Kevin Alan Brook
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.