Michael Stone “Uncovering Ancient Footprints: Armenian inscriptions and the pilgrimage routes of the Sinai” 

By Arthur Hagopian

Sinai – the very name evokes a sense of mystical ambience enveloping one of our planet’s most fascinating, onerous and forbidding spots. Yet the intrepid explorer from Jerusalem had no qualms about venturing into its underbelly and unfathoming the mysteries that lay hidden under the shifty dunes and unsteady rocks.

Here, in the unyielding wilderness, is where thousands of years ago humanity received divine instructions to guide their steps along the path of righteousness, and here history scattered its pages on the sands, some filled with gore, and others with glory, like the incomparable rock inscriptions, some in languages that are lost in time.

Among them, Armenian, still pretty much alive.

The inscriptions had remained an enigma, but not for long, thanks to the indefatigable efforts of Armenologists like Michael Stone, professor emeritus of Armenian studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

He had known of the inscriptions years before he launched the first of five expeditions into Sinai, but had an inkling there were many more still undiscovered.

He was in for a very pleasant surprise. For his doggedness and tenacity yielded him more than he had aspired to, rewarding him, and the academic world, with confirmation that Sinai was undeniably the site of the oldest Armenian writing of any sort, carved onto rocks mere decades after the invention of the Armenian alphabet in 401, only about a hundred years after Armenia became the first nation on earth to adopt Christianity as its state religion.

“They are the oldest known Armenian writing anywhere,” Stone declares in his newly published book, “Uncovering Ancient Footprints: Armenian inscriptions and the pilgrimage routes of the Sinai” (2017, SBL Press, Atlanta, Georgia, USA).

Armenian pilgrims were among the first to flock to the Holy Land, in the Fourth Century CE, after their adoption of Christianity: many left tangible evidence of their sojourn, but inadvertently omitted to sign the messages they carved on the rocks of the desert.

Eutaktos, from Satala, in Anatolia, remembered, and left us his name: he is the first Armenian pilgrim whose name we know. He apparently visited the Holy Land in 360 CE.

The pilgrims embarked on their travels from their mountainous terrain in the Caucasus, travelling on the backs of camels and donkeys, to kiss the sacred ground of Jerusalem where their messiah Jesus lived and died, and then trekked to Mount Sinai in the desert to witness for themselves the site where Moses received the Ten Commandments.
Along the way, many of them dutifully recorded their sense of awe and great joy, interspersed with details about their journeys, and carved in their prayers, thanking God and asking for divine protection.

“I saw Jerusalem,” reported one pilgrim. “I went around Sinai,” reported another.

But it was not only for themselves that they sought the grace of God.

“Lord, have mercy on my camel and my guide,” beseeched another, in a touching epistle he inscribed on the peak of Mt Sinai.

Stone’s latest 174-page opus is hard to put down. One of the world’s leading Armenologists, Stone is also a poet, and punctuates his account of the expeditions with poetic nuggets, reflecting not only his personal reaction to the ambience of the desert, but also to the march of history.

“The quiet is affirmation,
“Not sound’s cessation,
“to touch, to feel.
“The soul responds to silence’s stolidity,

And gazing at the galleries of deadpan rocks, he asserts

“They are all still there
“Romans, Greeks, Nabateans
“Armenians, Jews, Arabs
“Bedouins, Sabeans, Egyptians.
“Layered human traffic of the wasteland.”

Stone’s extensive research has shown that Armenians began writing at the start of the 5th CE.

“The oldest dated manuscript that survives is a copy of the four Gospels, now in Venice, written in 862 CE, centuries after the invention of Armenian writing,” he notes.

The sanctity of the holy places often led pilgrims to settle in them, so some of the Armenian pilgrims chose to stay, helping set the foundations of one of the holy land’s most vibrant communities.

The denizens of the Old city of Jerusalem, particularly the “kaghakatsi” (native city dwellers), are direct descendants of those hardy pioneers.

Sinai is perforated by valleys called Wadis, with Wadi Hajjaj (valley of pilgrims), the most bountiful. It was there that the expedition stumbled upon some of the most elaborate graffiti, most of which were short and merely gave names, such as those of Mesrob and Nathan.

One major find that differed significantly from the others, was a badly eroded inscription that originally contained nine lines of writing, a unique phenomenon in itself. It contained a name and a recording of the writer’s experience including a visit to Saint Catherine’s monastery.

Unfortunately some inscriptions were superimposed one on the other, making it difficult if not impossible to decipher them.

Stone admits he is astounded “beyond anything else, by the number of inscriptions and the volume of the pilgrim traffic to which they bore witness.”

But the expedition was not all toil and tears. There were sufficient light moments to ease the burden the sheer fatigue of climbing up slopes or slipping under rocks, not to mention the bitter cold of desert nights.

Among the scattered and windcrafted rocks, there lived a sparse population of Bedouins, and on the few occasions their paths crossed, the men would treat them to their special blend of coffee, so strong it could know down a camel while the women would ask for cigarettes: alas, they would return to their camel hair tents empty handed and forlorn for none of the expedition team members smoked.

One of the most exciting inscriptions recorded by Stone is the one on Jebel Musa, near Saint Catherine’s monastery, near another exceptionally large and clear one that had been published by one of the world’s leading manuscript experts, Archbishop Norayr Bogharian of the Armenian Patriarchate of Jerusalem.

The excitement dispelled whatever fatigue he felt, he says.

“That first inscription dated from the year 1463. Archbishop Bogharian’s research showed that its authors with a group of clerics who belonged to the Armenian Patriarchate, two of whom subsequently became Patriarchs. This inscription is different from all the other inscriptions that we found on Mount Sinai or elsewhere in the Sinai Peninsula. it is dated, easily read and we can identify the persons involved,” he notes.

But this story is not finished, Stone warns, for he is still unclear about the routes the pilgrims took, and about the extraordinary concentration of epigraphs at Wadi Hajjaj, and about what may or may not be at other locations.

Stone is retired now, and won’t be contemplating any further forays into the wilderness. That, he will leave to younger and fresher seekers.

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