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Matenadaran ‘‘manuscript store’’

Armenia's state repository of ancient manuscripts, inluding illuminated manuscripts. The Institute of Ancient Manuscripts (the Matenadaran), built in 1957, was designed by Mark Grigoryan. Hardly a visitor leaves Yerevan without visiting the institute; it is one of the most interesting things to see in the republic.

A flight of steps leads up to a statue of Mesrop Mashtots who compiled the Armenian alphabet (in 396). The scholar is seated with one arm raised aloft, pointing the way to literacy and knowledge to his first pupil, bending his knee reverentially before his teacher. The letters of the Armenian alphabet have been carved into the wall behind.

Before the entrance to the museum, stand sculptures of ancient philosophers.

As you enter this temple of reason through massive doors of embossed copper, you see before you the entrance hail decorated with a mosaic of the Avarair Battle, one of the memorable events in the life of the Armenian people, when they rose, on May 26,451, against their conquerors. On the wall opposite the staircase there is a fresco, a triptych depicting three different periods in the history and culture of the Armenian people, by Ovanes Khachatryan

The Matenadaran, which in ancient Armenian means ‘‘manuscript store’’ or ‘‘library’’, is a major centre for the study and preservation of Armenian works of literature. In ancient times and the Middle Ages manuscripts were reverentially guarded in Armenia, and they played an important role in the people’s fight against spiritual subjugation and assimilation. The major monasteries and universities had special writing rooms, where skilled scribes copied books by Armenian scholars and writers, and Armenian translations of works by foreign authors.

The scribes’ lot was not an easy one: for tens of years they would sit in tiny, dark rooms, hunched over manuscripts. It is difficult to say how many of them lost their sight, and how many of them found an early grave because of their job; how much indeed they suffered, these humble people, saving books from fire and pillage, how many of them were killed there in their cells as they sat working. Many manuscripts, like wounded soldiers, bear the marks of sword, blood and fire. The enemy buried them, drowned them and even went so far as to chain them up.

Those selfless scribes, thanks to whom many of the treasures now in the Matenadaran have come down to us, thought not of themselves; they were concerned only for their manuscripts. Here is a touching inscription, appended to the end of a book by a book-lover of olden days:

Reader mine, I beg of thee
Drink in my words:
Take my book unto thyself, keep it and read it.
If it be captured, retrieve it,
place it not in damp places, for it will moulder,
nor let the wax of your candle drip upon it,
neither moisten your finger to turn the pages,
nor in shameful fashion tear out its pages.

Tens of thousands of Armenian manuscripts perished in the innumerable invasions, wars and plundering raids. Approximately 25,000 have survived, including over 10,000 folios and also 2,500 fragments collected in the Matenadaran. The rest of them are the property of various museums and libraries throughout the world, chiefly in Venice, Jerusalem, Vienna, Beirut, Paris, the Getty Museum in Los Angeles and London.

The Matenadaran’s “holy of holies” are the armoured cellars, equipped to protect the manuscripts from dust and damage.

The most ancient parchment book in the stocks is the Gospel of Lazarus, written in 887. There are other earlier manuscripts which have come down to us in fragments from the fifth to eighth centuries. The most ancient paper manuscript dates from 981.

Visitors to the Matenadaran, and there are more than 50,000 annually (1982 figure), can see the best examples of manuscript books and the wonderful illustrations to them in the exhibition hall on the first floor. There are works on history, philosophy, mathematics, medicine, astronomy and geography. On a separate stand is the largest Armenian manuscript in the world, weighing 34 kilograms. 700 calf skins were used in its compilation. Next to this giant is a tiny book measuring 3 x 4 centimetres and weighing a mere 19 grams. Other interesting exhibits include the Gospels of 1053, 1193 and 1411 with the unfading colours of their masterful miniatures, translations from Aristotle, a unique ancient Assyrian manuscript and an ancient Indian manuscript on palm leaves in the shape of a fan.

The Matenadaran’s manuscript collection is of prime importance for the study of the history and culture of Armenia, and also alt Transcaucasia, Asia Minor and many Middle Eastern countries. Works by some philosophers of antiquity survived only in their Armenian translation. These include Eusebius of Gaesaria’s “Chronicle”, the ancient Greek philosopher Xenon’s treatise "On Nature" and many others.

The archives here are also rich, preserving over 100,000 documents of the fourteenth to nineteenth centuries: various deeds, decrees, treaties and letters, which contain vast material on the political and socio-economic history of Armenia and neighbouring countries.

Other relics in the exhibition include the first Armenian printed book “Parzatumar” (Explanatory Calendar), published in 1512 in Venice and the first Armenian magazine “Azdardr” (the messenger) first published in 1794 in the Indian city of Madras. Next to them are the Decree on the founding of Novo-Nakhichevan (a settlement near Rostov-on-Don now included within the city boundaries), signed by the Russian Empress Catherine II, and Napoleon Bonaparte’s signature. In 1978 the writer Marietta Shaginyan presented the Matenadaran with a previously unknown document bearing the signature of Goethe.

The Matenadaran is constantly acquiring manuscripts found in other countries. Several hundred books dating from the thirteenth to eighteenth centuries have recently been sent by Armenians living in Libya, Syria, France, Bulgaria, Romania, India and the USA.

These precious items do not lie unused in the Matenadaran: by carefully studying the manuscripts, many of which are restored in a special laboratory, scholars in various fields can shed more light on many aspects of the history and culture of Armenia, the Caucasus as a whole as well as the Middle East. Experts in Armenia and Eastern studies come from all over the world, and all facilities are provided for their research.

Yet one more manuscript is carefully preserved here. Unlike all the others, however, its pages have been filled in our time. This is the visitor’s book, which contains comments by prominent scientists, major political and public figures, writers, artists and actors. This is the remark left in the book by Leonid Brezhnev, General Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, Chairman of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet of the USSR, when he visited the Matenadaran on November 28, 1970:

"It is with profound admiration that I note the care with which Socialist Armenia preserves the magnificent relics of its people’s ancient culture for present and future generations


Mesrop Mashtots statue at Matenadaran.



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