For most people graffiti scrawled on doors, walls, park benches and newly-poured cement sidewalks represents nothing but an eyesore.
But for Dr. Michael Stone, Professor of Armenian Studies at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, graffiti inscribed by Armenians into rocks and cliffs in and around the Holy Land revealed a chapter in Armenian history that was previously unknown.
Stone presented the fascinating results of his findings in an engaging public lecture and slide presentation at St. Nersess Armenian Seminary on Monday, November 17 to an audience of more than forty seminarians, clergy, and members of the community.
More than thirty years ago Dr. Stone, then a young scholar of Judaic literature with just a few semesters of Classical Armenian under his belt, discovered, documented and deciphered more than 120 Armenian inscriptions in the Sinai desert, scattered along ancient pilgrimage routes leading to Mt. Sinai, where, according to the BIble, Moses encountered God and received the Ten Commandments. "
The Armenian presence in the Holy Land dates to the mid-fourth century, when Armenians, along with hordes of Christian pilgrims from throughout Emperor Constantine's newly-christianized Roman Empire flocked to see first-hand the places where Jesus was born, performed his miracles, was crucified and rose again. From there they continued south toward Mt. Sinai, pausing to visit camps of hermits and holy men and women who were beginning to establish communities in the Palestinian desert.
"Armenian pilgrimage to the Holy Land was out of all proportion to the Armenian population," noted Stone. The first abbot of the oldest Palestinian monastery was an Armenian from Malatia, St. Euthemius. A fourth-century Greek source mentions a group of 400 pilgrims from Armenia. "The Armenians' extraordinary fascination with the Holy Land reflects the Armenians' Christian identity," Stone added. "This is why the Armenians have their own quarter in Jerusalem, a direct result of the many pilgrims passing through the Holy City." A seventh-century author notes that in his time there were over 70 Armenian churches and monasteries in and around Jerusalem. The same author mentions a particular pilgrimage of 800 Armenians to Mt. Sinai. "Such a group would have required over 1500 beasts of burden to carry water and provisions to sustain them on such an arduous trek through the desert, an extraordinary and costly undertaking," Stone observed.
Armenian pilgrims such as these left their mark.
"What did they write?," Stone asked the audience. "Their names, of course, just like graffiti artists today!" By photographing and comparing the handwriting of these inscriptions, Stone has been able to trace the paths crossed by such otherwise unknown Armenian pilgrims as "Nathan," "Babgen," and "Anania," who carved their names into the sandstone in several places throughout the Holy Land and Sinai as many as 1500 years ago. "This excites you almost to weeping!," Dr. Stone said, visibly excited.
Stone showed a slide of an Armenian inscription he found on the peak of Mt. Sinai that reads, "Der voghormyats gameghi yev khotegosi." Translation: "Lord have mercy on my camel and on my guide," written in the bilingual Armenian and Greek dialect of this pilgrim, who understood well the value of his means of transport in that harsh environment.
"The oldest known written Armenian in the world is not found in Armenia at all," Stone asserted, surprising many in the audience. The oldest known Armenian inscription in Armenia dates to 490 AD in Tekor, southeast of Kars. The oldest surviving manuscript is the so-called Gospel of Queen Mlkeh, which is dated 862 AD.
By contrast, a tombstone found under the Catholic Basilica of the Annunciation in Nazareth, where Jesus grew up, contains an Armenian inscription which must be earlier than 447 AD, the date that appears on a mosaic laid over the stone. "This is just a few years after St. Mesrob Mashdots created the Armenian alphabet," Stone pointed out.
Stone went on to speak about other Armenian writing found around Jerusalem. "We never knew there were Armenians on the Mount of Olives," Stone said. "But a tombstone containing an Armenian inscription was found under the Russian Monastery there, proving that Armenians had settled near the place where Christ ascended into heaven on the fortieth day after his resurrection."
Outside the Old City's Damascus Gate the so-called Eustathius mosaic contains an Armenian memorial which is translated, "I, Eustathius, made this mosaic. You who enter this chapel remember me and my brother Ghugas to Christ." It so happens that a coin was discovered embedded in the mortar, which could be dated to the mid-seventh century, thus providing the latest possible date for the Armenian dedication.
At the conclusion of his presentation, Dr. Stone fielded an array of questions from the audience.
"Tonight with Professors Stone [and St. Nersess Seminary Professors] Abraham Terian and Roberta Ervine you had the world's three foremost experts on Armenians in the Holy Land under one roof," Fr. Daniel Findikyan (Dean) said exuberantly.
Professor Stone's expertise extends well beyond his research in Armenian paleography. He is the author and editor of over 50 books and over 260 articles on various facets of Armenian history and literature. He is currently Visiting Fellow at the Library of Congress in Washington DC. He was accompanied by his wife, Dr. Nira Stone, herself an accomplished scholar and Art Historian specializing in Armenian miniatures.
Those wishing to be informed of future lectures in this series at St. Nersess may contact firstname.lastname@example.org.