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JANUARY 18, 2002 | current issue | back issues | subscribe |


Prof Discovers Remnants Of Buried Armenian City

By NACHA CATTAN

It all started with a walk in the woods.

Bishop Abraham Mkrtchyan of Armenia was strolling through thick brush in the southern Armenian region of Eghegis, where no Jews had been known to live, when he came upon four-foot high pillars inscribed with Hebrew letters.

After the bishop's discovery, a Jewish expert in Armenian affairs, Michael Stone, was called in from Israel to examine the basalt pillars, which were embedded in muddy earth. Near the pillars, the scholar discovered 70 tombstones inscribed with Hebrew letters dating from the 13th and 14th century — the first physical evidence of a Jewish community in Armenia before the 19th century — comprising one of the oldest Jewish cemeteries in the Diaspora.

The discovery surprised Mr. Stone, a professor of Armenian studies at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He said Jews were not known to have lived in that region of Armenia. A historic account placed a few thousand in central Armenia during the first century B.C.E.

"We didn't know that Armenia had a Jewish community," Mr. Stone said. "We saw a hint here or a word there, but nothing from this period. There is a shivering-down-the-spine feeling standing in Armenia and staring at these beautiful Jewish inscriptions." Mr. Stone, a translator of some of the Dead Sea Scrolls, recently completed a visiting professorship at Harvard Divinity School, where he taught Jewish thought of the Second Temple period.

The gravestones bore Hebrew inscriptions of names, excerpts from the Bible and epitaphs which evidenced their writers' knowledge of rabbinic law, according to Mr. Stone. The stones were decorated with flowers and animals, he said. An expedition led by Mr. Stone this past May discovered that the masonry of the tombstones was similar to that of the headstones of the royal family of Eghegis, indicating that the Jewish community was well established there. Some stones had been swiped from the cemetery and used in nearby water mills, signifying that the Jewish community was long gone, Mr. Stone said.

"We knew about Jews in Georgia, Azerbaijan and Iran, but Armenia was a black hole," Mr. Stone said. "This fills out the history of the Jewish people in that area."

The excavations, now completed, were done under a joint agreement between Hebrew University's Armenian studies program and the Institute of Archeology of the National Armenian Academy of Sciences and were financed mostly by the Charles and Agnes Kazarian Foundation.




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