Armenia has had a rich tradition of scriptoriums for over a millennium. Throughout the Middle Ages, very active scriptoriums were found in towns near the shores of the Mediterranean, on Lake Van, in Jugha, Tatev, and many other spots. The illustrated manuscripts were especially valued, as they were painted in actual gold or silver.
Unfortunately, Armenia also has a long history of being invaded, and has seen its libraries plundered and burned too many times. Tired of this, in 1959 the Soviet Armenian government decided to step in and build a massive fortress on a hill in the center of the capital, with storage deep in the earth, and gather as many manuscripts as it could there for safekeeping.
Thus, the Mesrop Mashtots Institute of Ancient Manuscripts was born. The name being cumbersome, it’s been popularly called the Matenadaran ever since, which is a combination of the Armenian words for “parchment” and “repository.” Outside the building stands a statue of the institute’s namesake, Mesrop Mashtots, the inventor of the Armenian alphabet.
With over 23,000 manuscripts and 500,000 additional documents, some of the most obscure and ancient texts from the early medieval age can be found at the Matenadaran. There is a 9th-century gospel, and the ivory-carved cover of a 6th-century gospel as well. The Vehamor Gospel, probably dating to the 7th century, is the oldest-known complete Armenian manuscript in the world. There are manuscripts in other languages, from Greek to Ethiopian, and some works by renowned foreign authors that were almost lost to history, and only saved by their Armenian translations at the Matenadaran.
Know Before You Go
Most of the works in the vast collection are only accessible by researchers, but the display rooms feature a stunning array of hand-chosen manuscripts that give an excellent glimpse into the rest of the collection.