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Caucasus, Central Asia, and Asia Minor.

Responsible Team-Member: Zara Pogossian, Stephen Rapp

State of the Field

Many sources relating to Jewish-Christian relations in Georgia, Armenia and Ethiopia, where Jews lived under Christian dominion, were strongly influenced by those from Byzantium. Yet, while literary portrayals of Jews or Jewish-Christian relations were sometimes borrowed from Byzantine texts, their local reigning dynasties maintained claims of Jewish descent for legitimizing their rule, a twist in the rhetoric of Jewish and Christian identity that is only weakly paralleled in Byzantium or Medieval Latin Europe. Thus, Charlemagne was sometimes likened to King David and the latter was envisioned as the Old Testament model for Byzantine emperors, but neither Eastern nor Western Emperors claimed direct descent from the Biblical King. The claims of Jewish-Davidic descent among the Bagratids in Armenia and Georgia, and those of Solomonic origins among kings of Ethiopia, was a much more integral part of royal identity in these lands as indicated here elsewhere.


Medieval Central Asia, the Caucasus, and Asia Minor have rarely taken center stage in Jewish studies. Those regions are at best studied sporadically, with the exception of the history of the Khazar Kingdom, its establishment and the reactions against it from surrounding polities and cultures. The Jewish presence in Central Asia has been noted especially in relation to their involvement in the “Silk-road” trade, based on merchants’ letters.  The Turfan library discovered at the beginning of the 20th has not been investigated from the perspective of inter-religious dynamic, as found in some of its texts. Recent research does indicate, however, that Jews or the “children of Israel” were a regular, if incidental, part of the exegetical and liturgical imaginary of this Central Asian Christian community. Most promising in that collection is the discovery of a Jewish-Christian disputation in Syriac by Erica Hunter. A preliminary overview of the available texts from the newly discovered Jewish Geniza in Afghanistan has not brought forth new information about Jewish-Christian relations in the region, although the Geniza itself does underscore the presence of and need for more research on Jews in Central Asia. Further investigation of these new documents may reveal more relevant sources for Jewish relations to Christians in Central Asia than have hitherto come to light.


Historical records on Jewish communities in Armenia and Georgia are limited compared to the rather abundant but unexplored material on the rhetorical construction of a “Jew” in the respective literatures. Although the existence of a long-standing Jewish community in Georgia is well known and Jews are regularly mentioned in medieval Georgian literature, scholarship on Georgian Jews has tended to focus on modern ethnography or Late Antiquity, hardly considering medieval Jewish-Christian relations in Georgia. Furthermore, the conspicuous role of Jews in Georgian conversion narratives is well known and has attracted literary and, less frequently so, historical research. These traditions are supported by recent archaeological and historical data suggesting that Jews from the Syro-Palestinian area settled in Georgia as early as the beginning of the Common Era. Evidence of Jews in Georgia throughout the medieval period appears also in western Jewish sources, such as Petakhia of Regensburg or Benjamin of Tudela. It seems that Rabbinic and Karaite traditions both reached Georgia; the founder of a Karaite sect in the 9th century, Abu ‘Imran al-Tiflisi, hailing originally from Baghdad, gave the name Tiflisi to its followers, betraying his long-term residence in the capital of Georgia.


Very little has been done not only for the study of Jewish presence in Armenia, but also the way “Jews” were imagined in medieval Armenian sources. The presence of Jewish communities in Late Antique Armenia seems plausible, but is based on the enigmatic historical narratives Buzandaran Histories by P‘awstos Buzand (ca. 460) and the History of the Armenians by Movsēs Xorenac‘i (dated between the 5th and late 8th centuries). Yet, the scholarly consensus holds that nothing can be said about medieval Jewish communities in Armenia from the 6th century onwards, even though there is ample evidence for Jewish influence on medieval Armenian culture; apocryphal texts of Jewish origin were translated (mostly from Greek and Syriac) and widely disseminated, some surviving only in Armenian, as Michael Stone’s extensive research has demonstrated. There is indeed little evidence for actual contacts with Jews in Armenia. However, as Ter-Ghevondyan has noted, Jews are mentioned, along with Christians and Zoroastrians, in the safe-conduct regulation (7th c.) issued by Ḥabīb b. Maslama to the non-Muslim inhabitants of Dwin. Later on, in the late 13th or early 14th centuries, the historian Step‘anos Ōrbelean mentions a “Jewish quarter” in Kapan, in his native district of Syunik; a Jewish cemetery of the same period and region further supports the evidence for a Jewish community in Armenia.


Furthermore, evidence for Jewish-Armenian-Christian relations can be supplemented by sources from the Cairo Geniza on Jews’ socio-economic transactions across Armenian-held Cilicia, Georgia, Ethiopia, and Central Asia. Georgian Jews travelling to Egypt are represented as artisans and recipients of charity along with “Abyssinians” (Ethiopians), “Nubians” and “Sudanese who appear as slaves, former slaves, and recipients of (Jewish) charity. As James Russell has demonstrated, socio-cultural affinities between Arabic-speaking Jews and Armenians of Cairo were strong enough to prompt a bilingual word-list in Judeo-Arabic and Armenian found in the Cairo Geniza.


The presence of Armenian merchants in Ethiopia and evidence of exchanges of manuscripts between Ethiopia and Armenia further indicate connections between these two regions.  Further research needs to be done to see if the rhetorical constructions regarding Jews in Armenian and Ethiopian literature may (or may not) be related in any way.


Ongoing and Planned Research


Representations of Jews in Armenian Apocalyptic Sources
Despite the supposed lack of Jews living in medieval Armenia, they play a prominent role in numerous Armenian apocalyptic texts.  Zara Pogossian is examining the function and meaning of Jews in this genre of Armenian literature, and in related texts, such as chronicles containing apocalyptic segments, to determine whether Jews are being used as a symbolic category, or whether “actual” Jews are meant, and why they play such a prominent role.  The role of Jews in Armenian apocalyptic literature is being compared to their portrayal in Byzantine sources, while also considering potential intersections with Muslim and Jewish apocalyptic materials.  She is preparing editions and commentary of some of the most important examples of this genre.

Jewish presence in Armenia
The seeming lack of documentary evidence of Jews in medieval Armenia, had led scholars to suppose that there was no substantive Jewish presence in the region after late antiquity.  The discovery of a Jewish graveyard (about this, see above) in Armenia, indicating a well- integrated, well-established Jewish community there forces scholars to reconsider our evidence.  One of the on-going areas of research for JewsEast, is to systematically examine a wide range of Armenian sources, such as chronicles, law codes, and hagiographic and literary texts, in conjunction with archaeological sources and extra-Armenian sources, such as material from the Cairo Geniza, Arabic chronicles, etc. to reassess evidence for Jewish settlement in and trade with Armenia.  This evidence will be used in turn to contextualize Armenian literary representations of Jews.

Rhetorical Jews in Georgian and Armenian Sources

Unlike gaps in the historical record, Armenian and Georgian sources abound with rhetorical imagery of Jews as the “Other”. From the late seventh to the early eighth centuries, anti-Jewish polemic in Armenian and other Eastern Christian (including Byzantine) sources evolves concomitantly with the rise and expansion of the Islamic Caliphate and, perhaps less apparently so, with the shift of international trade routes along the Silk Road towards the north, across Bagratid Armenia. The History of Sebēos in particular is one of the earliest witnesses to this tendency, blaming Jews of Palestine for collaboration with the new power emerging from the Arabian Peninsula. Anti-Jewish rhetoric characterizes also Armenian Biblical exegesis and certain historiographic works of the late 9th century. In striking contrast to this polemical trend, two of the most significant princely houses of medieval Armenia, both of which eventually became royal dynasties, claimed Jewish ancestry. The Artsrunis of Southern Armenia cited King Sennacherib, whereas the Bagratuni in the North, as well as the Bagrationi Georgian branch cited King David. Leaving alone royal pedigrees, it is worth pinpointing that Armenian historiography strongly tends to represent Armenians as Novus Israel, a featured shared with other Christian cultures, but expressed in much stronger language than in western and Byzantine Christian traditions. Similarly, the ancient capital of Georgia, Mtskheta, was represented as “New Jerusalem” in ancient Georgian literature. Interest in Jews appears quite conspicuous also in Armenian eschatological texts, particularly in the redactions completed during the Cilician period of Armenian history (11th – 14th centuries). Examining these various uses of “rhetorical Jews”, and placing such literature in the context of what can be uncovered about lived Jewish-Christian relations between Armenian and Georgian Christians and Jews, is one of the areas of on-going research.

Armenian-Ethiopian Relations

Scholars have long speculated about relations between Ethiopia and Armenia, noting the shared Christology, the existence of Armenian traders mentioned in Ethiopian sources, and the mention of Armenian saints in Ethiopian hagiographical collections. Collections of Armenian manuscripts are reported to exist in Ethiopia, and Ethiopian texts in Armenia.  Curiously similar to the Armenian and Georgian Bagratuni/Bagrationi dynasties, the rulers of Ethiopia too traced their ancestry to ancient Israel and Jewish kings, namely the House of Solomon, through Menelik, the son born out of the union of the Queen of Sheba and Solomon. Zara Pogossian is working together with the Ethiopian team to determine the extent, chronology, and depth of relations between medieval and early modern Armenians and Ethiopians, and whether there is any historical connection between Ethiopian Georgian, and Armenian royal rhetoric of Jewish descent, or other areas in which Ethiopians and Armenians exchanged material about the Jews.


Trade and Polemic between Jews and Christians in West and Central Asia  

The so-called Afghan Geniza, testifying to families of Jewish traders living and working in Afghanistan, in regions where there were also Christians living, the long-known letter of a Jewish trader in Khotan, and the recent discovery of a Syriac Christian anti-Jewish polemical text in Turfan, indicate that more research needs to be done on Jews and Christians in Central Asia and indications of their interactions. Working together with scholars of Judeo-Persian, Zara Pogossian, Barbara Roggema and Alexandra Cuffel are attempting to find and assess evidence of Jewish-Christian relations in these regions. 

Further Reading

  • Amit, D.  and M. Stone, “Report of the Survey of a Medieval Jewish Cemetery in Eghegis, Vayots Dzor Region, Armenia”, Journal of Jewish Studies 53 (2002) 66-106.

  • Amit, D.  and M. Stone, “The Second and Third Seasons of Research at the Medieval Jewish Cemetery in Eghegis, Vayots Dzor Region, Armenia”, Journal of Jewish Studies 57 (2006) 99-135.

  • Fowden, G Empire to Commonwealth: Consequences of Monotheism in Late Antiquity (Princeton, 1995).

  • Garipzanov, I.  The Symbolic Language of Royal Authority in the Carolingian World (c. 751-877) (Leiden, 2008) 225-28.

  • Goitein, S. D. “A Letter from Seleucia (Cilicia) dated 21 July 1137”, Speculum 39/2 (1964): 298-303.

  • Hamam Arewets‘i, Commentary on the Book of Proverbs, transl. R. W. Thomson (Louvain, 2005.

  • Holo, J. Byzantine Jewry in the Mediterranean Economy (Cambridge, 2009).

  • Hoyland, R. Seeing Islam as Others Saw it (Princeton, 1997).

  • Hunter, E. “The Christian Library from Turfan: SYR HT 41-42-43, an Early Exemplar from the Ḥuḏrā”, Hugoye: Journal of Syriac Studies, 15 (2012) 301-351.

  • Kaplan, S.  “Themes and methods in the study of conversion in Ethiopia: a review essay”, Journal of Religion in Africa, 34/3 (2004) 373-92.

  • La Porta, S.  “A Fourteenth-Century Armenian Polemic Against Judaism and its Latin Source”, Le Muséon 122 (2009) 93-129.

  • Latowsky, A. Emperor of the World: Charlemagne and the Construction of Imperial Authority 800-1229 (Ithaca, 2013).

  • Mahé, J.-P. “Entre Moïse et Mahomet: réflexion sur l’historiographie arménienne”, Revue des Études Arméniennes 23 (1992) 121-53.

  • Manandyan, H.  The Trade and Cities of Armenia in Relation to Ancient World Trade. Trans. N. Garsoïan (Lisbon, 1965).

  • Margoliouth, D. “An Early Judaeo-Persian Document from Khotan in the Stein Collection with other Early Persian Documents”, Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society 55 (1903) 735-60.

  • Melikichvili, N.  “Die georgische Übersetzung der "Jüdischen Altertümer" von Flavius Josephus und ihre spezifischen Merkmale”, Le Muséon, 107/1-2 (1994): 107-121.

  • Meyer, M. “Refracting Christian Truths through the Prism of the Biblical Female in Byzantine Illuminated Manuscripts”, in Jews in Byzantium: Dialectics, 969-98.

  • Mgalobishvili, T.  “Juden und Christen in Georgien in den ersten christlichen Jahrhunderten”, Juden und Christen in der Antike. eds. J. Van Amersfoort and J. Van Oort, (Kampen, 1990) 94-100.

  • Nikoleisvili, A.  “The Georgian Jewish folk literature”, Moreshet Israel 9 (2011): 227-32.

  • Ōrbelean, S.  History of the Region of Sisakan (in Armenian) (Tbilisi, 1910).

  • Pogossian, Z.  “Jews in Armenian Apocalyptic Traditions of the 12th century: a Fictional ‘Old’ Enemy or New Encounters?” in Peoples of the Apocalypse: Eschatological Beliefs and Political Scenarios, ed. Wolfram Brandes, Felicitas Schmieder,  Rebekka Voß (Berlin/Boston: Walter de Gruyter, 2016).

  • Russell, J. “On an Armenian Word-List from the Cairo Geniza”, Iran and the Caucasus 17 (2013) 189-214.

  • Shaked, S. “Notes on some Jewish Aramaic inscriptions from Georgia”, Jerusalem Studies in Arabic and Islam, 32 (2006): 503-510.

  • Stone, M.  “The Transmission and Reception of Biblical and Jewish Motifs in the Armenian Tradition”, in his Apocrypha, Pseudepigrapha and Armenian Studies, 2 vols. (Louvain, 2006) vol. 1, 79-93.

  • Stone, M. Selected Studies in Pseudepigrapha and Apocrypha with Special Reference to the Armenian Tradition (Leiden, 1991).

  • Ter-Ghevondyan, A. N. The Arab Emirates In Bagratid Armenia. Trans. Nina G. Garsoïan. (Lisbon, 1976).

  • Topchyan, A.  “Jews in Ancient Armenia”, Le Muséon 120 (2007) 435-76.

  • Turaev, B.A. “Iz armiano-abissinskikh snoshenii” [On Armenian-Abyssinian Connections], Zapiski vostochnago otdeleniia imperatorskago russkago arkheologicheskago obshchestva 21 (1911-12): 3-15.

  • Van Esbroeck, M.  “La place de Jérusalem dans la ‘Conversion de la Géorgie”, in Ancient Christianity in the Caucasus, 59-75.

  • Utas, B. “The Jewish-Persian Document from Dandān-Uiliq”, Orientalia Suecana 17 (1968) 123-36.

  • The World of the Khazars: New Perspectives. Selected Papers from the Jerusalem 1999 International Khazar Colloquium, eds. P. Golden et al. (Leiden, 2007).


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