Mesrop Machtots  (vers 361, à Hatsegats, Arménie — 17 févr. 440, à Vagharchabad, Arménie)
Մեսրոպ Մաշտոց (մօտ 361, Հացեկաց - 17 փետ. 440, Վաղարշապատ)

Armenian Apostolic Church Sainte-Marie at Décines (© Philippe Pilibossian)
Mesrop Mashtots and the flowering of Armenian culture
Jean Delisle & Judith Woodworth

According to tradition, the Armenian Church has apostolic origins, as Armenia is said to have been evangelized by two of Christ’s twelve apostles: St. Bartholomew and St. Jude (also known as St. Thaddaeus). Early in the fourth century, under the influence of St. Gregory the Illuminator (c. 240-326), Armenia embraced Christianity. Armenia’s official conversion was marked by the baptism of some four million Christians in only a few months time. This occurred in 314, just after Roman Emperors Constantine and Licinius issued the Edict of Milan, tolerating the practice of Christianity, but not yet granting official recognition to the religion. Soon after, St. Gregory built an edifice over a pagan sanctuary: Echmiadzin Cathedral, the first cathedral in Christendom.

The conversion to Christianity decided the fate of the Armenians. Situated at the outer reaches of the Christian West, the Armenian people would always have a strong sense of moral independence, profound unity and undaunted cultural vitality. At the same time, they were to experience cruel isolation and suffer oppression at the hands of the Persians, the Arabs and the Turks.

In Armenia, the Scriptures were initially taught in Greek and in Syriac. Interpretation was often required during religious services. Greek and Syriac, and occasionally Pahlavi, were used for public administration since they were the only written languages. As a result, written languages were necessarily languages of translation. At the time, Armenia was under Persian domination. The Persians were opposed to the dissemination of Greek literature in the territories under their control, fearing that it would serve the interests of Byzantium. Syriac literature alone was deemed acceptable. Using foreign languages in the realms of culture and public administration had serious disadvantages. Thus, it became increasingly urgent to create an Armenian alphabet.

It was during the reign of Vramshapuh (392-414) that Mesrop Mashtots (360-441) made his invaluable contribution to Armenian culture: the Armenian alphabet, which he invented between 392 and 406. A native of Hatsekats in the canton of Taron, Mesrop held a variety of administrative and military posts at the Arsacid Royal Chancery. He had a gift for languages, speaking Greek, Persian, Syriac and Armenian. He chose to become a monk, with a mission to evangelize the province of Siunik (present-day Karabakh), where paganism was still predominant. There he founded one of his first monasteries. He then took his preaching to the province of Goghtha, to the east of Nakhichevan. Without a translation of the Scriptures, however, he found it difficult to preach in Armenian, so he sought the advice of Sahak Partev (Sahak the Great), the patriarch of the Armenian Church.

The idea of creating a script for the Armenian language was not totally new. A Syriac bishop by the name of Daniel owned a large collection of documents about various alphabets. In one of these, the elements of Aramaic were dominant. Mesrop and Sahak began teaching this alphabet to young children, but after two years, the experiment was deemed a failure: this system of writing did not adequately convey the sounds of their own language. Mesrop continued his research in Syria, Edessa and Amida. It was there, or perhaps in Antioch, that he determined the phonetic content of each letter. Later, in Samosata (today Samsat, Turkey), he improved on the design of the characters, enlisting the help of a specialist in Greek calligraphy named Hroupanos (Grousset 1973).

By the time he returned to Armenia, he had all the elements required to put together an alphabet of thirty-six letters; two further letters were added to this alphabet around the end of the twelfth century, completing what is considered to be the classical Armenian alphabet (Grousset 1973). Mesrop followed the Greek rules for forming syllables, introducing vowels and writing from left to right, unlike Syriac and other Semitic languages. The details of his linguistic borrowings are still hotly debated, but “the basis for the Armenian system is essentially alphabetic and Greek. It is supplemented Greek, like the Gothic system or the Slavic system. Just as the Gothic system is Greek supplemented by Latin and runic characters, the Armenian system is Greek supplemented by non-Greek, or Semitic, characters” (Peeters 1929: 219). Mesrop’s alphabet is phonetically accurate: it consists of twenty-two signs which correspond to Greek letters, and fourteen others which indicate sounds unique to Armenian.

Once they had an alphabet at their disposal, Mesrop, Sahak and their disciples began to translate the Bible into Armenian. To obtain complete copies of the original Greek text, Sahak sent Mesrop and Bishop Dinth to the court of Emperor Theodosius II in Constantinople. Between 431 and 435, Sahak and Mesrop sent two of their disciples, Eznik and Joseph, to Edessa, where they were to translate the Scriptures from the Syriac text into Armenian. Eznik and Joseph then travelled into Byzantium where they learned Greek, so that they could translate that language as well. Other translators, Leontius Vanandotsi and Koriun Skancheli, joined Eznik and became part of his team. Once they had completed their work, they left the Byzantine Empire and headed home. They brought with them copies of the Scriptures, patristic texts and the canons of the Councils of Nicaea and Ephesus.

Sahak Partev and Mesrop Mashtots had translated most of the ecclesiastical texts from Greek copies that were either incomplete or inaccurate. The copies brought from Constantinople gave them the opportunity to revise their earlier drafts. The translation of the Bible was instrumental in promoting widespread literacy and evangelization in Armenia. Once the Bible was completed, the country’s leaders devised a plan that was astonishingly modern in nature: they proposed to make the entire population literate by creating a network of public schools. In so doing, they hoped to build a powerful political and cultural identity that would strengthen the nation’s resistance to assimilation by the Byzantines and Persians.

The invention of the alphabet marked the beginning of the golden age of Armenian literature. In addition to sacred texts, many of the world's masterpieces were translated: works of history, philosophy and mathematics by authors such as Aristotle, Plato, Xenon and Eusebius. This also led to the production of original works, various genres written in a broad range of disciplines: history, geography, mathematics, astronomy, cosmography and medicine. Thanks to the efforts of Mesrop and Sahak, Armenia was in a position not only to build up its own intellectual capital but also to make a unique contribution to civilization at the crossroads of East and West.

According to Koriun’s writings, which are considered accurate by historian Georges Dumézil (Grousset 1973), Mesrop created an alphabet for the Albaniansi after completing the Armenian alphabet. This long-lost alphabet was discovered in a manuscript kept at Echmiadzin. He is also credited with the invention of the Georgian alphabet, although historians are not unanimous on this point. “It is possible that Mesrop’s work encouraged the Georgians and the Albanians to create their own national alphabet. But it is not possible to give full credit to Mesrop for these inventions, as his biographer and disciple Koriun has done, acting out of naive admiration for his master rather than national pride” (Dedeyan 1982).

Koriun wrote a biography of Mesrop shortly after his death in 441. In this biography, the first major original work to be written in Armenian, Koriun writes with the enthusiasm of a hagiographer, particularly when describing Mesrop’s triumphant arrival at the cathedral of Vagharshapat (known today as Echmiadzin), carrying his translation of the Book of Proverbs like Moses descending Mount Sinai with the Ten Commandments.

Mesrop’s popularity, combined with a widespread interest in cultural matters, nourished the collective imagination of the Armenian people. His accomplishments are celebrated annually with a holiday called Tarkmanchats, which means “the translators”. It marks the beginning of the school year and honours translators, writers and teachers — those whose mission it is to replenish the nation’s intellectual resources and mould new generations. Pictures of Mesrop, a true national icon, and of his alphabet grace the covers of many school books.

In the Echmiadzin Cathedral, a Gobelin tapestry made in 1985 by the painter Grigor Khandjyan depicts in epic fashion the presentation of the Armenian alphabet to the court of King Vramshapuh. In Yerevan, the capital of Armenia, an imposing statue of Mesrop stands before the Matenadaran national library, which bears his name and which houses some ten thousand rare manuscripts, an invaluable national treasure.


From/based on Translators and the invention of alphabets. In Translators through History edited by Jean Delisle & Judith Woodworth, 1995, pp.10-13.  With kind permission by John Benjamins Publishing Company, Amsterdam/Philadelphia.

Machtotz, Tapisserie Matenadaran - Mesrop Machtots et son disciple Korioun

Cathédrale d'Etchmiadzine - Présentation de l'alphabet à la cour du roi Vramchabouh

Matenadaran, Bibliothèque nationale d'Arménie, Erevan - au premier plan le monument de Mesrop Machtots, agenoullé  devant lui son disciple, Korioun.

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