Lessons from the Grave: Ancient Jewish cemetery marks little-known time in Armenian history

A little known piece of Armenian history received high-profile attention this week, when dignitaries, villagers and activists for cultural awareness gathered at an old cemetery in the village of Yeghegis, some two hours south of Yerevan.

The winding road through the Vayots Dzor province to the cemetery ends at a questionably sufficient footbridge across the snow-melt gush of the Yeghegis River, over which ambassadors from three countries cautiously trekked to pay respects to the remains of what was once a thriving community of Jewish settlers.

Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch (United States), Ambassador Shemi Tzur (Israel) and Ambassador Revaz Gachechiladze (Georgia), and Honorary Italian Consul Antonio Montaldo were among some 70 or so guests who gathered to acknowledge recent efforts to preserve the historic site, including rebuilding of a boundary wall, put up by a joint project by the Diocese of Siunik, the Ministry of Culture and a team of experts from Israel led by Professor Michael Stone.

The event was organized through the office of Bishop Abraham, Primate of the Siunik Diocese of the Armenian Apostolic Church.

On hand for the ceremony was professor Stone, who led a team that investigated the ancient cemetery from 2000-2003. Stone’s team found that the tombstone inscriptions – including 10 in Hebrew or Aramaic – include sayings and verse from Talmudic literature. Some of the names of the deceased possibly link the settlers to Jewish families of Iran, suggesting that Yeghegis was originally settled by Iranian Jews who migrated.

Except for the tombstones, no records exist of the community, leaving to speculation either its origin or the circumstances that caused the Jewish community’s disappearance.

In his/her turn the ambassadors congratulated those responsible for the modest but significant preservation work on this remote gorge protected by nature, but far from view and far from gaining the attention of typical tourism destinations.

Ambassador Tzur said the site holding some 40 graves dating from 1266 to 1346 was a link to his own people’s place in Armenian history, and encouraged research into whatever became of the once thriving Jewish population of the area.

Due to the work of the Armenian Monuments Awareness Project (AMAP) visitors to Yeghegis are now led to the village and its unique cemetery by roadside directional signs, and on-site information panels onto which is told in multiple languages the history of the area. A total of 4 information panels and 4 road signs have been installed there, with another 9 panels slated for installation in September. Each panel is presented in English, French, Italian, Russian, Armenian – and, for the cemetery, Hebrew.

One of AMAP’s most unique locations chosen for an installation is high above the Jewish cemetery on an opposite mountaintop, the Zorats Yekeghetsi (literally “Soldier’s Church”). The church was dedicated in 1303 and is the only known Armenian church to have been built in such a way as to allow soldiers to pass the altar on horseback to receive a blessing before heading off to battle.

At the cemetery commemoration on Monday, AMAP chief of party Rick Ney said that the attention to such places as this cemetery is well-deserved, as such recognition helps to round-out the rich history of Armenia as a nation of multi-culturalism, long before such a term even existed.

“This is a world-class destination,” said Ney. “It shows that 13th century Armenia was a lively, multi-cultural nation, enjoying the fruits of a cosmopolitan life that was the envy of the Caucasus. This was the seat of the most powerful Armenian family at the time, with influence in Georgia, Persia and the Mongol Empire. The Jewish community speaks to the prosperity and attraction of this medieval capital.”

AMAP – funded in part by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) through the Competitive Armenian Private Sector program – launched its 2009 campaign last month with a presentation of a bird-watching trail at Armash. In 2008, the NGO put up 54 site panels and 33 road signs in its efforts to improve the tourism experience in Armenia. For this installation, the project was supported by USAID and the Honorary Italian Consulate for Giumri.

The 11-member staff of AMAP will produce more than 120 panels by end of this year at sites that include Tatev, Sevanavank, Amberd, and marking of Armenia’s “silk road” from Georgia to Iran.