In the year 301 AD, Armenia adopted Christianity as the state religion, but services in temples were conducted in Greek and Latin languages following Roman rituals. There was neither a local written language nor native priests. The vernacular language of commoners was poorly suited for worship.
Pagan rituals were still alive, and in various regions of Armenia, secret pagan sects known as the “Children of the Sun” existed. According to Armenian historians of the 5th century, these sects could have helped Persian conquerors subdue Armenia and destroy its fledgling Christian faith.
And then, as often happens in history, Mesrop Mashtots appeared, originating from the village of Hatsik in the province of Taron, near Lake Van. That village no longer exists, as it was ultimately destroyed during the Armenian Genocide in the Ottoman Empire. Mashtots himself is buried in the village of Oshakan in Armenia. But let’s go step by step.
He was born around 361/362 AD and received his primary education in a Greek school. As Taron was located in the heart of Greater Armenia, Mashtots was knowledgeable in Armenian, Greek, Syriac, and Persian languages.
After finishing school, Mashtots moved to the capital Vagharshapat (Etchmiadzin), and after 385 AD, served for some time at the court of Armenian King Khosrov IV. He was in military service, also acting as a scribe and secretary in the royal chancellery.
There, he began to study the Holy Scriptures for the first time. In 392–393 AD, he embraced Christianity, and in 395–396 AD, left the royal court, took monastic vows, and became a preacher of the Gospel among Armenian pagans.
Soon, with a group of followers, he moved to a place called Rotastak in the Gokhtn region near Nakhichevan, where he began his first sermons. Mashtots orally translated the Bible for the people, which was only accessible in foreign languages—Greek and Assyrian.
“However, during his preaching, the blessed Mesrop encountered numerous difficulties, for he was both a reader and a translator. If someone else read the scriptures and he was not present, the people understood nothing due to the absence of a translator.”
During this period of his activity, he primarily led a hermit-like life. After 387 AD, much of Armenia came under Persian control, and Greek schools were closed; the country was experiencing a deep political and cultural crisis.
The weakening and fall of the Armenian kingdom led to a revival of pagan beliefs. Mesrop Mashtots saw the salvation of the disintegrating Armenian state only in strengthening the Christian faith among the Armenian people.
The national alphabet was meant to serve as a means of developing Armenian early feudal culture and, thereby, a means of preserving the political, religious, and cultural identity of the Armenians.
The spread of Christianity prompted Mesrop Mashtots to start working on creating an Armenian alphabet for the translation of the Bible and liturgical books. Mashtots took his first steps when he began to preach in the late 390s in Goghtn and Syunik, where he was supported by local princes.
To assist in the creation of the Armenian alphabet, Mashtots turned to the Catholicos. At that time, the Catholicos was Saak Partev, the grandson of Gregory the Illuminator. He became the second author of Armenian writing, as without Partev’s support, a mere monk would have accomplished nothing. Thus, these two geniuses began searching for a suitable alphabet that would convey all Armenian sounds.
To create the Armenian alphabet, a special church council was convened. All the bishops of the Armenian Church arrived at the Vagharshapat Synod. The Synod was convened on Mashtots’ initiative, but the role of the Armenian Catholicos in it was very significant.
This event was not only a sign of official support for Mesrop Mashtots from the Church but also a manifestation of the state’s stance on a national issue. Although the question of creating a national alphabet and translating the Bible had long been ripe, it was the Vagharshapat Synod that marked the beginning of the process of its creation.
It was virtually an official church decision on the need to create an alphabet and translate liturgical books, as well as to abolish Syriac, Parthian, and Greek scripts in the country, thereby also freeing it from some influence of the Greek and Syriac churches.
Likely, not only clergy but also secular figures participated in the synod. King Vramshapuh, having returned from Mesopotamia at that time, spoke about the existence of an ancient Armenian alphabet in Mesopotamia. The issue initially was not merely of religious or church reform; its broader national political significance was recognized.
Mashtots headed to one of the major educational and scientific centers of that time—Edessa—and began his search in the renowned Edessan library. Here, he studied alphabets of different languages, familiarized himself with their structure, letter forms, and writing principles, and only after that did he set about creating an alphabet.
Mashtots divided his students into two groups: one stayed in Edessa to study Syriac script, while the other was sent to the city of Samosata to study Greek script.
In Mesopotamia, Mesrop met with scholars, representatives of secular authority, and high clergy, including the Bishop of Amida, Akakios, and the Bishop of Edessa, Pakidas, but they could not provide him with any help in creating a suitable alphabet.
And in 405 AD, Mashtots’ efforts were crowned with success—a unique alphabet was created, consisting of 36 letters and 39 sounds. The first sentence written by Mashtots in his native language was from the Book of Proverbs: “To know wisdom and instruction; to understand words of insight; to receive instruction in wise dealing, in righteousness, justice, and equity; to give prudence to the simple, knowledge and discretion to the youth.”
King Vramshapuh ordered the new alphabet to be introduced everywhere for literacy education.
In 387 AD, Armenia was divided between Byzantium and Persia. Byzantine Armenia, which included the region of High Ayr, soon after the fall of the Armenian kingdom, came under the rule of governors appointed from Byzantium. In Eastern Armenia, under Persian rule, kings of the Arsacid dynasty governed for another 40 years.
During this period of severe trials, the “golden age” of Armenian literature takes place. With the support of the Catholicos and King St. Mesrop Mashtots, schools are opened in various parts of Armenia.
In Armenia, both translated and original literature begins to emerge and develop. The translation activities were led by Catholicos Sahak Partev, who primarily translated the Bible from Syriac and Greek into Armenian.
At the same time, he sent his best students to renowned cultural centers of that era: Edessa, Amid, Alexandria, Athens, Constantinople, and other cities—to improve their skills in Syriac and Greek languages and to translate works of the Church Fathers.
In a short period, all major theological works were translated from Syriac and Greek into Armenian: writings by Irenaeus of Lyons, Hippolytus of Rome, Gregory Thaumaturgus, Athanasius the Great, Epiphanius of Salamis, Eusebius of Caesarea, Cyril of Jerusalem, Basil the Great, Gregory of Nazianzus, Gregory of Nyssa, Ephrem the Syrian, John Chrysostom, Cyril of Alexandria, Isidore of Jerusalem, and others, as well as works by Greek philosophers like Aristotle, Plato, and Porphyry.
Alongside the translation work, original literature of various genres was also being created: theological, ethical, exegetical, apologetic, historical literature, etc.
A collection of 23 sermons attributed to St. Gregory the Illuminator has survived. However, some scholars believe that these sermons were written in the first half of the 5th century, likely by Mesrop Mashtots.
Upon his return to the capital, Mashtots, under King Vramshapuh’s orders, began teaching the inhabitants of the region of Mark. After “convincing [people] of the correctness of the created alphabet,” with the assistance of the Catholicos, he founded the Vagharshapat Seminary—the first higher education institution in Christian Armenia, where students from various regions and areas of the country began to gather.
Mashtots himself taught at the seminary. Initially, three main subjects (“Trivium”) were studied: grammar, logic, and rhetoric, mainly preparing translators and preachers. Mashtots also led the education of the royal court along with the entire army.
The first Armenian-language schools were modeled after Greek schools. Mesrop Mashtots developed a teaching methodology for the Armenian language. He and his assistants taught not only literacy but also church hymnody, with special attention given to physical training.
After the creation of the alphabet, a new phase began in Mashtots’ activities. With the approval of the king and the Catholicos, he resumed preaching in the provinces of the country with a group of students. His new missionary journey began in Goghtn and Syunik, where he was aided by Vasak Syuni, the future marzpan (governor) of Armenia. This is the same Vasak who opposed Vardan Mamikonian and whose name became synonymous with betrayal.
To this day, Armenians do not name their boys Vasak. After visits to Byzantium and Albania, he visited Gardman, one of the most important provinces in northeastern Armenia. At that time, he also visited the region of Tashir in the province of Gugark, at the invitation of King Ashushi.
Typically, he combined gospel preaching with teaching the alphabet and literacy. In the 410s, Mashtots spread the new alphabet throughout most of Eastern Armenia. In 414, King Vramshapuh died—the main political support for Mesrop Mashtots’ activities.
After him, the son of the Sasanian ruler Yazdegerd I, Shapur, ascended to the Armenian throne, and from 419, the country fell into anarchy. Meanwhile, a broad cultural and educational movement was developing throughout Armenia.
Mashtots and Sahak Partev sent trained students to various regions, entrusting the most capable among them with teaching literacy and spreading Christianity.
At that time, they also began translating the Bible, having established the new script on Armenian soil. Since Greek books were banned in the Persian part of Armenia after its partition, Mesrop and Sahak’s first biblical translations were made from Syriac texts.
In the last years of his activity, Mashtots was alone. The Sasanian authorities had expelled the Armenian Catholicos who had confirmed Mesrop at the Council of Vagharshapat, and he himself withdrew to the provinces of the country. After the death of Sahak Partev in 439, at Mashtots’ behest, his student, priest Hovsep Vayots Dzor, was appointed to the patriarchal throne.
Mashtots devoted 45 years to the preaching of Christianity and 35 years to the dissemination of Armenian literacy. He passed away on February 17, 440, after a brief illness, in the city of Vagharshapat.
Vaan Amatuni, the ruler of Armenia, and Amayak Mamikonian, the brother of the military leader Vardan Mamikonian, honored Mesrop with a burial in the village of Oshakan, where a church was built over his grave in 443. The Armenian Apostolic Church canonized both Mesrop Mashtots and Sahak Partev as saints.
Armenia also commemorates the Day of Remembrance of the Holy Armenian Translators Sahak Partev and Mesrop Mashtots. The Armenian Church celebrates it twice—on the Thursday following the fourth week after Pentecost, and on the Saturday following the fifth Sunday of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross.
by Karine Ter-Saakyan
Translated Vigen Avetisyan