Čanačʿel zimastutʿiwn ew zxrat, imanal zbans hančaroy (To seek wisdom and discipline, to understand insightful words…)

This quote is from the Book of Proverbs (1:2), one of the books of the Old Testament traditionally attributed to Solomon. It is also said to be the phrase chosen by the monk Mesrob Mashtots to translate the Bible into the Armenian language, as reproduced textually, using an alphabet he invented for this purpose in order to facilitate the evangelization and political, cultural, and religious unification of the Kingdom of Armenia. This effort helped establish the Church there and ultimately led to his canonization.

It all began in Hatsekats, a village located northwest of Lake Van (the largest in present-day Turkey) in the province of Taron. This area belonged to the Kingdom of Armenia and was also one of the main religious centers of the country, so it is not surprising that it was the setting for the events we are about to narrate.

From 66 AD to 387 AD, ancient Greater Armenia, an independent state that emerged from a satrapy of the Achaemenid Empire, was under Roman rule. It was later divided into two parts, with the Byzantines taking the western part and the Persians the eastern part; the latter was conquered by the Sasanians in 428 AD.

Mesrob was born in the aforementioned village around 362 AD, according to some sources from a noble family (low nobility), while others claim he was from free peasant stock, albeit well-off enough to provide his son with an education at the Taron school. This education involved learning Greek, the language that recalled the Hellenic past, and when combined with his native Armenian, the imposed Persian, and the learning of some other Syriac dialect, made him a valued polyglot. With diverse knowledge accompanying all this, Mesrob saw doors opening for him at the court, eventually being appointed secretary to King Khosrow IV (not to be confused with his Persian namesake, three centuries later).

Thus, he moved to the capital, Echmiadzin, where he likely also received military training and the corresponding title. However, his main function was that of royal scribe, a position that allowed him to acquire knowledge of politics and religion, which were closely linked at that time, especially in a divided Armenia on both issues. Nevertheless, Mesrob had the opportunity to learn about the Holy Scriptures and the Christian faith, converting to it between 392 and 393 AD. In fact, he soon decided to leave the civil service and retire to a monastery, where he lived austere life for a while.

Like the ascetics of old, he initially chose a life of privation and isolation in a small community: prayer, poverty, fasting, and self-discipline alternated with the study of the Bible and nights sleeping on the ground. But from 394 AD, he received the blessing of Isaac (Sahak) I the Great, who was the catholicos (patriarch) of the Armenian Apostolic Church but lived in the same monastery, to redirect his life towards evangelism. He was responding to a request from Prince Shampith, who desired the evangelization of the district of Goght’n (in the province of Vaspurakan, near the Araxes River and bordering what is now Azerbaijan). Armenia had been Christianized late, from the Edict of Milan (313 AD), and there were still large sectors of pagan population.

It was not just about religion. It was seen as a potentially effective way to prevent the disintegration of the Armenian Kingdom and to unite the people under a single political, cultural, and spiritual identity, laying the foundations for a national sentiment to oppose Sasanian influence. After all, the Hellenic heritage was in danger of disappearing due to the relegation of the language imposed by the Syrians. Therefore, spreading the Christian faith was necessary, and Mesrob was tasked with carrying out this work. However, he encountered an obstacle: Armenians lacked their own alphabet, usually resorting to others in the vicinity such as Greek, Aramaic, Persian, and Syrian.

The problem was that none of these alphabets were suitable for representing the phonemes of the native language, which required using a Bible translated into Syrian that made comprehension difficult. Interpreters were needed, slowing down readings and explanations during sermons, as well as diluting attention. The mission was in danger of dying before it started or becoming so prolonged that it would ultimately fail if the Persians took a step forward. The solution lay in something as unprecedented as creating an Armenian alphabet from scratch to directly translate all liturgical texts, a task for which he received fundamental support, such as that of Isaac I.

There is no way to know the extent of their direct involvement beyond promoting the idea. What was done was to convene a synod in the capital to which all Armenian bishops and other secular experts had to attend to create an alphabet, translate religious books, and do away with Syrian and Parthian scriptures; also Greek, which was not very useful due to its minority status and elitism. By then, Vramshapuh reigned, who some consider the brother of Khosrow IV, both from the Arsacid dynasty, vassals of the Sasanians (whose representative at that time was Bahram IV, who had deposed Khosrow IV in 389 AD).

Vramshapuh aspired to revive Greater Armenia, so he not only did not oppose the synod but encouraged it as its main patron; the significance of the event was not lost on anyone. However, he had no intention of unleashing conflicts and sought to maintain good relations with both the Persians and the Byzantines, acting as a mediator in their rivalry. This stability allowed him to officially announce, around 406 AD, the completion of the Armenian alphabet based on Greek, Syrian, and Parthian letters, with influences from the Phoenician language and, as some suggest, also from Ethiopian. It consisted of thirty-six characters, seven of which were vowels and the rest consonants; in the 12th century, two more characters were added, a long O and an F.

To accomplish this, he started from the Letters of Daniel, texts written in an alphabet that everyone believed to be an ancient Armenian script from the 5th century that had already been forgotten, and whose name is due to the fact that they were brought by the Syrian bishop Daniel from Mesopotamia at the request of King Vramshapuh, who was visiting there because of the expulsion of John Chrysostom (a clergyman exiled for his inflammatory diatribes against the Jews and his confrontation with Empress Eudoxia). However, the letters proved insufficient to represent the entire consonantal – and part of the vowel – range of Armenian, and the difficulties they encountered in putting the model into practice ultimately led to its abandonment in 411 AD.

The first alphabet had failed, so they started over, but based on the same idea of the existence of a lost Armenian script. To find it, Mesrob sent agents to northern Mesopotamian cities such as Samosata, Amida, or Edessa; to the latter, which had an important library, he personally traveled to consult the alphabets of multiple languages. After arduous work, he managed to give shape to a script that he ordered following the Greek model and moved to Samosata for Rufinus, a Greek scribe and calligrapher, to review it. It was there that both, aided by two disciples and Isaac’s orthographic tweaks, began to put the new tool into practice.

Of course, the first book translated was the Bible – back in 434 AD -, specifically a version in Syriac called Peshitta, which he compared with the Septuagint (a Greek version) brought from Constantinople and Alexandria, Origen’s Hexapla, and even with a Hebrew one. As mentioned before, Mesrob chose a phrase from Proverbs for its explicit meaning, but after finishing with the Holy Scriptures, he continued with other religious texts, such as those arising from the latest councils (Nicea, Constantinople, and Ephesus), the national liturgy (which was adapted to that of St. Basil), or the works of the Greek Fathers (for example, the Chronicles of Eusebius of Caesarea).

Upon returning from Mesopotamia, Mesrob founded the Vagharshapat Seminary, the first higher education institution of Christian Armenia, where students from all over the country attended and were taught the Trivium (grammar, logic, and rhetoric) with texts translated using the new national alphabet. Then, he and his disciples dispersed to various regions to preach and, in passing, teach the alphabet, supported by the king and Vasak Syuny, the first mazpan (prince) of Iberia and future ruler of Armenia. This cultural effervescence resulted in what is known as the Golden Age of Armenian literature, which spread to neighboring lands.

In this regard, Koriun, Mesrob’s student and biographer, talks about a trip to Iberia (not the Iberian Peninsula but the central region of the ancient kingdom of Kartli, located east and southeast of present-day Georgia), where, helped by a translator named Jaga and encouraged by King Bakur, he also invented the Georgian alphabet. Similarly, during that same time, he would have made a visit to Caucasian Albania, which encompassed the present-day Republic of Dagestan and much of Azerbaijan. There he contacted the monk Benjamin, and both worked for King Arsval in developing a script for the country, which according to experts, despite having fifty-two characters compared to the thirty-three of Georgian, is so similar to both Georgian and Armenian that it corroborates that improbable story.

That period of journeys ended tumultuously, with Vramshapuh’s death and the prohibition of Greek books in the Persian area, which forced them to seek them in the original source. Mesrob traveled to Constantinople to request permission from Emperor Theodosius II the Younger and acquire Greek volumes, as well as sending several disciples to Byzantine cities such as Athens, Antioch, Edessa, or Alexandria to learn the Greek language and return with classics of that literature; among these figures were some of renown, such as John of Egheghiatz, John Mandakuni, Joseph of Baghin, Eznik of Holp, Moses of Chorene, and Koriun (who, by the way, is the main source for knowing Mesrob’s biography).

Theodosius denied him permission at the behest of the clergy of Caesarea (a city in Cappadocia), who feared that the Armenian script would supplant the Greek one, and because it had caused a stir that Byzantine linguists had not been consulted to create said script. This delayed evangelization in Western Armenia until 420 AD when the emperor and Archbishop Atticus finally agreed on the condition that he combat the Borborites sect (or Phibionite, a Gnostic Christian school practicing sacred sex and considered heretical). For this, he was given the title of Akimita (Vigilant) and funds from the Byzantine state, fulfilling the task diligently.

He then returned to Eastern Armenia, where Ardacher IV, son of Vramshapuh and the last Arsacid, had not been accepted by the nobles (najarar) and they had rebelled. The Persians intervened in 428 AD, abolishing the kingdom, deposing Isaac, and initiating a harsh repression. Mesrob was left alone in his missionary activity, and it is not known why he was spared; perhaps because he did not defend Isaac’s legitimacy when a replacement was appointed, although the affected party harbored no resentment towards him and, upon his release, appointed his former companion as locum tenens, or interim bishop. Over time, he would come to be considered the unofficial catholicos.

Isaac died in 439 AD, and Mesrob thus lost one of his pillars. However, he continued preaching and translating, activities he combined with writing treatises on theology – he is considered the founder of the local version of patristics -, socio-political discourses, and even sharakans, as the Armenian liturgical chants and spiritual poems are called, of which a hundred and thirty are preserved. Thus, he lived until 440 AD (or perhaps 443 AD, it is not known for sure), when an illness ended his life in Echmiadzin. He was buried with honors in the village of Oshakan and canonized by the Armenian Apostolic Church; the Catholic Church also included him in the Roman Martyrology.

His memory endures in Armenia through countless streets bearing his name and statues, as well as a civil order created in 1993. But more interesting are the legends he inspired. One of them tells how he and Isaac secluded themselves in a cave in the province of Balu to create the alphabet and were visited by an angel who illuminated them by showing seven letters engraved on a rock wall; there is a rock formation that looks like a tomb, and the locals identify it with his grave, being visited by many devout people. But Mesrob’s death sparked much imagination among the people.

Another legend recounts how, during his funeral, a stone placed on the coffin began to release water and quenched the thirst of those present. There is also one in which he asked to be placed on a cart and buried wherever the oxen stopped; as they did so in front of a very poor peasant’s hut, they considered him unworthy and only left his little finger there. However, the place where that house stood soon became an object of veneration, and a sanctuary was eventually built there. The subsequent miracles eventually made that linguistic and missionary monk a saint.

This article was first published on our Spanish Edition on February 8, 2024. Puedes leer la versión en español en Mesrob Mashtots, el monje armenio del siglo V d.C. que inventaba alfabetos


Koriun Vardapet, The life of Mashtots | Judith Woodsworth, Los traductores en la historia | Francisco Javier Herranz Fernández, La vuelta al mundo en 80 historias | Mack Chahin, The Kingdom of Armenia. A history | Mesrob (en Catholic Encyclopedia) | Wikipedia

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