The Armenian Writing System as a Window to Armenian Identity
Last Updated on August 19, 2020
Armenian letters and Armenian alphabet are crucial to the identity of its people and the country’s longevity as one of the world’s oldest civilizations.
Armenia may be most well-known by the rest of the world for its great diaspora, the result of genocide at the hands of Ottoman Turks that claimed the lives of about 1.2 million Armenians from 1915 to 1922. There are almost four times as many Armenians living outside their homeland than in it—the country has a population of three million and the diaspora numbers 11 million.
Yet despite waves of onslaughts over the millennia by aggressors, this tiny landlocked nation lays claim to being one of the ten oldest countries in the world, along with better-known ancient civilizations like China, Egypt and Greece. In fact, in 2018 Armenia celebrated its 2800th anniversary. How did Armenia manage to maintain its identity for more than two millennia, while scores of countless other countries have disappeared from history?
Well, just like the oldest story ever told, in the beginning, was the word. Or, more specifically, the alphabet. Join me for a journey through Armenia’s cultural landscape and a glimpse at how it’s writing system has been possibly the single biggest force behind the endurance of Armenian identity.
The best place to start is always the beginning. The fortress of Erebuni is the predecessor site to Armenia’s capital of Yerevan. Today, the ruins of Erebuni sit high above the modern-day metropolis; the site is an evocative and peaceful place to contemplate the history of the country…and it’s future at this pivotal time, so full of hope.
Erebuni was founded in 782 B.C. by the Urartians, the earliest known ancestors of the Armenian people. In the 1950s, an archaeological survey of Erebuni uncovered tablets with cuneiform inscriptions that suggest linguistic evidence of a link between the Urartu and Armenian languages dating to the 3rd – 2nd millennium B.C.
Urartu can be translated as “Ararat” and indeed the iconic peaks of this dormant volcano are visible throughout Yerevan and are a powerful ever-present reminder for Armenians of their identity—and oppression. Ararat is known around the world as the resting place of Noah’s Ark— which, according to Armenian tradition, is the vehicle that brought the first Armenians to this mountainous region between Europe and Asia. Legend says Armenian lineage goes back to Noah; they are “people of the Ark.” Historian Razmik Panossian says Mt. Ararat “connects Armenians to the biblical narrative of human development.” To the anguish of Armenians, this majestic mountain they consider sacred came under Turkish control in the 1920 Turkish-Armenian War.
The name Yerevan evolved from Erebuni and according to one interpretation of an ancient inscription found nearby, the word means “victory.” It seems a fitting moniker for the home of a civilization that refuses to be defeated despite great adversity. In the past, the threats came from outsiders; in the spring of 2018, Armenia overthrew its own government, widely believed to be corrupt. In what became known as the “Velvet Revolution”, the Armenian people took charge of their destiny in a remarkable series of peaceful and highly effective protests led by activist Nikol Pashinyan. While young people were the driving force behind the protests, the movement soon spanned generations and resulted in the resignation of the prime minister, with Pashinyan being sworn in to lead the process of change.
Cafesjian Center for the Arts, the Khanjyan Mural & Armenian Bird Letters
After my visit to Erebuni, the next stop on my quest to understand the significance of the Armenian alphabet was the Cafesjian Center for the Arts. In this massive complex of stairs, waterfalls and galleries known as the “Cascade,” I met Education Director Astghik Marabyan, who introduced me to a vivid manifestation of the Armenian alphabet’s history.
Astghik showed me to the Khanjyan Gallery off the lobby on the first floor; the room is dominated by a monumental mural created by its namesake, the well-known Armenian painter Grigor Khanjyan. The piece’s three scenes illustrate important events in Armenia’s history: the creation of the Armenian Alphabet; Vardanank; and a “Resurrected Armenia”.
“The mural is one of the important works of Armenian culture, which presents the seminal cultural-political episodes essential for preservation and longevity of Armenian identity and the nation,” Astghik said. “The creation of the Armenian alphabet in 405 AD, one hundred years after Armenians adopted Christianity as a state religion, was a political and cultural necessity given that Armenia at that time was divided between Byzantine and Persia. The invention of the Alphabet led to unification and the rise of an Armenian identity, and also brought a new era of cultural awakening, which is considered as the Golden Age of Armenian culture.”
“The second part of the mural Vardanank depicts a 5th-century historical event, the famous battle against Persians in 451 AD, and symbolizes Armenians’ struggle for the preservation of their Christian identity, which had been solidified 150 years prior by the invention of the Alphabet,” she continued. “The third part of the mural, Resurrected Armenia, symbolically depicts 20th century Armenia through a “constellation” of Armenian intellectual elite, and reflects the perpetual fight and cultural victory through centuries.”
Astghik also explained that the Cafesjian Center for the Arts plays a part in transmitting to the next generation a love for the alphabet. In 2011, the Center launched an educational program called My Armenian Alphabet, designed for schoolchildren of 1-4th grades and based on the Khanjyan mural. The program is one of the permanent educational initiatives of the Cafesjian Center and has engaged 600 schoolchildren to date.
“The main goal of the program is to discuss the importance of the invention of the Armenian alphabet; to introduce the artist Grigor Khajnyan and the first part of the mural’s triptych depicting the Creation of Armenian Alphabet,” Astghik explained. “We want to foster children’s creative thinking by revealing the magical world of letters through a workshop of drawing bird letters,, usually depicting the letters of their names.”
Armenian Bird letters?
“Armenian Bird letters are distinctive expressions of Armenian calligraphy and the rich tradition of Armenian illuminated manuscripts,” Astghik explained. “The first bird letter in Armenian manuscripts appeared in the middle ages in the 10th century and mainly were used as initial letters of the texts. Their iconography is mostly connected with Christian imagery, but researchers also reveal an implicit trace of pagan culture.”
Mesrop Mashtots’ Legacy &, Magic Gospels of Matenadaran
“People are surprised to learn Yerevan is older than Rome because we don’t have the ancient architecture,” said Tatev Muradyan, manager of the Silk Road Hotel, my base during my visit to Yerevan. “Armenians save books, not buildings.”
Later that day, I learned this was not just rhetoric when visiting the Mesrop Mashtots Institute of Ancient Manuscripts, known locally as Matenadaran and revered by most Armenians.
Housed in an imposing grey stone building at the top of a steep hill, the museum is considered one of the world’s richest depositories of medieval manuscripts, spanning theology, philosophy, history, medicine, literature, art history, and cosmography. Its collection contains a total of some 23,000 manuscripts and scrolls, as well as over 500,000 other documents such as imperial decrees.
A massive statue of the museum’s namesake welcomes visitors with open arms, a pupil at his feet. Over the next ten days, I would come to learn just how significant Mesrop Mashtots has been to the endurance of Armenian culture for almost two millennia, despite onslaughts of oppression from its neighbors for centuries.
Over coffee, Dr. Erna Shirinian, chair of the Department of Ancient Armenian Literature at Matenadaran, gave me an introduction to Mashtots and his legacy.
She explained that in 301 AD, Armenia became the first country in the world to officially adopt Christianity. Long the battle-ground of Romans and Persians, Armenia lost its independence in 387 and was divided between the Byzantine Empire and Persia. The early church understood this upheaval meant its existence was at stake and Mashtots was tasked by the king with creating an Armenian alphabet that could be used to keep the faith alive and the people united.
According to folklore, in 404 the Saint was meditating in a cave when he had a vision of the hand of God writing an alphabet in letters of fire on the cave wall, each letter corresponding to the unique sounds of the Armenian language. He made the first letter A, which was the first letter in the word Astvats, or God, and the last letter K’, which began the word K’ristos, Christ.
Whatever his inspiration, the far-reaching impact of Mashtot’s vision is indisputable.
According to Antoine Meillet, a French 19th century pioneer in the field of Armenian studies, “To Mesrop we owe the preservation of the language and literature of Armenia; but for his work, the people would have been absorbed by the Persians and Syrians, and would have disappeared like so many nations of the East.”
The astuteness of this observation was borne out as Erna showed me around the museum; our tour began with a look at the Homily from the Mush, a massive manuscript of 603 calf-skin parchments weighing about 60 pounds. Written from 1200-1202 A.D. in the Armenian Avak Monastery now in modern-day Turkey, it is legendary because of its more recent history.
Erna explained the book was said to be found by two Armenian women in the deserted monastery during the Armenian genocide by the Turks from 1915-1917. Too heavy to be carried by one person, they split it into two, risking their lives to preserve the manuscript under their skirts as they made their escape. Eventually, the two halves were finally reunited and are now a star attraction of Matenadaran.
Erna then brought me to the so-called magic gospels, books believed to have healing powers that are called ‘Nareks,’ worshipped as divine objects and often they were treated as if a person. She pointed out a manuscript donated by a village to the Matenadaran with the condition that its inhabitants could visit it to share the local news; to this day, villagers come monthly to speak with the gospel as if visiting an elderly relative, telling it who died, who was born, who married and so on.
This deeply personal connection with manuscripts and the alphabet in which they are written dates back to the 5th century when Armenian philosopher David the Invincible presented a series of riddles featuring each of the alphabet’s letters as distinct and living beings, a view that was widely embraced. Erna said that aggressors seeking to conquer Armenia exploited this view.
“Enemies realized they could kidnap not only people and hold them for ransom but also manuscripts,” Erna said.
Book of Narek: A Dictionary for Both Past & Future
Vasken Brudian credits his deep affinity for a book of prayers by medieval Armenian writer Gregory of Narek as the inspiration behind his return to Armenia and founding of Ardean Gallery.
A member of the diaspora who departed the country at 14 years old for America, five years ago, he left a successful L.A. architecture practice to come home to Armenia and open a design center and visual arts boutique located on Yerevan’s leafy Apovian Street, lined with outdoor cafes, elegant retail shops, book stores and restaurants, many situated in 19th century stone tufa buildings.
Vasken, whose grandparents were survivors of the Genocide, explained the Book of Narek is his muse.
“The prayers of Narek are used for protection and healing,” he said. “One of the traditions is when a child is born, we put a Book of Narek under the pillow. Often when we are in a stressful situation, we hold the Book of Narek as a source of comfort. St. Gregory is known for his energy—his work was intended to be read aloud and the effect was to enrich your positive energy.”
Vasken explained that Ardean’s first exhibition commemorated the 100th anniversary of the Genocide. He and his team photographed different motifs from the Classical Armenian text of the Narek’s Book of Lamentations, creating a ‘dictionary’ of design elements to talk about the past, the present and the future.
“The gallery features designs inspired by Armenian architecture, cross-stones, illuminated manuscripts, lace-making and other artefacts from our rich cultural heritage,” Vasken said. “The word Ardean means ‘modern’ in classical Armenian—everything we are designing is based on tradition, but we take that history and try to present it in a contemporary language.”
“My intention has always been the economic growth of Armenia, and to take the Armenian culture and create a world-class center of design and creative industries,” Vasken said. “I wanted to create a vocabulary that is both very Armenian and very modern, layering our rich history with the language of the 21st century, which I felt wasn’t being done.”
Ayp ou Pen Park is the creation of another architect, designed and built near the final resting place of Mashtots on the eastern slope of Aragats mountain, in the village of Artashavan, about 45 minutes outside Yerevan. In 2005, Soviet-Armenian Jim Torosyan created this monument to the Armenian alphabet to commemorate the 1600th anniversary of its invention. Against a backdrop of dramatic vistas, 39 huge statues of each letter are scattered across a verdant hillside. The reverence and affection of Armenians for their language was poignantly played out during my visit, as scores of children romped on the letters and a father proudly held his infant son high atop one of the stone symbols.
One morning over breakfast at the Silk Road Hotel, I watched weaver Rose Nazaryan at her loom; while seated erect on a low bench, her hands moved at such a lightning-fast speed my eyes couldn’t keep up with her motions.
Not daring to break her concentration with a question, I waited until she paused to ask her about her art.
She told me she has been weaving for 20 years and began studying carpet-making at a cultural school when she was 13 years old. She creates largely traditional designs; the piece she was working on was a pattern of the letters of the Armenian alphabet.
“My cousin lives in Moscow and this is a gift for her children, so they can learn the alphabet,” she explained. “I don’t like it when they speak in Russian; I want them to know their roots.”
Indeed, most Armenian homes around the world proudly display a work of art featuring the Armenian alphabet.
“My parents displayed the Armenian alphabet in a prominent place in our home and following in their footsteps, I recently acquired an abstract image of the alphabet designed by a young artist,” said Judy Saryan, a fellow guest at the hotel and member of the diaspora from Boston.
“Armenians revere invention and creativity,’ she said. “The creation of the alphabet by Mesrob Mashtots ushered in a golden age of literature and biblical translation which ensured that the Armenian language and culture would survive. The written word continues to hold a mythical place in the Armenian imagination as we see in a variety of contemporary arts.”
I paid my respects to the creator of the Armenian alphabet by visiting Saint Mesrop Mashtots Cathedral, the 19th-century church in the Oshaka village where he is buried. A small park at the entrance is decorated with 36 khachkars, or cross-stones, that depict the letters. As I admired them, three small boys raced onto the scene and made a beeline for the monument that depicted the first letter of their name, gleefully hugging it. One of the youngsters sported a baseball cap emblazoned with the word “dukhov” which means “with spirit” and has become a rallying cry for the “Velvet Revolution”.
With the May 8 election of opposition leader Nikol Pashinian, who called for peaceful civil disobedience by the people to topple the country’s oligarchy, Armenia today is enjoying a rebirth.
One evening I attended the opening of an exhibit “Armenian Revolution Posters” by Ruben Malayan, in which he melds the ancient Armenian art form of calligraphy with current events. Ruben wears many hats–award-winning art director, lecturer, graphic designer, visual effects supervisor…and calligrapher extraordinaire. He told me that he believes his exhibit was the first in response to the Velvet Revolution that had occurred here just weeks earlier.
Ever since the creation of the Armenian alphabet, Armenians have been actively engaged in the practice of writing. As the writing culture-expanded among the Armenians so did the art of calligraphy. Ruben is ensuring this art form is not just revered but relevant.
“For Armenians writing was never an alien practice,” he said. “In the shadow of Noah’s Peak, remnants of 5000-year old culture stand witness to one of the oldest known human settlements on this planet. From millennia-old archaic signs to the medieval Christian manuscripts written with use of a sophisticated alphabet – Armenian letters are a mystery.”
Despite my love of travel, pronunciation of languages other than my native tongue is a mystery to me. Although linguistically challenged, I always make it a practice to learn to say at least two important words in the language of the places I visit: thank you.
In Armenian, that’s shnorhakalut’yun, which was admittedly a mouthful for me but one I valiantly wrangled within an attempt to be polite. People often weren’t clear what I was saying, but when they realized my intention, they were delighted–and always gave me pointers on how to improve my pronunciation.
At the end of my trip, I spent time at the Tumo Center for Creative Technologies, an innovative after-school digital learning center that provides 10,000 students with free curriculum in animation, game development, web development, and digital media.
While there, Nareg Mikayelyan took me off the hook for my mangled delivery of shnorhakalut’yun. The 17-year old high school student, who was studying film-making at TUMO, pointed out that the English language, like many others, doesn’t have certain sounds that are part and parcel of the Armenian lexicon.
“The Armenian alphabet has sounds from every alphabet, so people can easily learn other languages,” he told me.
I found this poignant, given that centuries of oppression had created an Armenian diaspora that was almost four times the size of the country’s population. I wondered if Mesrop Mashtots’ vision had foreseen the need for his people to leave their Motherland and become part of other societies around the world.
Then I had a vision of my own. I felt a conviction that the perception of Armenia was changing from the inside out.
Most Armenians would acknowledge that global awareness of the country has largely been limited to the genocide, its status as a former Soviet satellite and a devastating earthquake in 1988. But there was a palpable aura of empowerment and optimism for Armenia’s future among the people I met, and I had a strong sense that positive energy would soon attract vastly more visitors.
What I experienced of Armenia’s rich and vibrant culture had clearly evolved from its linguistic legacy. In preserving their own alphabet and language, Armenians have retained both the letter and the spirit of their heritage, and the world is better for it.