Armenian Cemetery Site of Ancient Jewish Community

A Jewish cemetery from the Middle Ages has been discovered by Hebrew University of Jerusalem researchers in Armenia, a country in which a Jewish community had not been known to exist prior to modern times. The graveyard, located in the Siwniq area, southeast of the capital Yerevan, contains more than 40 Jewish gravestones that are striking in their decorations and in their sometimes emotional inscriptions.

Discovery of the graveyard was made by a research team headed by Michael Stone, the Gail Levin de Nur Professor of Comparative Religion and professor of Armenian studies at the Hebrew University. He was able to explore the area with the cooperation of the Armenian bishop of the region, Abraham Mkrtchtyan, who first notified Prof. Stone of the possible significance of the site. The bishop, a man of great influence in the area, assisted the researchers in obtaining help from local residents in excavating the graveyard. There is no contemporary Jewish community in the area of the cemetery.

Among the gravestones found were 16 with inscriptions in Hebrew and Aramaic and Armenian-style decorations. The stones bore dates from the 13th and 14th centuries. Among them in a particularly emotional one in which a bereaved father mourns the loss of his young son.

Prof. Stone said that though there are oral traditions which place Jews in Armenia in ancient times, until now there was no information of the existence of such a community much earlier than the 19th century. This makes the graveyard discovery one of great significance not only for Jewish history but also for Armenian history.

The period in which this Jewish graveyard existed was one of great cultural and intellectual development for the Armenian people, and this new revelation of a Jewish community there indicates that Jews also played a part in that era, possibly in the area of international trade.

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