A month ago, this blogger found herself in the spectacular landscape of Armenia, deep in the Trans-Caucasus, skirting the borders of Georgia, Turkey, Iran, and Azerbaijan.
Armenia is well known for being the first country to establish Christianity as its official religion, having certainly done so before 314 AD. Unsurprisingly, the nation has a rich architectural heritage of ancient Christian churches and monasteries, such as Spitakavor (left). It also has a remarkable scribal tradition, which produced tens of thousands of manuscript books.
In 405 AD, a unique alphabet was invented for the Armenian language, which constitutes its own distinctive branch of the Indo-European language family. The alphabet consisted of thirty-six letters, and it is still in use today, with the addition of three more letters for a total of thirty-nine. The monk Mesrop Mashtots is credited with the invention, which was promptly employed to write Armenian translations of the holy scriptures.
Located at the end of Mesrop Mashtots Avenue in Yerevan, the capital city of Armenia, is the Mesrop Mashtots Institute of Ancient Manuscripts and the Matenadaran, or “manuscripts repository.” This public building houses over 17,300 manuscripts, 450,000 archival documents, and 3,000 printed books. Most of the manuscripts are in Armenian, although there are also examples written in Greek, Latin, Aramaic, Hebrew, Arabic, Persian, Old Slavonic, and other languages.
An impressive selection of that large collection is on display. Many are beautifully illuminated and illustrated, including a number of medicinal manuscripts. The one below, a veterinary text, was particularly arresting, even though–or perhaps, because–I could not read a single word of it.
When seeing books while traveling, I always think about the Rare Book Collection. Regrettably, we have no ancient Armenian manuscripts. But Armenian-language texts do lurk in RBC, among its fine Byron Collection, one of our British Romantic author collections (along with Keats and Wordsworth).
While resident in Venice, Lord Byron sought out the company of the Mekhitarist fathers on the island of San Lazzaro. The Mekhitarists were a Roman Catholic order founded in the early 18th century by an Armenian monk who had left the Armenian Apostolic Church. Byron was fascinated by Armenian culture and boated across the Venetian lagoon to learn the language at the monastery.
Note the reproduction at left of Byron’s English and Armenian signatures in a bilingual book, Beauties of English Poets = Tsaghkakʻagh kʻyrtʻoghatsʻ Angilyatsʻwotsʻ, published by the press on the island after the author’s death. This volume features mainly Byron’s own poetry, but also his translations of Alexander Pope, John Milton, and Thomas Gray. See below the latter’s “Elegy in a Country Church-Yard.”
The San Lazzaro connection led to Byron becoming one of the most widely read English poets among Armenians. The island monastery published other Byron writings in the 19th century, including Armenian Exercises, which contains his English translations of Armenian historical and biblical writings, as well as anonymous Armenian translations of Byron’s letters and poetry, accompanied by their original English texts. The RBC holds the 1870 edition of this work.
Armenian travels, Armenian exercises. On the road, all roads lead home–even the Silk Road–to the Rare Book Collection.