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Searching for Traces of Jews in Medieval Armenia: A Field Trip to the Jewish Cemetery of Yeghegis

March 5, 2019

The Jewish cemetery at the outskirts of the village of Yeghegis (Ełegis) in the Region of Vayots’ Dzor (Vayoc‘ Jor), Armenia – in the historical district of Syunik’ (Siwnik‘) – is a unique witness to the existence of Jewish communities in medieval Armenia. Indeed, while some Late Antique texts record the settlement of Jews in Armenia in the 2nd century BCE, these communities are never mentioned in the written sources in subsequent centuries. As a result, we do not know if they survived to the medieval period, where, and how they interacted with Christian and, later, Muslim populations of historical Armenia. Keeping this in mind and in order to better appreciate the significance of the Jewish cemetery, its position within the historical geography of the region, and its topographical relationship to other coeval structures both in the village of Yeghegis and the region of Vayots’ Dzor, a “Deep Impact Archaeological Survey” under the auspices of the ERC JewsEast project, co-funded by Z. Pogossian’s ‘Innovators Fund’ within RUB Research School, was organised in August 2018. The field trip brought together scholars from the Yerevan State University/Academy of Sciences of Armenia (Hamlet Petrosyan and Tatjana Vardanesova), the University of Florence (Michele Nucciotti, Elisa Pruno, and Lapo Somigli), and the University of Chieti (Vasco La Salvia), as well as advanced students from the Yerevan State University.

The location of the village of Yeghegis in the Republic of Armenia 

 

The team before getting to work

 

The team enjoying some food in a roadside cafe

 

Various 19th century ethnographers or travellers that described Vayots’ Dzor and paid particular attention to the medieval monuments in the village of Yeghegis (then called Alagyaz/Alayaz) did not seem to have noticed the Jewish tombstones, very likely because they were hardly visible above ground and were located in an area covered by trees and bushes. The first reference to a gravestone with a Hebrew inscription, once located in a private garden but lost thereafter, was made by the famed Orientalist Nicholas Marr in 1912 in the journal Xristjanskij Vostok (Christian Orient). Marr himself was informed about the gravestone by another eminent scholar of the time and later Catholicos, Garegin Hovsep‘yan. However, it is to Prof. Michael Stone (Hebrew University of Jerusalem) and Dr. Davit Amit (Israel Antiquities Authority) that we owe the first scholarly study of the Jewish cemetery of Yeghegis, based on their field explorations of the site between 1998 and 2002. They thoroughly studied the cemetery and its inscriptions, published and analysed them, and described the various structures around it in two crucial articles (see Bibliography). Originally Stone was alerted about the Jewish tombstones by Bishop Abraham Mkrtchyan, Primate of the See of Syunik of the Armenian Apostolic Church, and worked in close collaboration with the archaeologist Husik Melkonian. Based on their studies, we know that the graveyard was in use between 1266 and 1346/7, its earliest and latest dated inscriptions. They also suggested that the community must have been older, but we have no way of knowing when and why it ceased to exist.

A section of the Jewish cemetery

 

 An aerial view of the Jewish cemetery

 

A general view of the Jewish cemetery with some team members

 

The groundwork laid by Stone and Amit in the study of the Jewish Cemetery of Yeghegis allowed us to tackle its significance from a different perspective. We intended to appraise more accurately the presumed ‘urban’ context of the cemetery, explore the vicinity of Yeghegis to a route that was apparently part of the so-called system of the Silk Road(s), and evaluate the Jewish cemetery in view of other medieval monuments in the village and the surrounding area.

The landscape around Yeghegis 

 

The landscape around Yeghegis

 

New and interesting information emerged as a result of the expedition. This is currently being elaborated by the various scholars who took part in the field trip and a joint volume dedicated to medieval Yeghegis is planned. Our in situ explorations raised some questions, still difficult to answer, but also allowed us to identify new directions of research.

Intriguing data emerged from Dr. Elisa Pruno’s minute scrutiny of tool marks on Christian princely graves (belonging to the Ōrbelean nobility) within the village of Yeghegis and those on Jewish graves. Dr. Pruno is formulating a novel hypothesis on craftsmen who worked on carving Ōrbelean vs Jewish graves’ decorations and inscriptions. To this end, she is relying on high resolution photography and computer-aided methods of 3D reconstruction, aided by Dr. L. Somigli.

 The team at work

 

The team at work

 

Discussions, discussions, discussions...

 

Working with the total station

 

One of the difficulties we faced is that the current arrangement of the graves does not correspond accurately to the ground-plan published by Stone-Amit (2002). Aerial photographs (made by a drone) will be eventually supplied to provide a more precise picture of the cemetery as it stands presently. This discrepancy may be partially due to the fact that some graves, originally not in the currently delimited cemeterial area, were moved there and placed within the low protective wall that was built after the first expedition led by Stone-Amit in 2000. The effects of this rearrangement on our understanding of the original extension of the cemetery are being evaluated by Profs. La Salvia and Nucciotti.

 Contemplating

 

Profs. Petrosyan and Vardanesova concentrated their efforts on identifying hitherto unstudied Christian graves, khachk’ars (cross-stones) and other monuments within and around the village of Yeghegis. Indeed, gravestones, including monumental khachk’ars, are spread in the private gardens of the entire village, in the area adjacent to its three standing churches, as well as the surrounding valley. At the moment, any conclusions regarding the relationship of the gravestones to a medieval settlement, and the morphologoy of the settlement, are impossible. Nevertheless, the density and quantity of funerary monuments inside the modern-day village may indicate that the area was that of a medieval (or earlier?) necropolis. Obviously, there would be insurmountable practical difficulties if one were to excavate the necropolis, but it would certainly repay the effort attempting to identify the location of the medieval settlement of Yeghegis and its shape as precisely as possible.

Copying an inscription

 

 Inspecting Christian monumental gravestones

 

Such a topographic study may shed new light on the location of the Jewish cemetery vis-à-vis a Christian necropolis, rather than being on the outskirts of a settlement. Despite previous work in describing Christian funerary monuments in Yeghegis, as well as collecting and publishing their inscriptions, much remains to be done. It is our hope that a reappraisal, republication (with translations) or a first time publication of some newly discovered inscriptions will make a significant contribution to our knowledge of medieval Yeghegis and the entire region of Vayots’ Dzor.

Copying an inscription

 

Deciphering inscriptions

 

One interesting piece of information on the Jews in the region of Vayots’ Dzor does, indeed, come from a 14th-century inscription, carved inside the Church of the Mother of God, known as Spitakawor, an hour drive southward from Yeghegis. According to it, vardapet (doctor of the church) Margarē, his relative Grigorēs and the latter’s wife Šnohwor, donated to the church “the land of the Jew” which they had purchased. The inscription implies that Jews owned land in the region at least in the 14th century.

 Reading the inscription in the Church of Spitakawor

 

Besides monumental funerary structures, the wealth of Vayot’ Dzor and Syunik in general in the 13th - 14th centuries is perhaps best illustrated by the number of monasteries that dot the region. The closest monastic structures near Yeghegis include Arates, Hermon, Hostink‘, and others. Not less important were the caravenserais. The most celebrated is the Caravanserai of Selim, but two others located within a short distance from each other have also been identified. Such density of way-stations presumably implies busy traffic due to trade.

The team at the Caravanserai of Selim

 

  Pottery shards: evidence of trade?   

 

Yeghegis’ multi-religious population in the fourteenth-century was not limited to Jews and Christians. This is eloquently attested by a trilingual inscription on three marble slabs juxtaposed to each other, presently located in a private garden. The inscription is in Arabic, Persian and Armenian and is dated to 1351. It is known as the ‘Martyr’s Grave’, as specified in the Armenian portion. While the inscription was published in 1987, it has attracted little scholarly attention. In the forthcoming volume on Yeghegis, it will be my task to analyse the significance of the gravestone, its inscriptions, and its function as a possible shared holy site between Muslims and Christians in 14th-century Yeghegis. Moreover, the Persian portion is particularly significant if one remembers that one of the gravestones (originally published by Marr) dated to 1346/7 belonged to one “Mar Khawaja Sharaf al-Din”, a name that presupposes close links to a Persianate cultural milieu.

The example of Yeghegis and its rich material heritage, is an eloquent reminder of how limited written sources may be when we try to reconstruct life in pre-modern societies. Indeed, evidence from material culture has the potential of radically altering our notions of the past.

 

The landscape around the Caravanserai of Selim

 

A ceramic bowl from the Regional Museum of Eghegnadzor

 

Stone sculpture of a ram at the Regional Museum of Eghegnadzor

 

Gravestone from Yeghegis

 

Bibliography (chronologically)

 

Divan hay vimagrut‘yan [Corpus Inscriptionum armeniacum], ed. S. Barxudaryan, vol. 3 (Yerevan: Armenian Academy of Sciences Press, 1967).

 

A. Xačatrian, Korpus arabskix nadpisej v Armenii: VIII-XVI vv. [Corpus of Arabic inscriptions in Armenia: VIII-XVI cc.] (Yerevan: Armenian Academy of Sciences Press, 1987).

 

D. Amit and M. Stone, “Report of the Survey of a Medieval Jewish Cemetery in Eghegis, Vayots Dzor Region, Armenia”, Journal of Jewish Studies 53/1 (2002): 66-106.

 

M. Stone and D. Amit, “The Second and Third Seasos of Research at the Medieval Jewish Cemetery in Eghegis, Vayots Dzor Region, Armenia”, Journal of Jewish Studies 57/1 (2006): 99-135.

 

A. Topchyan, “Jews in Ancient Armenia (1st Century BC - 5th Century AD)”, Le Muséon 120/3-4 (2007): 435-476.

 

 

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