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Uncovering Armenia’s Jewish Past

Earlier this week, the Jerusalem Post published this fascinating account (full disclosure: authored by my wife) of an Armenian Bishop’s efforts to preserve a medieval Jewish cemetery recently found in Armenia:

Bishop Mkrtchyan discovered the cemetery when he and his brother Mayis Mkrtchyan opened the Siranush children’s camp in Yeghegis to provide shelter, food, recreation and education for children orphaned by the war with Azerbaijan. The bishop heard there was a mineral-water spring in the area. He wanted to find it for the children and, as he searched, he came across three tombstones, where he saw writing he didn’t understand… He also sent photos of the tombstones to Professor Michael Stone of Hebrew University in Jerusalem, who confirmed the bishop’s suspicion that what he had found was indeed a medieval Jewish cemetery… The bishop’s dream is to build museum, or a culture center about Jews in Armenia, that would focus on education. “Because these two peoples had very ancient connections… and until now it is one of the few peoples with whom we had no problems,” he said with a laugh. The bishop wants people to know what connections existed between Armenians and Jews, stories of how they helped each other during the Armenian genocide and the Holocaust, for instance. “These peoples in this region, I think have to support each other… They ended up having a similar destiny.”

The whole thing is worth reading. Much is known about the Jewish community in Russia and also in neighboring Iran. While works are plentiful about the Jewish community in Russia and the Soviet Union, there are also good books about the Jewish community in Iran, for example: Habib Levy’s excellent Comprehensive History of the Jews of Iran and, for more modern times, Daniel Tsadik’s important Between Foreigners and Shi‘is: Nineteenth Century Iran and its Jewish Minority. Both are useful correctives to the idea put forward by some that anti-Semitism and, indeed, devastating pogroms did not occur in Iran although, at least until recent decades, Jews in Iran did relatively better than some of their co-religionists in other regional countries.

The Jewish community in Armenia–wedged between Persia and Russia–has long been forgotten. Let us hope that Bishop Mkrtchyan is successful in his quest to bring history to light and improve remembrance.


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