The Matenadaran: Restoring Manuscripts and Reviving Armenian History for Centuries

The Matenadaran, located in the heart of Yerevan, is one of the richest book depositories in the world. It has a collection of over 17,000 manuscripts including all areas of medieval Armenian culture and sciences, as well as manuscripts written in many foreign languages. In medieval Armenian, matenadaran means ‘manuscript store’ or ‘library’. Many ancient texts whose originals were long lost have been restored in their mother tongues based on their Armenian translations, which were safely stored at the Matenadaran.

The building stands majestically at the end of Yerevan’s famous Mashtots Avenue and directly in front of it, there is a huge and imposing statue of Mesrob Mashtots, the creator of the Armenian alphabet. While the structure itself has only been around since the 1930s, it’s actually the successor of the centuries old Etchmiadzin Patriarchal Matenadaran.

According to the 5th century historian Ghazar Parpetsi the Etchmiadzin Matenadaran existed as early as the 5th century. It gained importance after 1441, when the residence of the Armenian Supreme Patriarch (Catholicos) moved from Cilicia back to Etchmiadzin.

During the Genocide, when most of the rich book depositories of Western Armenia were ravaged, several thousand precious manuscripts were sent to the Etchmiadzin Matenadaran from important Armenian centers like Van, in the Vaspurakan Region.

In the 1920s, under Soviet rule, the Matenadaran, which had always been inextricably linked with the Mother See, where it originated, was declared state property. While this was a huge blow for the Church, to which the Soviets had already caused serious damage, it did make room for expansion and further study. Over 4,000 manuscripts that had been sent to Moscow for safekeeping were returned.

Over the decades, the Matenadaran’s collection grew, especially with the increase in private donations from around the world, so in 1939, the book depository was moved to its current location. In 1959, the Matenadaran reached the next step in its development. It was completely restructured, transforming from a basic book depository to an institute for scientific research, with specialized departments and a modern cataloguing system.

Today, the Matenadaran’s main structure remains largely unchanged from the reforms of 1959. Its main functions are: restoration, research and exhibition. Of course, the latter two would not be possible without the first crucial step of restoring and preserving the manuscripts.

A manuscript hospital

I visited the Restoration Department of the Matenadaran recently, and was amazed by the intensity and thoroughness of the restoration process. We receive manuscripts from all over the world, that are in various stages of dis­repair, said Gayane Eliazyan, Restoration Department Head. So we act as a manuscript hospital: examining the texts, diagnosing their ailments, and bringing them back to health through intensive care.

The first step upon receiving any manuscript or old book is disinfection. Almost all manuscripts from the Middle Ages and earlier are written on parchment, which is a thin, stretched kind of leather. Leather is an animal product, and over centuries, it can start to get moldy and infected with all kinds of fungi and insects. So when manuscripts first enter the Matenadaran, they go directly to the disinfection closet, where they stay for some time, exposed to different disinfecting agents.

After disinfection, manuscripts are cleaned, page by page, and then based on the degree of damage, they go through various steps of restoration. Common procedures include rebinding, cover repairs, restoring color and repairing torn edges.

The biggest challenge that restorers face has to do with the chemical make-up of medieval inks. During the Middle Ages, inks were made from several different substances like plants and metals, explained Ms. Eliazyan, And these substances have varying levels of acidity that over time, can destroy the parchment. Ms. Eliazyan is a chemist, and one of the most important parts of her job in saving manuscripts is assessing the acidity of inks used, and counteracting their negative effects.

Once restored, manuscripts must be kept in very specific conditions, in a controlled environment where the temperature is always between 18 and 20o Celsius (64-68 o Fahrenheit), with 55-60 percent humidity. If they are kept in drier conditions, they will crumble, and in more humid conditions, they will get moldy.

Eleven people work in the Matenadaran’s Restoration Department. Working on a variety of manuscripts from different time periods. Among them were a beautifully illuminated 300-page parchment text from Malatya, Eastern Anatolia, written in 1057 and a 14th-century manuscript with exquisite miniatures known as the Four Horsemen Bible, from the Syunik region. While I was in complete awe of the huge wealth of information, history and art that lay in these precious texts, for the workers in the restoration department, it was just another day at the office.

After restoration, manuscripts go to the Research Department, to the archives, or are put on display in the exhibition hall. While the process of restoring thousand-year-old manuscripts may be just ordinary business for the specialists in the Restoration Department, the magnitude of their work is truly incredible. It may not be glamorous, but by taking ancient, fungus-infested sheets of parchment and bringing them as close as possible to their original state, they revive pages of our history that would have otherwise been forgotten.

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