Campus & Community

Armenia’s remarkable alphabet

2 min read

Saint's sturdy Armenian alphabet focus of meetings

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 Harvard researcher James Russell, there is much evidence that after Trdat’s death, the country was in the process of reverting to paganism.

Russell says the fifth-century St. Mesrops Mashtots gave Armenia much more than an efficient system for rendering its language into written form by inventing the Armenian alphabet. Mashtots also 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.

“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.”