Late August sunset over a family plot at the medieval Jewish cemetery in Yeghegis
Driving south from Yerevan, after you pass Areni (of wine and cave fame) and Noravank, you reach the turn-off to the Selim Pass which leads to Martuni. Not far up the road is the village of Shatin. Take the turn into the village and follow the road which will bring you to Yeghegis.
Today, Yeghegis is a village of about 500 people. The houses look like they have sprung out of the landscape and may have been there forever. Until 1994, it was an Azeri enclave known as Alayaz. Sometimes, if you stop and ask a local, they will direct you to the village of Artabuynk, which also used to be called Yeghegis. It’s a little confusing, but you are looking for the present day village of Yeghegis – the medieval capital of the Kingdom of Syunik. Looking at it, it’s hard to imagine that it was once a capital city of 10,000 inhabitants. What is even more amazing, though, is the makeup of that population.
In 1996, quite by accident, the local bishop spotted some very old looking tombstones in the Yeghegis River. He searched the area and found more, some with inscriptions in an alphabet he did not recognize. Imagine his shock to discover that the alphabet was Hebrew! Fast forward a few years and seasons of excavations and an entire Jewish cemetery has been unearthed.
Geometric shapes on a tombstone at the Orbelian kings’ graveyard at the entrance to Yeghegis village.
Armenia today is 98% Armenian. 99% of the population is also Christian- the vast majority of them belonging to the Armenian Apostolic Church. But here, in Yeghegis, 800 years ago, there was a thriving multiethnic society which included a previously unknown, and by all accounts prosperous, Jewish community.
The tombstones at the cemetery are quite large and come from the same quarry where the ruling Orbelian kings purchased their tombstones. They would have been very expensive to make and transport. They also bear markings similar to those on the kings’ tombstones and undoubtedly came from the same workshop.
Geometric shapes on a tombstone found at the Jewish cemetery. The stones came from the same quarry and were engraved at the same workshop.
In addition to the cemetery, researchers discovered an inscription on nearby Spitakavor church which indicated that the land on which the church was built had been ultimately purchased from a Jewish person. This one fact, in and of itself, sets the Jewish community of Yeghegis apart from their European cousins who were prohibited from owning land.
What became of the Jewish community? We can only guess. After the fall of the Mongol Empire, the Orbelian kings lost their privileged standing. The population of the capital, which they had moved off the main trading routes of the Silk Road, dwindled. The Jewish inhabitants probably just moved on as the other inhabitants did. It is hoped that, with further excavations in the area, more will be discovered about this fascinating place. Until then, we can only let our imagination wander.
Engravings on a young boy’s tombstone in Yeghegis. This stone has Hebrew engravings on 3 sides. It also features eternity wheels which were engraved by a skilled Armenian craftsman before the Hebrew inscriptions were added. It was found after excavation of a nearby watermill where it was in secondary use as flooring for the mill.
Rebecca is an American Peace Corps Volunteer who lives and works in Vayots Dzor Marz. The views and opinions expressed are hers and do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. Peace Corps.