Jewish History of Armenia

Identification of Armenia in Literature
Medieval Times
In Israel

ARMENIA, in Transcaucasia. Historically its boundaries embraced a much wider area in different periods. The Armenian diaspora is scattered in many countries of the world and still identifies its past history and future aspirations with the wider connotations of the term Armenia. Jewish historical, exegetical, and descriptive sources reveal knowledge of the variations in geographical area and history of this remarkable people. The fate and modes of existence of the Armenians have been compared in some essential features to those of the Jews.

Much of the original Armenia is now the area of Kurdistan in Turkey. However, from the seventh to ninth centuries the Arab conquerors called by the name Armenia a province which included entire Transcaucasia, with the cities Bardhaa, now Barda in the present Soviet Azerbaijan, where the governors mostly resided, and Tiflis (now Tbilisi, capital of Georgia). The province is also sometimes called Armenia in eastern sources. The Khazars were sometimes credited with Armenian origin: this is stated by the seventh-century Armenian bishop and historian Sebeos, and the Arab geographer Dimashqi (d. 1327). In the 13th to 14th centuries the Crimea and the area to the east were known as Gazaria (Khazaria) to western authors, and as Maritime Armenia to Armenian authors. The term Armenia often included much of Anatolia, or otherwise referred to cities on the Syrian-Mesopotamian route (now Turkey, near the Syrian frontier) such as Haran (Harran), Edessa (Urfa), and Nisibis (Na\ibin).

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Identification of Armenia in Literature

In the past Armenia has been connected with the biblical Ashkenaz. The Armenians are termed "the Ashkenazi nation" in their literature. According to this tradition, the genealogy in Genesis 10:3 extended to the populations west of the Volga. In Jewish usage Ashkenaz is sometimes equated with Armenia; in addition, it sometimes covers neighboring Adiabene (Targ. Jer. 51:27), and also Khazaria (David b. Abraham Alfasi, Ali ibn Suleiman; cf. S. Pinsker, Likkutei Kadmoniyyot (1860), 208; S. L. Skoss (ed.), Hebrew-Arabic Dictionary of the Bible of David ben Abraham al-Fasi (1936), 159), the Crimea and the area to the east (Isaac Abarbanel, Commentary to Gen. 10:3), the Saquliba (Saadiah Gaon, Commentary, ibid.), i.e., the territory of the Slavs and neighboring forest tribes, considered by the Arabs dependent of Khazaria, as well as Eastern and Central Europe, and northern Asia (cf. Abraham Farissol, Iggeret Orhot Olam (Venice, 1587), ch. 3). In other expositions found in rabbinical works, Armenia is linked with Uz. The anti-Jewish attitudes prevailing in eastern-Byzantine (Armenian) provinces made the Targum identify it with the "daughter of Edom that dwellest in the land of Uz" (Lam. 4:21) or with "Constantina in the land of Armenia" (now Viransehir, between Urfa and Na\ibin (Nisibis). Hence Job's "land of Uz" is referred to as Armenia in some commentaries, for instance in those of Nahmanides and Joseph b. David ibn Yahya. The "Uz-Armenia" of Abraham Farissol is however the Anatolian region near Constantinople. Armenia is also sometimes called Amalek in some sources, and Jews often referred to Armenians as Amalekites. This is the Byzantine term for the Armenians. It was adopted by the Jews from the Josippon chronicle (tenth century, ch. 64). According to Josippon, Amalek was conquered by Benjaminite noblemen under Saul (ibid., 26), and Benjaminites are already assumed to be the founders of Armenian Jewry in the time of the Judges (Judg. 19–21). Benjaminite origins are claimed by sectarian Kurds. The idea that Khazaria was originally Amalek helped to support the assumption that the Khazar Jews were descended from Simeon (I Chron. 4:42–43; Eldad ha-Dani, ed. by A. Epstein (1891), 52; cf. Hisdai ibn Shaprut, Iggeret).

Armenia is sometimes identified in literature with the biblical Minni (Pal. Targ., 51:27), based on onomatopoeic exegesis of Armenia = Har ("Mountain") Minni; similarly, Harmon (ha-Harmonah, Amos 4:3) is understood in the Targum to denote the region where the Ten Tribes lived "beyond the mountains of Armenia." Rashi identified Harmon with "the Mountains of Darkness," the term used by medieval Jews for the Caspian mountains, believed in the West to surround the kingdom of the Khazars (who were often taken for the Ten Lost Tribes) and to include the Caucasus. The reference in Lamentations Rabbah 1:14, no. 42, does not refer to the passage of the Tribes through Armenia as is usually claimed, but more probably to the Jerusalem exiles' easy (harmonyah, "harmonious") route.

Armenia has further been identified with the biblical Togarmah (Gen. 10:3). In Armenian tradition this genealogy has competed with the theory of Ashkenazi origins, and extended to the Scythians east of the Volga. The identification of Armenia as Aram (Gen. 10:22; 25:20; 28:5) is adopted by Saadiah Gaon and also occurs in Islamic literature.

In the biblical age Armenia was conceived as the mountainous expanse in the north dominating the route from Erez Israel to Mesopotamia (via Haran or its neighborhood) and extending to (and beyond) the boundaries of the known world. The forested heights near the sources of the Euphrates and the Tigris stimulated Jewish commentators to develop geographical concepts concerning this area in regard to Paradise (Gen. 2:8 ff.), the divine "mount of meeting" in the north (Isa. 14:13), the connection of the two (Ezek. 28:13–16), and the rebirth of mankind after the Flood (Gen. 8:4ff.). The name Ararat (Gen. 8:4; II Kings 19:37; Jer. 51:27) recalls the indigenous Armenian kingdom of Urartu, based on Lake Van.

Connections and Similarities Between Jewish and Armenian History in Premedieval Times

The Armenians had been formed as a people by 521 B.C.E. Both Armenia and Judea shared common overlords in the Persians, Alexander the Great, and the Seleucids, until their liberation during the Seleucid decline. The ancient kingdom of Armenia attained its apogee under Tigranes II. He invaded Syria, reached Acre, menaced the Hasmonean state, then retreated because of the Roman attack on Armenia (69 B.C.E.). The medieval Armenian historian, Moses of Chorene, claims that Tigranes settled many Jewish captives in Armenian cities, a statement reflecting the idea that the growth of cities and trade under Tigranes was likely to attract Jews. In fact many Jews settled in the area. Vassal kings appointed there by the Romans included the Herodians Tigranes IV (c. 6 C.E.) and Tigranes V (60–61) in Greater Armenia, and Aristobulus (55–60) in the western borderland, or Lesser Armenia. Under the more autonomous Parthian dynasty (85–428/33), the Armenian cities retained their Hellenistic culture, as the excavations at Garni (the royal summer residence) have shown. The Jewish Hellenistic immigration continued, and by 360–370, when the Persian conqueror Shapur II reduced them by massive deportation to Iran, the cities were largely populated by Jews. The exaggerated figures recorded by the chronicler Faustus Byzantinus give 83,000 Jewish families deported from five cities, against 81,000 Armenian families; the Jews formed the majority of the exiles from the three cities of Eruandashat, Van, and Nakhichevan.

Halakhic studies never flourished in Greater Armenia, in contradistinction to the center at Nisibis; the scholar R. Jacob the Armenian (TJ, Git. 6:7, 48a) is exceptional. However, Armenia is mentioned in the aggadic Targums. The mention of two "mountains of Ararat" upon which Noah's ark stood (Targ. Yer., Gen. 8:4) indicates that the location of Armenia found in Jewish Hellenistic sources (roughly adopted by the Muslims) was now identified with a place further north, in conformity with the Christian Armenian tradition, which had won more general acceptance.

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Medieval Times

Medieval Armenia consisted of a group of Christian feudal principalities, under foreign overlordship for most of the time. The cities were smaller, with a more ethnically homogeneous population than formerly, and generally excluded Jews. The Armenians joined the Monophysite current of Christianity, which here (as in Ethiopia) opposed the claims of the Byzantine church to hegemony by claiming closer connections with the ancient Israel. Moses of Chorene attributed a Hebrew origin to the Amatuni tribe and to the Bagratuni (Bagratid) feudal dynasty of Armenia. The Bagratids, who claimed King David as their ancestor, restored the Armenian kingdom, which lasted from 885 to 1045, when it fell to the Muslim invaders. The royal branch, whose descendants remained in Georgia until 1801, also spread the fashion of claiming Israelite genealogies and traditions in this Orthodox Christian territory. The downfall of the Armenian kingdom was followed by general decline. Many Armenians settled in Cilicia (a Byzantine province in Asia Minor) and founded the Kingdom of Lesser Armenia, an ally of the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem, lasting until 1375, when it fell to the Mamluks. Armenian Jewry ultimately disappeared as a distinct entity, although a part was absorbed into Kurdish Jewry.

Armenia in Legend as the "Jewish Country"

Armenia figures prominently in tales from the medieval and early modern periods about the existence of autonomous settlements of "free Jews." The kingdom of the legendary Christian eastern emperor, Prester John, who was the overlord or neighbor of a Jewish land, is sometimes placed near Armenia. The 14th-century Ethiopic historical compendium, Kebra Negast, states that Ethiopia will assist "Rome" (Byzantium) in liquidating the rebel Jewish state "in Armenia" (Eng. tr. by E. A. Wallis Budge as Queen of Sheba (1922), 225–6). The 14th-century Travels of Sir John Mandeville, a geographical compilation, states that the Caspian Jews, the future Gog and Magog, are tributaries to the queen of Armony, Tamara of Georgia (1184–1212).

The Armenian diaspora is the closest historical parallel to the Jewish Diaspora, and a comparison of the two reveals much in common. Both suffered loss of statehood and underwent the process of urbanization. They traveled similar migrationary routes, adopted similar trades, received special charters of privilege, and established communal organizations. They also faced similar problems of assimilation, survival, and accusations made against a dispersed people, and underwent similar psychological stresses. In the Ukraine, both the Jews and the Armenians were accused of having destroyed the livelihood of indigenous merchants and artisans by the communal solidarity they manifested against competition. The massacres of the Armenians have also been explained as a revolt by the exploited masses. During the depopulation of Ottoman Armenia by the massacres and deportations of World War I, the Germans planned to "send Jewish Poles" to resettle the country. The Jewish population in Soviet Armenia numbered 10,000 in 1959.

[Abraham N. Poliak]

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In Israel

Mosaics with Armenian inscriptions point to an Armenian population in Jerusalem as early as the fifth century C.E., and scribal notes on manuscripts indicate a school of Armenian scribes of the same period. In Armenian history 21 bishops of Jerusalem are mentioned in the Arab period. In 1311 a certain Patriarch Sarkis preserved the independence of the patriarchate when Erez Israel came under Mamluk rule. In the early 17th century the patriarchate was short of funds but Patriarch Krikor Baronder (1613–1645) succeeded in raising large sums from Armenians in various parts the world over, and constructed an Armenian quarter in Jerusalem. There was a long dispute over the rights to use the monastery of St. James, and in 1813 the sultan Mahmud II granted it to the Armenians over the objection of the Greek Orthodox. In 1833 a printing press was founded which has published many liturgical and ritual books as well as a monthly periodical Sion (since 1866). In 1843 a theological seminary was founded. In the 20th century the community has been centered around the patriarchate and the Monastery of St. James, and the Church of the Archangels, all in the Armenian quarter of the old city of Jerusalem, and the Church of St. Savior on Mt. Zion. These institutions have over the centuries inherited a large collection of manuscripts donated by bishops and pilgrims, firmans granted by sultans and caliphs, and specially commissioned religious articles for the services of the cathedral. The library of manuscripts in Jerusalem is exceeded in size only by the collection in Soviet Armenia. Though always available to scholars in the past, these treasures were exhibited to the general public for the first time in 1969.

[Editorial Staff Encyclopaedia Judaica]

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