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November 03, 2005

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James Russell
James Russell organized a conference to discuss the fifth century Armenian alphabet invented by St. Mesrops Mashtots. Said Russell, 'Mashtots' principal purpose in inventing the alphabet was to change Armenia's cultural orientation from the Iranian East to the Mediterranean West.' (Staff photo Stephanie Mitchell/Harvard News Office)

Armenia's remarkable alphabet

Saint's sturdy Armenian alphabet focus of meetings

By Ken Gewertz
Harvard News Office

In Yerevan, capital of Armenia, the manuscript library known as the Matenadaran possesses an almost sacred status. Situated on a hill, it is approached by a long cascade of white marble steps flanked by statues of the great figures of Armenian literature. Chief among these is St. Mesrops Mashtots, who gave Armenia its alphabet.

According to James Russell, the Mashtots Professor of Armenian Studies at Harvard, the fifth-century saint gave Armenia much more than an efficient system for rendering its language into written form. By means of his invention, Mashtots gave Armenians a cultural and religious identity as well as the means to survive as a people despite the efforts of larger and more powerful neighbors to subsume or destroy them.

Armenians pride themselves on being the first nation to adopt Christianity, an event that is supposed to have occurred in the early fourth century when St. Gregory the Illuminator succeeded in converting Trdat, the king of Armenia. But according to Russell, there is much evidence that after Trdat's death, the country was in the process of reverting to paganism.

"Mashtots' principal purpose in inventing the alphabet was to change Armenia's cultural orientation from the Iranian East to the Mediterranean West," Russell said. "He gave Armenia the means and the incentive to remain Christian."

Having an alphabet allowed Armenians not only to translate the Bible into their own language but works of Christian theology, saints' lives, history, and works of classical literature as well. It also allowed them to develop scholarly institutions and a literature of their own.

"Within a century, Armenians had a library of classical and Christian learning and were able to build their own literary tradition. As a result, they became independent and almost self-sufficient, and they became impervious to attempts by Rome to Hellenize them or attempts by the Sassanian empire to re-impose Persian culture on them."

On Oct. 28 and 29, Harvard hosted an international conference to consider the achievement of Mashtots, its historical background, and its wider influence. Organized by Russell, the conference was sponsored by the Armenian Prelacy of New York, the Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies, and the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations at Harvard. It was held under the patronage of His Holiness Aram I, Catholicos of the Great House of Cilicia.

Fortunately for scholars, Mashtots is known in the historical record. One of his disciples, named Koriun, wrote a biography of his mentor, which records many details of his life as well as the process by which he formulated his alphabet. The biography tells us that Mashtots came from an aristocratic family, that he served in the royal court, and that he was ordained a priest and founded several monasteries. With the support of King Vramshapuh, and with the aid of a Greek scribe named Ruphanos, he embarked on a project to develop an Armenian writing system.

Mashtots studied various scripts as models, including Greek and Syriac. He might also have given careful consideration to a version of Aramaic script developed by the Parthian prophet Mani, promulgator of the gnostic doctrine of Manichaeism. According to Koriun, Mashtots' synthesis of all these elements came to him in a dream, resulting in a 36-character alphabet. Two more characters were added during the Middle Ages, bringing the number of letters in the present-day Armenian alphabet to 38.

According to Russell, this synthesis reflects a deliberate effort on Mashtots' part to borrow elements from Eastern scripts but reorient them to give them a more Western character. All known alphabets are derived ultimately from the letterforms of the Phoenicians, but Eastern writing tends more toward the horizontal while Western alphabets emphasize the vertical. Mashtots' preference for vertical elements reflects his effort to reorient Armenia toward the Christian West.

More information about Mashtots' alphabet has been gleaned through careful study of manuscripts. In recent years, computer analysis has helped scholars to focus with greater precision on the formation and evolution of letter shapes. One of the pioneers in this field, Michael Stone, professor of Armenian at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, was the keynote speaker at the conference. Stone is the chief author of the recently published "Album of Armenian Paleography," which uses computer techniques to analyze the development of letters over time and is a great help in accurately dating manuscripts.

Besides studying the letter shapes, scholars have also tried to understand Mashtots' reasons for ordering the letters as he did. Russell, who has studied this problem and delivered a paper on the subject, believes that the order of the letters reflects his familiarity with number symbolism of the sort found in a Hebrew text called the "Sepher Yetsira," or "Book of Creation," thought to be an early work in the kabbalistic tradition.

One measure of the alphabet's success is the fact that there have been few changes in the letters or in the spelling of words since Mashtots created it in the fifth century.

"This is a very striking circumstance," Russell said, "especially when you compare it with English where spelling has changed a great deal in just the last 500 years. It shows that the Armenian alphabet was already so perfect that there was little reason for it to change."

Perhaps an even more convincing argument for the importance of Mashtots' achievement is the survival of the Armenian people through a long and often trying history.

"Mashtots' real achievement was to create a culture that became a repository for both Eastern and Western traditions, that was cosmopolitan, but had a strong anchor of its own. He made Armenia a culture of the book, a 'bibliocracy,' and that has been their key to survival, because you can carry a book into exile, but you can't carry mountains and trees."


Copyright 2007 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College