Prior to the cemetery’s 1996 discovery, there was virtually no evidence that Jews had lived in Armenia in pre-modern times.
ARMENIANS VISIT a memorial to the Armenian Genocide in Yerevan Photo: REUTERS
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.
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
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.
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
The story of the Jewish community in Armenia dates to
the early 13th century, when Mongol invaders devastated the region.
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.
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.
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.
archaeological team also found three mills, which the bishop says show that the
community had a business because one mill could feed several
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
The Middle Age Jewish settlement in Armenia is very
“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
“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
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.
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.”
writer, an Atlantic Council assistant director, was an IREX grant recipient in