All Things Assyrian
The Origin of the Armenian Alphabet
By Rev. Dr. Vahan Tootikian
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The month of October is known as "The Cultural Month" for Armenians throughout the world. It is during this month that Armenian churches, organizations and people commemorate the memory of the Holy Translators who created the Golden Age of Armenian Literature in the fifth century.

The Holy Translators were a group of Armenian scholars, headed by two towering Armenian churchmen, St. Sahag Bartev (350-440) and St. Mesrob Mashdotz (345-440).

The fifth century was a crucial period for the Armenian nation. One of the most important events in the history of Armenia took place in 406 A.D., when the Armenian alphabet was created. Before that, for many centuries, various forms of cuneiforms had been used in Armenia. Obviously, they were not in use after the adoption of Christianity as a state religion. Greek and Syriac languages became the official languages of the church.

The use of these languages caused great concern for the religious leadership because:

  1. The ordinary people did not understand them.
  2. They made the spread of Christianity difficult. Christian outreach and mission work was hampered by the absence of instructional literature in the Armenian language.
  3. They hindered the advance of the Armenian culture and created a serious obstacle to the intellectual, social and spiritual progress of the Armenian people.

No one knew this sad state of affairs as much as Mesrob Mashdotz, a cleric, who received orders from the Catholicos to go on a preaching tour to the region of Goghtn, in Vaspuragan province, to promote the Christian faith. It was in the course of his work that he received the idea of putting the Bible into the people's own language. An Armenian alphabet was to be devised to accomplish this task. Mesrob came to Neapolis and confided his thoughts to Catholicos Sahag Bartev. The two clergymen formed a fraternity of prayer to seek divine guidance in their task. They approached King Vramshapuh, who appreciated the value of an indigenous alphabet and its potential for shaping the cultural and spiritual unity of the Armenian people.

Having the moral as well as the financial support of the king and the Catholicos, Mesrob embarked upon the task of inventing a new Armenian alphabet. He traveled to Mesopotamia, Edessa (Urfa) and Samosata, the western Hellenized edge of Armenia, where he became acquainted with a well-known scholar and calligrapher Rufinus the Syrian, a personal friend of the famous theologian Theodore of Mopsuestia. Then, with the help of Rufinus, Mesrob accomplished his mission. He gave shape to 36 new letters, creating a precise match between the sounds of the Armenian language of the fifth century and its new alphabet. The invention took place in 404 A.D. and attained its final form in 406 A.D. This alphabet was an important creation in the history of the Armenian people. Those 36 letters were destined to be, as it were, "the 36 pillars of defense for the Armenian nation." It should be noted that during the Middle Ages, two more letters were added to the original alphabet.

The invention of the Armenian alphabet ushered in a new age of intellectual and spiritual enlightenment, with St. Sahag and St. Mesrob recruiting a select of group of intellectuals to embark upon the task of translating the patristic texts, the canons of the early church councils, the liturgies and historical texts.

Soon, a group of scholars, under the leadership of Mesrob and Sahag, launched the venture of translating the Bible. The first translation was made from one version of the Syriac text, probably from the Peshitta version. The very first sentence translated was the first verse of the Book of Proverbs: "For attaining wisdom and instruction; for understanding words of insight." Convinced of the superiority of the Greek text, Armenian scholars completed a second translation, called Pootanagi (meaning "hastily rendered") in the early 420s. Thereafter, some of the senior translators were sent to other centers of culture to further their education and collect Greek and Syriac manuscripts for future translations.

Upon their return, the senior translators made the final revision, comparing the already completed "Pootanagi version" to the selected Greek text. This was rendered sometime between the years 432-438. In the year 438, Catholicos Sahag placed his seal of approval on this fine translation and authorized its use in the Armenian church. This translation, which is considered the most accurate and stylistically eloquent, has been termed "Queen of Translations."

The new alphabet stimulated an unprecedented boom and extraordinary creativity in literature, so much so that the fifth century was later called the "Golden Age of Armenian Literature."

Scores of students trained by Mesrob in the workings of his new alphabet traveled to the major centers of learning of the known world where they translated many important works and brought them to Armenia. Numerous Greek historical and philosophical works, some of them by Plato and Aristotle, were also translated into Armenian. This proved to be providential, for in the course of time many of the Greek originals disappeared, and these works were preserved only through their Armenian translations.

Soon Armenian writers progressed from translating foreign works to creating original Armenian literature, such as sharagans (church hymns), religious and mystical poetry, biographies of the saints and martyrs and theological and historical works.

The historian Movses of Khoren preserved fragments of pagan Armenian ballads, epics and legends. Called the "Father of Armenian History," Movses wrote a three-volume work spanning Armenian history from the traditional history of the Armenian nation by Haig Nahabed (legendary patriarch of the Armenian nation) up until his own time. This work was the official textbook of Armenian history until the nineteenth century.

Koriun, a disciple and biographer of Mesrob, described the life and works of the creator of the alphabet.

Historical accounts of the times of King Drtad III and St. Gregory were written by Agathengelos and Faustus of Byzantium, while Lazarus of Pharp and Bishop Yeghishe related the struggle of the Armenians to maintain their religious and political identity in the face of Persian attack in the Vartanantz War.

The theologian Eznik of Kolb, in his "Refutation of the Sects," described and analyzed the beliefs and demonstrated the weaknesses of four religious groups of his day--the pagans, the Zoroastrians, the Greek philosophers and the Christian heretics.

For the Armenian people, the Golden Age of literature brought about an intellectual and spiritual rejuvenation. Learning spread across the country and continued through the centuries. With the establishment of schools and proliferation of writing, wider horizons opened up to the people. As a result, the Armenian church became a national church, offering its liturgy in the language of the people, and the national consciousness of the Armenian people increased.

The Armenian alphabet played an enormous role in preserving the national and cultural identity of the Armenian people. Since the year 406 A.D., the Armenian language has survived amidst our tumultuous history; it has evolved and flourished through the hands of dedicated writers and translators cementing our past to our present.

Throughout our long history, cruel enemies attempted to destroy and eradicate our alphabet, but they did not succeed. Those 36 letters have indeed served as the "Thirty-six Pillars of our Defense."

Today, however, in the Diaspora we face insurmountable threats of utter assimilation to our language and culture. There is an attitude of indifference on the part of many toward the very language and culture the past generations of Armenians fought so hard to defend and preserve.

May the observance of the Feast of the Holy Translators offer us a self-examining opportunity and awaken us to the reality of the threat our language and culture face. May it be an opportunity to renew and strengthen our resolve to preserve and perpetuate the Armenian culture by nourishing our precious language. May those 36 letters continue to serve as our "Thirty-six Pillars of Defense."

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