How Armenia Preserved the Entire Written History of Ancient Egypt and Babylon

Many of the manuscripts lost over the centuries have only survived in translations. These translations are as valuable as the originals for today’s researchers and are stored in the Matenadaran.

The Mesrop Mashtots Matenadaran is a unique and one-of-a-kind repository of ancient manuscripts in the world. The Institute of Ancient Manuscripts is located in the capital of Armenia, Yerevan, and unlike, for example, the repository in the Vatican, it is not a closed institution. It is always open to all researchers and visitors. Everyone knows about this, and everyone acknowledges such a feature. But they still do not fully realize how unique the Matenadaran is. The vast number of manuscripts stored here have accumulated over centuries.

Its foundation in Echmiadzin dates back to the 5th century. And until the mid-20th century, the repository of ancient manuscripts remained there. The creation of this collection is associated with the great Armenian enlightener and creator of our writing, Mesrop Mashtots (approx. 361-440 AD).

As early as the 5th century, historian Lazar Parpetsi wrote that there is a book repository at the Echmiadzin Monastery. On December 17, 1929, already in Soviet Armenia, the Matenadaran was declared a national treasure. In 1939, the authorities moved the repository to Yerevan, where they built a new building for it in 1959. Today, the Matenadaran stores more than 17 thousand manuscripts, in addition to this there are other sources, for example, more than 100 thousand ancient archival documents.

Many of the manuscripts lost over the centuries have only survived in translations. These translations are as valuable to today’s researchers as the originals and are stored in the Matenadaran along with the originals that have reached us. Here you can even find texts that are only mentioned in other ancient books.

Every scientific staff member of the Matenadaran, all 50 of them, must certainly be proficient not only in Classical Armenian – Grabar, but also preferably in other ancient languages. Armenians in all corners of the world can be proud that the staff of the Matenadaran remain loyal to the institute, continue their kind of service, and the collection is constantly being replenished.

To understand what world treasures are stored with us, it is enough to imagine such a picture. A delegation of foreign scholars arrives in Yerevan, including historians, archaeologists, literary scholars, etc. Naturally, they all have heard about the Matenadaran and ask to be taken there. The hosting side, of course, fulfills their wish.

During the visit, the guide shows different ancient books and talks about them and the repository itself. Then the viewing continues without a guide. In one of the halls, the visitors find themselves in front of a small ancient book, the size of today’s school textbook. And one of our specialists, pointing to it, tells the guests about its content: “And this, colleagues, is all that remains of the written history of Ancient Egypt and Sumer.” The guests, assessing the grandeur of the content of the small exhibit, examine it carefully for a while, then continue their tour, moving to other halls. Scientists are serious people. They don’t recall the joke of the “New Armenians” comedy team from the KVN show:

  • What are our sights?
  • For example, the Pyramid of Cheops!
  • But it’s in Egypt!
  • That’s okay, our country is small, let it stand there for now…

As the saying goes, there is only one step from the sublime to the ridiculous. And it turns out that the reverse is also true. Moreover, only Egypt was mentioned here, there was no talk about the Sumerian civilization. And in this small ancient book, modestly located in the Matenadaran, is stored all that remains of their history as well. But how can this be, one might ask, what about the thousands of clay tablets of Babylon, Assyria and other ancient countries of Mesopotamia, not to mention many thousands of hieroglyphs on the walls of temples and tombs of ancient Egypt? There is a very simple explanation: these are all just fragments, the whole history of a country will not fit on a single wall or tablet. It can only fit in a book. But another question arises: well, what does Armenia and the Armenians have to do with it? To understand this, we need to turn to history again.

After Alexander the Great’s conquest of Egypt, the dynasty of Greek kings began a great work on the study and translation of the written heritage of this country. They were educated people, and they wanted to know the history of the country and the people they had to rule by the will of fate. They entrusted this responsible work to the scholars of the time – the priests.

An ancient Egyptian priest named Manetho of Sebennytus in the 3rd century BC, based on hieroglyphic sources that have not reached us, compiled an extensive history of Egypt, which is still widely recognized today, where a detailed list of rulers of the entire dynastic period is given. Moreover, the history of Manetho is by no means limited to this, its content is much larger. Like in the Turin Papyrus or the Palermo Stone, it stretches back to that distant epoch when gods ruled the Nile Valley. If you add up all the dates he gives, this history accounts for about 30,000 years.

Egyptologists use Manetho’s work only insofar as it pertains to the historical or dynastic period, and his strange excursions into the prehistoric era, when he speaks of the distant golden age of the First Time, are considered just legends. Let’s leave aside the question of how logical it is to accept from Manetho everything that is associated with thirty “historical” dynasties, and reject everything he says about earlier epochs. The historians themselves will sort this out someday. We are interested in something else: what do Armenia and the Matenadaran have to do with it?

Indeed, we know very little about the life of Manetho. He lived and worked in the 3rd century BC during the reigns of Ptolemy I Soter and Ptolemy II Philadelphus. Though he was an Egyptian, he wrote the history of Egypt in pure Greek. A similar job was done at about the same time in Babylon by a historian, or rather, a priest, named Berossus.

The successors to the empire created by Alexander the Great, who had come to rule Mesopotamia, were also educated people, and they too wanted to know the history of the country where they had become rulers. Based on the most ancient sources, Berossus compiled an extensive and detailed history of Babylon and the Sumerian civilization. The antiquity of the traditions there was an order of magnitude higher than that of his Egyptian colleague, and his work is also divided by historians into two parts – mythical and historical.

The full text of the histories of neither Berossus nor Manetho have survived to our time. Over the past thousands of years, not only the originals, but even the numerous copies of them have been destroyed and lost. Their compositions have survived only in separate fragments and quotes from ancient authors. They are found in later works of the Jewish historian of the first century, Josephus Flavius, Christian writers Julius Africanus, Eusebius of Caesarea, George Syncellus, and others. However, due to the passion of barbarians of all times to destroy everything they did not understand, these compilations in turn were also largely destroyed and little of them has reached us. Among the ones that we have, one of the most important is the Armenian translation – the oldest and almost complete version of the “Chronicle” of Eusebius of Caesarea, who lived in the 4th century.

Indeed, there are large excerpts from Berossus’s “Babylonian History” and Manetho’s “Egyptian History” in this work. The translation of Eusebius’ “Chronicle” was made in the 5th century by the greatest historian of that time, the founder of Armenian historiography, Movses Khorenatsi. Today, this manuscript is also kept in Matenadaran.

This means that not only we, but the whole world, owe Movses Khorenatsi not only for our “History of Armenia” that he wrote, but also for the translations of “Chronicle”, thanks to which all the remaining written history of Ancient Egypt and Babylon has reached us. Some of our historians translated Eusebius in the following centuries, like Samuel Ani in the 11th century, and others. By the way, Khorenatsi’s own history also starts with the mention of the period of gods, just like Manetho’s and Berossus’s.

“The first gods were formidable and majestic—sources of the world’s greatest blessings: the beginnings of the earth and its human habitation. From them came the generation of giants, foolish and physically enormous titans. One of them was Hayk, a renowned and brave leader, a sharpshooter from a mighty bow”.

Movses Khorenatsi begins his famous book “History of Armenia” with this quote from an ancient source that did not reach us. Khorenatsi quotes Mar Abas Katina, an Armenian chronicler of the 2nd century BC, who wrote at the behest of King Vagarshak, who, in turn, also used a plethora of different sources, some of which have reached us only by name, and not always.

This is history, what accumulates over centuries and millennia and is passed down from generation to generation, each of which either adds something to it or loses something from it. It is when we constantly accumulate and add, we get our Matenadaran, which belongs to all of humanity, because it preserves the history not only of individual nations but also of humanity itself.

by Armen Petrosyan

Translated by Vigen Avetisyan

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