The Mesrop Mashtots Institute of Ancient Manuscripts, commonly referred to as Matenadaran, is an ancient manuscript repository, located in Yerevan. It holds one of the world’s richest depositories of medieval manuscripts and books, which span a broad range of subjects, including history, philosophy, medicine, literature, art history and cosmography in Armenian and many other languages. The Matenadaran collection was inscribed on UNESCO’s Memory of the World Register in 1997 in recognition of its world significance.
The earliest mention of the term “Matenadaran”, which means “repository of manuscripts” in Armenian, was recorded in the writings of the 5th century Armenian historian Ghazar Parpetsi, who mentioned about the existence of the repository in Ejmiatsin, the Mother See of the Armenian Church, where Greek and Armenian language texts were kept.
In the course of the following centuries the dissolution of the Bagratuni Kingdom of Armenia in 1045, thousands of manuscripts were destroyed by the Turkic-Mongol invasions. The Seljuk Turks burned over 10.000 Armenian manuscripts in Baghaberd in 1170.
As a result of Armenia being a constant battleground between two major powers, Matenadaran in Ejmiatsin was pillaged several times, the last of which took place in 1804. The inclusion of Eastern Armenia into the Russian Empire in the 19th century provided a more stable climate for the preservation of the remaining manuscripts.
In 1828 the curators of Matenadaran catalogued a collection of only 1.809 manuscripts, in 1914 the collection increased to 4.660 manuscripts. At the outbreak of World War I all the manuscripts were sent to Moscow for safekeeping and were kept there for the duration of the war. They were later returned in 1922. A decade later the collection was moved to Yerevan and stored at the State Library after Alexander Myasnikyan.
Finally on March 3, 1959, the Council of Ministers of the Armenian Soviet Socialist Republic voted in support of the establishment of Matenadaran to maintain and house the manuscripts in a new building and in 1962 it was named after Saint Mesrop Mashtots, the creator of the Armenian alphabet.
On May 14, 2009, upon the fiftieth anniversary of the founding of Matenadaran, Armenian state and religious officials conducted the groundbreaking ceremony of the construction of a research institute being built adjacent to Matenadaran. The opening of the building was held on September 21, 2011.
Today there is a collection of almost 17.000 manuscripts and 30.000 other documents in Matenadaran, covering subjects such as historiography, geography, philosophy, grammar, art history, medicine and science.
In the first decades of the Soviet rule its collection was largely drawn from manuscripts stored in ecclesiastical structures, schools, monasteries and churches in Armenia and the rest of the Soviet Union. In addition to the Armenian manuscripts, in Matenadaran there is also a vast collection of historical documents, numbering over 2.000 in languages such as Arabic, Persian, Hebrew, Japanese and Russian.
The Armenian Collection
The Armenian collection in Matenadaran is rich in manuscripts, dealing with all fields of the humanities. The preserved writings of Grigor Narekatsi and Nerses Shnorhali form the cornerstone of medieval Armenian literature.
The Armenian collection is also composed of 2.500 Armenian illuminated manuscripts, which include such prominent examples as the Ejmiatsin Gospel (989) and the Mugni Gospels (1060). Today many important samples of world literary heritage are preserved only in the Armenian translation.
Another prominent manuscript in the collection is a calendar of 632 pages, which weighs 40 kg and was made out of calf skin. The calendar dates back to the 15th century. The calendar was found by two Armenian women in an Armenian monastery in the Ottoman Empire during the First World War and for it was too heavy to be carried, it was split into two – one half was wrapped in cloth and buried, while the second half was taken to Georgia and later on to Armenia. A few years later a Polish officer found the first half and sold it to an office in Baku. It eventually was brought to Armenia and the two halves were finally reattached together.