One of the most precious treasures of the Armenian nation is the collection of ancient manuscripts. There are around 30,000 ancient Armenian manuscripts in the world and the majority of them (about 17,000 manuscripts) are preserved in Yerevan. They can be found in Matenadaran, the Institute of Ancient Manuscripts, named after Mesrop Mashtots, the creator of the Armenian Alphabet. Other major collections of Armenian manuscripts are preserved in library of Armenian Patriarchy in Jerusalem (about 4000 manuscripts) the Mkhitarian Brotherhood in Venice (about 4000 manuscripts), and in Vienna (about 2500 manuscripts).
The art of making Armenian manuscripts has ancient traditions; the manuscripts are unique and are of great esthetic value.
The history of Armenian manuscripts goes back to the time when the Armenian alphabet was created by Mesrop Mashtots, in 405. The first book to be written via Armenian letters was the Bible, which was followed by distinctive literature. Up to the XIV century, Armenian books were handwritten. The first printed Armenian books were made in 1512. Handwritten manuscripts were completely replaced by printed books in the XIX century.
Armenian manuscripts are shaped like books and have been called “matyan” or “girk”. There have been no rolled Armenian manuscripts discovered. Up to the tenth century, manuscripts were written on sheets of parchment, later, starting from the tenth century, paper was used. The parchment was made mainly from the leather of domestic animals (lamb, calf), while paper was imported. The process of making books had a few stages: preparation of the parchment and the ink, letters (calligraphy and spelling), illuminations, stitching and interlacing. It required involvement of a large group of specialists and a few workshops. Hard cover bindings protected the books from damage and served as an external design.
During its long history the Armenian people created thousands of manuscripts regarding history, art, science, religion and mundane topics.
Ancient Armenian manuscripts have suffered the same tragic history as the Armenians. These manuscripts have always been considered to be sacred. They were protected and saved from aggressors, they were bought back as prisoners of war, and in many inscriptions the manuscripts are talked about as if it’s a living creature. There are many stories about common people who have risked their lives to save these nationally valued manuscripts that have become crystallized in time and space. These heroes would save historical manuscripts instead of attempting to save their own property that they had earned throughout decades. This was the main characteristic of the national identity of Armenians, who lived under a foreign yoke for many centuries. The story of the largest Armenian manuscript “Msho Charantir” (“Homilies of Mush”), which is currently exhibited in Matenadaran, is a animated example of this. The manuscript was written in Avag Monastery in Yrznka city. Three years of hard work (from 1200 to 1202) was necessary to complete the manuscript. It was written on a parchment with 604 sheets and 1208 pages. Each of these sheets was made of leather from a month old calf. Each sheet of the manuscript is 55.5 cm wide and 70 cm long. The manuscript weighs 28 kg. It was written by the order of a man, Astvatsatur. In 1203, during the Mongolian-Tatar invasion, Astvatsatur was killed and all his belongings were seized. The Turkish judge in Khlat City, privatized the manuscript claiming that Astvatsatur owed him money. In 1206, the priests of St. Arakelots Church in Mush, found out that the judge was selling the manuscript and purchased the manuscript with 4000 barats (silver coins) after about a year-long negotiation.
In the XIX century, the Mkhitarian brothers from the Island of St. Lazar, took 17 sheets of this manuscript with them as relics after, a pilgrimage to St. Arakelots Church. In 1915, during the Armenian Genocide, in Osmanic Turkey, two women found the manuscript from the ruins of the monastery and in order to save it, they divided it into two parts, each woman took a piece. Both women started off for Eastern Armenia. The first went all the way to St. Echmiadzin, the spiritual and clerical center of the Armenian apostolic church, and handed the manuscript to the monastery and the second woman passed away on her journey. Before her death she buried the second part of the manuscript in the yard of the monastery in Erzrum City. The manuscript was later found by a Russian officer who took the manuscript to Tbilisi with him and delivered it to the Armenian community. During the 1920s the manuscript was transferred to Armenia where both its parts are preserved in Matenadaran.
Nobody knows the exact number of Armenian Manuscripts destroyed during the Armenian Genocide of 1915, since at the time there was no complete list of Armenian manuscripts that were preserved in different places. According to general estimates a few thousand manuscripts have been destroyed. The destruction of Armenian manuscripts was a major loss not only for Armenian people but also for world culture, and science; it was an irreplaceable loss for humanity. Thanks to the dedication of the Armenian refugees and the endeavors of the Armenian intellectual elite that a part of the manuscripts in Western Armenia were saved. Also thanks to the unknown guards of the native culture, that the nation was able to bring the great heritage of their ancestors to the present and to ensure the succession of generations and cultural values. Throughout the centuries Armenians not only protected themselves from nomads who came one ofter other, but they also had to save their national possessions, the manuscripts…
Matenadaran is the largest center for Armenian written culture. More then 17,000 manuscripts, including 14,000 Armenian and 3, 000 foreign manuscripts from V-XVIII centuries are preserved here. Foreign manuscripts include many Arabic and Persian manuscripts. Manuscripts in Latin, Greek, Ethiopian, ancient Hebrew, Syrian and ancient Russian are of particular interest. The Matenadaran also serves as an archive for over 100,000 medieval documents.
The most ancient monuments of the Armenian written culture are exhibited in the Matenadaran. The exhibited collection includes parchments from the V-VI centuries, manuscripts from the IX-X century on, and hardened fragments of manuscripts found in caves. The chronological succession of exhibits represents the time-period starting from the creation of the Armenian alphabet and ending with the XIX century.
Ancient manuscripts vividly prove the existence of highly developed culture, spiritual values, and the excellence of Armenians in various sciences. The world of ancient manuscripts is a world of endless secrets, and puzzles, which are yet to be solved.