The Mesropian Script

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The Armenian alphabet was one of the key components of preserving Armenian identity in the face of Sassanid incursions and those that followed.

Shrouded in myth, the rediscovery of the Armenian alphabet is credited to Mesrop Mashtots, who, under the patronage of King Vramshapouh and the Catolicos Sahak Parthev (387-428), traveled to major centers of learning in Asia Minor before «receiving a vision where Christ struck the alphabet on stone».

Legend has it that the hermit monk Mesrop Mashtots created the alphabet through divine inspiration in 401-406. A pupil of Mashtots, Koriun, in his history of the Armenian Alphabet carefully avoids the word «creation» or «invention» in his account, referring to Mashtots as a «translator» who was «looking for a thing» that was discovered in Edessia when Mashtots had his vision.

As the crisis with the Sassanids and the Roman empire deepened, it seems probable that Mashtots – who was the personal translator to the king – was dispatched to uncover the older version of Armenian which Gregory’s campaign against paganism had destroyed.

With his followers he went to centers of learning in the ancient world, beginning with the kingdom of Goghtu (present Nakhijevan), which had not yet converted to Christianity, and was likely to have the older text.

Failing there, he and his pupils went to Edessia, where he was told that there was an old man «who has the thing you are looking for», but that he had converted to Christianity and now lived in Samusart. In Koriuns text, at Samusart Mashtots found «the thing he was looking for», whereupon he had «a vision where the right hand of Jesus strikes the letters of the alphabet on stone».

Historians believe that the thing Mashtots was looking for was a sample of old Armenian script, with which he was able to reconstruct the alphabet, making a few alterations in the design, before returning to the Armenian kingdom.

However it happened, the introduction of the alphabet allowed the Armenians to create a distinct identity in the face of surrounding enemies, and for the Armenian church to translate the scriptures into Armenian, leading to its separation from the influence of the Greek Orthodox (and Byuzantium) influence.

The Armenians were suddenly a nation as well as a cultured people, and a flowering of written culture appeared in the country, the most stunning examples of which are the tens of thousands of manuscripts which have been preserved to this day. Works of art, these manuscripts were often embellished with gold and rare colors, and they fostered a period of scientific and philosophic learning which gave rise to Europes Renaissance.