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Jewish Armenia
By ANNA BORSHCHEVSKAYA
02/11/2013
Prior to the cemetery’s 1996 discovery, there was virtually no evidence that Jews had lived in Armenia in pre-modern times.
 
Rebecca Miller, a Peace Corps volunteer in Armenia, was skeptical when Bishop Abraham Mkrtchyan approached her about starting a Jewish culture center alongside a medieval Jewish cemetery in the village of Yeghegis.

“I had... noted that there was not much in the way of diversity in the area and couldn’t imagine what the point of a Jewish cultural center was,” she said.

But after visiting the cemetery, she changed her mind and agreed to work with the bishop to help preserve it. “I talked to anybody who would listen about what it was,” she said.

Prior to the cemetery’s 1996 discovery, there was virtually no evidence that Jews had lived in Armenia in pre-modern times. In a country that does not boast much of an ethnic or religious minority presence, Yeghegis is a fascinating nexus of culture and history.

I visited Yeghegis in December 2012. The village, along the banks of a river by the same name, lies about 96 km. south of Yerevan, against the backdrop of Ararat Valley, and just 112 km. or so north of Iran. When the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict broke out as the Soviet Union was falling apart Yeghegis had a large Azeri population.

The story of the Jewish community in Armenia dates to the early 13th century, when Mongol invaders devastated the region.

But the Orbelian family that ruled the Armenian Kingdom of Saunik – which included Yeghegis, that they later made its capital, and Vayots Dzor – established diplomatic relations with the Mongols.

In return, they granted Saunik a privileged status. As the rest of Armenia struggled, the kingdom– protected by its status and the snow-capped mountains – flourished and became a migration hub, attracting, among others, Jewish immigrants.

Bishop Mkrtchyan discovered the cemetery when he and his brother Mayis Mkrtchyan opened the Siranush children’s camp in Yeghegis to provide shelter, food, recreation and education for children orphaned by the war with Azerbaijan.

The bishop heard there was a mineral-water spring in the area.

He wanted to find it for the children and, as he searched, he came across three tombstones, where he saw writing he didn’t understand.

“I thought, maybe Iranian?” he told me when we met in Yerevan. Then one guest staying with him told him the writing was Hebrew, and the bishop approached representatives of the small Jewish community in Yerevan for help.

He also sent photos of the tombstones to Professor Michael Stone of Hebrew University in Jerusalem, who confirmed the bishop’s suspicion that what he had found was indeed a medieval Jewish cemetery. A group of Armenian and Israeli archaeologists and historians excavated the site in 2001 and 2002 and found 64 more tombstones. Many bear Hebrew of Aramaic inscriptions, and some are decorated with motifs of the Orbelian kingdom.

The archaeological team also found three mills, which the bishop says show that the community had a business because one mill could feed several families.

There were also numerous underground tombs without any writing. In one ruin, they found a millstone that had been reincorporated into the house structure, which shows that people lived there for quite a long time. They also found many stones that could have been part of a synagogue, but as in the tels which dot Israel (and Iraqi Kurdistan), much more remains undiscovered in Armenia.

The Middle Age Jewish settlement in Armenia is very important.

“The Jewish presence in Armenia provides a link between the old, well-established Jewish community in Iran, and other Caucasian and Pontic Jewish communities, and those even further north,” wrote Michael Stone.

“This will, after the necessary research is completed, require us to reassess the relationships between these areas, and it also has implications for economic and commercial history.”

In the 13th century, said bishop Mkrtchyan, “At a time when you can’t imagine that a country... in Europe either helped create or didn’t destroy a Jewish settlement... It is fantastic how they could gather cultural, architectural symbolism of Jewish Armenians... and they were connected, and built one of the strongest kingdoms during time of Mongols.”

The bishop’s dream is to build museum, or a culture center about Jews in Armenia, that would focus on education.

“Because these two peoples had very ancient connections... and until now it is one of the few peoples with whom we had no problems,” he said with a laugh.

The bishop wants people to know what connections existed between Armenians and Jews, stories of how they helped each other during the Armenian genocide and the Holocaust, for instance.

“These peoples in this region, I think have to support each other... They ended up having a similar destiny.”

The writer, an Atlantic Council assistant director, was an IREX grant recipient in Armenia.
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