Stone himself has argued that the language of the grave inscriptions, many of which are quotations from the Hebrew Bible, indicates that the level of education was high.

"Awake and shout for joy, ye who dwell in the dust," says one, citing from the Biblical Testament of Isaiah, while others are original literary texts "of considerable merit," the Israeli researcher says.

The granite of the gravestones and the style of the carving, the experts have established, is identical to that in a nearby cemetery where Armenian noble figures of the time were buried.

They almost certainly came from the same workshops, suggesting that there was close interaction between the two communities despite their differing religions.

Another sign of a mingling of the cultures, archaeologists say, is the presence on some of the Jewish graveyard stones of the whirligig rose motif, an ancient Armenian symbol of everlasting life.

It is one used today by the Yerevan- and New York-based "100 Lives" Foundation which promotes Armenian humanitarian causes around the world.

Researchers are still unsure about when the Jewish community arrived in the Yegheghis region, but they say inscriptions on the tombstones suggest that it was already functioning by the year 1266, the date on the oldest of the stones so far found.

The last burial date so far discovered is 1337, according to an information panel at the site in Armenian, Russian and English.

"It would be good to know where they came from, why they left, and for where," says Armen Baghdasaryan, a lecturer at Yerevan University taking visitors to the site this autumn. "But although there is a lot of effort being made, somehow I doubt that we ever will."

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