Each manuscript has its own destiny. Just like people. The fate of the most ancient Armenian manuscripts repeats the path of the Armenians themselves: exile, loss, and finding their homeland. This is how the Armenian manuscript heritage is characterized by Doctor of Historical Sciences Gevorg Ter-Vardanyan, head of the Matenadaran manuscript storage.
By the will of fate and after centuries of wandering, three valuable manuscripts returned to Armenia last year: “Aysmavurk”, “Comments on Catholic epistles” by Sarkis Shnorhali, and “Treasury”.
The most ancient, valuable, and voluminous book among the three is “Comments on Catholic epistles” written by medieval Armenian theologian Sarkis Shnorhali.
The other two manuscripts date back to the 15th century. “Treasury” is a collection of church hymns, while “Aysmavurk” is a medieval Armenian collection of Christian holidays, as well as biographies and martyrdoms of saints written in chronological order. This manuscript was intended for daily reading during church services.
“We knew about these manuscripts from descriptions written in 1907. The Archimandrite from Etchmiadzin and rector of St. Thomas’s Church in Agulis made a detailed description of the manuscript which, thank God, has survived. Now that the original has reached us, the picture becomes more complete,” said the head of the repository of manuscripts.
All three manuscripts have been kept at one time in the monastery of St. Thomas, but exactly one hundred years ago, they were moved from Agulis to Tabriz. Later, they were taken to Beirut and from there to Armenia.
“The monastery collection was plundered after the massacres and a fire in the Armenian quarter at the end of 1918. The monastery was the religious center of the Nakhijevan province, and there were more than a hundred manuscripts in its book depository. Only a few have survived. Most of them have not reached us,” said Ter-Vardanyan.
Who managed to save these manuscripts is not known for certain. Ter-Vardanyan suggests that, like many other ancient manuscripts, these three reached Tabriz during the time of the First Republic of Armenia thanks to Dashnaks who crossed the Araks River and found refuge there.
It is known that in Tabriz, these manuscripts were acquired by Melkon Hakobyan and then passed to his son Emin Hakobyan, a colonel of the Persian army. Many other samples from his personal archive were transported to Armenia in recent years and are now stored in the Matenadaran.
Books with a rich history that have made similarly difficult journeys are often found completely tormented, without covers and with torn pages. Most often, the beginning and the end, that is, the cover and the output data, are lost.
Gevorg Ter-Vardanyan said that the same fate befell two of the three mentioned books.
“Aysmavurk” and Shnorhali’s “Comments on Catholic epistles” were missing their covers. These are rather large books – a bit larger than an A3 page. A few of the first and the last pages aren’t there as well. The cover of “Treasury” survived, however. This book is a little smaller than the other two, but this does not make it less valuable, according to Ter-Vardanyan.
As Ter-Vardanyan said, the dismemberment of Armenian manuscripts is due, as a rule, to the fact that it facilitated their transportation during the massacres of Armenians. The largest Armenian manuscript called “Arvestagir” (“Homiliarium of Mush”), which is now kept in Matenadaran, is also credited with this myth, but it had been actually divided in 1828, well before the large-scale persecutions of Armenians began.
“It was divided by the head of the Msho Arakelots monastery Archimandrite Hovhannes Muradyan so that it would be more convenient to mount it on a lectern during church service,” Ter-Vardanyan noted.
“Aysmavurk”, “Treasury”, and “Comments on Catholic epistles” along with other valuable 14th-20th-century manuscripts were donated to the Matenadaran about a year ago by the Armenian National Educational and Cultural Union. Over the past 15 years, this has been the most valuable gift to the Institute of Ancient Manuscripts.
In 2018, Matenadaran received as a gift 51 new manuscripts, among which are the torn pages from other ancient manuscripts. Gevorg Ter-Vardanyan connects such an unprecedented number of gifts with the political events of 2018 which caused an extraordinary rise in Armenians’ national identity and unity.