A treasury of medieval thought in a modern institution



A treasury of medieval thought in a modern institution


Matenadaran is currently one of the most tourist-ridden landmarks of the Armenian capital, without which would be impossible to imagine Yerevan’s modern architecture and the urban spirit. But it is much more than a simple museum, a library or a research institution. It is one of the crucial loci of Armenian modern history, one of the crucial spaces which created modern Armenia as it is today.

Text : Tigran Zakaryan



Becoming Matenadaran with capital M

The word itself means a library in classical Armenian. Long before becoming Matenadaran with capital M, smaller matenadarans existed in medieval and subsequent periods in almost every monastery across Armenia. The biggest one however, of course, was that of the Cathedral Church of St. Ejmiatsin, the main church of Armenian Gregorian Christianity.

Matenadaran as a separate entity started its life with the advent of the Soviet power, which by one of its first decrees issued in December 1920 announced nationalization of St. Ejmatsin’s assets, including the typography, museum and a library of old manuscripts.

A first institution, which was created for the preservation and research of old manuscripts, a forerunner of todays’ Matenadaran, was founded in 1921 under the name of Culture-Historical Institute. For a long time it did not have its separate building until late 1930’s when a group of Armenian intellectuals supported by the government of Soviet Armenia petitioned to allocate a special building for it.




USSR 5 rubles, 1990


These were years when Stalinist ideology to some degree favored local socialist brands of nationalisms, provided that they could ultimately serve the aims of Moscow. It was decided that Matenadaran could not be in any way an obstacle to Moscow’s plan and that it deserved support.

Ultimately, in 1939 architect Mark Grigoryan was commissioned by the Ministry of Education to design a special building for Matenadaran. Planning of the building started only as late as in 1943. It is interesting to note that other important events in cultural and intellectual life of Armenia happened in those years; for instance, shooting of historical film “Davit Bek” (1944) and opening of the Armenian Academy of Science (1943), happened simultaneously with it during a temporary encouragement of local nationalism for the sake of mobilizing forces against Nazi Germany and its allies.


Architect Mark Grigoryan


Before starting his planning Grigoryan made an extensive research of traditional Armenian architecture travelling to Haghpat, Sanahin and Odzun monasteries in the north as well as to Tatev monastery. In search for authentic solutions for the façade of the building he also researched Toros Toromanyan’s archive with the kind assistance of his daughter. The archive included Toromanyan’s earlier research in Armenia’s medieval capital of Ani, which proved to be instrumental for Grigoryan’s aim. It is interesting to know that the original plans drawn were not found until long after his death when Grigoryan’s grandson, Mark Grigoryan, discovered them.

Initially there was much criticism against the plan, both for its extensive use of medieval architecture elements as well as for its position and location from the main avenue of Yerevan – then called Stalin Avenue (later Lenin Avenue, and now Mashtots Avenue). Ultimately the plan was approved without any major changes and this was a unique case. There were even rumors that Anastas Mikoyan’s intervention played a role in that turn of events.


Matenadaran with Stalin’s monument on the background, 1950's

Matenadaran with Stalin’s monument on the background, 1950's


Due to the post-war shortage of funds it took more than a decade to construct the building of Matenadaran. Matenadaran started its activities in the new building after the completion of its construction in 1957.


Bests of the bests

It is interesting that in the construction of Matenadaran an age-old tradition of at least 19th century of Yerevan architecture was observed. Normally the stone for constructing the walls was volcanic tuff, which was abundantly available under the ground in the current city center. The difference here was that that the ground layer under Matenadaran was basalt, which became a handy material for the construction of the massive building.

The story of the façade decorated with sculptures of Armenian medieval prominent intellectuals is no less interesting. It was decided to erect the sculpture of Mesrop Mashtots, the author of the Armenian alphabet, at the main entrance of the building. There were different versions of it and the one by sculptor Ara Sargsyan featuring Matshtots side by side with Sahak Partev, Catholicos of Armenians in early 5th century, was the most likely candidate to be approved. However the soviet authorities refused to support the project which would glorify a religious leader. Ara Sargsyan, in his turn, refused to modify the composition and it was ultimately rejected. The composition nevertheless was implemented after Armenia became independent in 2002 and is currently placed at the entrance to the main building of the Yerevan State University.


Matenadaran’s woodcrafted main door


Instead of Sargsyan’s ensemble, another, no less interesting composition came into life. It was offered by sculptor Ghukas Chubaryan featuring Mashtots holding a tablet with letters invented by him and his famous disciple Koryun, kneeling before his teacher.

Another sculpture by Chubaryan on the outer wall of the Matenadaran has its own story. It is the sculpture of Mkhitar Gosh, the author of a medieval code of laws, which was of unique importance to Chubaryan. The thing is that due to missing any real images of the medieval Armenian lawyer Chubaryan had to use his imagination. Chubaryan’s father, Grigor Chubarov, an Armenian lawyer, who had a most prominent role in the shaping of the first constitution of Soviet Armenia in 1922 and later being subject to Stalinist repressions spending there almost two decades served him as a prototype for his sculpture.

Anush Chubaryan, sculptor Chubaryan’s daughter recalled that her father found it very symbolic that when in 1962 Stalin’s huge sculpture was being removed in Yerevan the same time the gypsum version of Mkhitar Gosh was being placed near Matenadaran.


Turning Library into Research Institution

Matenadaran as an academic institution was active even before the completion of the building. In 1954 Levon Khachikyan (1918-1982), a prominent historian and philologist, was appointed its director, who spared no efforts to promote Matenadaran’s activities.


Levon Khachikyan

Levon Khachikyan


With its laboratories, reading halls, book depositories, exposition rooms, restoration and research facilities Matenadaran was at that time the most technically advanced institution of its type. With the personnel trained in Leningrad, Armenian specialists engaged in conservation and restoration of old manuscripts. A top expert in ancient Armenian manuscripts and highly knowledgeable researcher in different sources, Khachikyan stood at the core of elaborating development strategies of the institution. He also assisted to the establishment of a new generation of conservation and restoration specialists as well as scholars in old manuscripts. Under the guidance of Khachikyan Matenadaran turned from a library into a truly unique research institution with international fame.


One of the main exhibition halls of Matenadaran

One of the main exhibition halls


Khachikyan was sometimes bold in his ambitions relating to Matenadaran. He offered the Central Committee of the Communist Party in Moscow to nominate the institution for becoming a “first-class” one (this implied more financing etc. For comparison, it is worthwhile to recall that the renowned Hermitage in Leningrad then was only second-class institution) and oddly enough, he was successful.

Usually old and ancient manuscripts are kept in museums or special sections of libraries, but not in specialized institutions. Matenadaran was one of those rare cases when the research institution and museum were concentrated in the same place.

With years the flow of tourists to Matenadaran increased greatly, and it gradually became a leading tourist attraction in Yerevan. However in order to increase the visiting space, halls designed for research and conservation were used.


In Matenadaran’s laboratory

In Matenadaran’s laboratory


The need to have a new building became very urgent and it was designed in the late years of Soviet Union. In 1986 architect Artur Meschyan was commissioned to plan an additional building for Matenadaran. The plan was approved and construction started in 1987, however shortly after it stopped in 1988.

The construction did not resume until 2009 and was completed by 2011. The newer building of the Matenadaran is four times bigger than the older one, however thanks to unique architectural solutions by Meschyan it is practically invisible from the main entrance and does not in any way disrupt the original architectural integrity of the complex. The new building was constructed partly on the solid rock of the hill behind it, and is used entirely for the research purpose.

The arches along the building make it look smaller and less solid than it actually is, for the purpose of not shifting the accent from the main building of the complex.


Sen Arevshatyan

Sen Arevshatyan


Treasures of Matenadaran

Apart from being a library, a research institution, a museum, an architectural monument (by the way, listed in the UNESCO’s Memory of the World list since 1997) or a tourist attraction, Matenadaran is also a place with high symbolic value.

Since the national awakening in 1988 Matenadaran served as one of the focal points of Armenian nascent political thought and democracy and at times, when the Freedom Square was blocked by soviet troops, Matenadaran’s sizeable front yard hosted large rallies of protest. It was probably no coincidence that Levon Ter-Petrosyan, a senior researcher at Matenadaran, became a leader of the popular movement and independent Armenia’s first president.

Matenadaran is also a depository of yet another important symbol of the modern Armenian statehood, the oldest complete manuscript book kept in Matenadaran, which is a gospel of 7th century, saved and renamed “Vehamor” (“of Catholicos’ mother”). This book leaves the building walls only during the official swearing-in ceremony, when an Armenian president elect pronounces oath laying his hand on the book.




This book is only one among over 20,000 manuscripts, which are currently available in Matenadaran. Most of them are in Armenian, however there is a considerable quantity of old manuscripts in Arabic, Persian, Ottoman, Syriac, Greek, Latin, Old Georgian, Kipchak and other languages conserved there. Some of them are unique sources of regional and world history.

In some cases Armenian translations of foreign authors turn out to be the only surviving copies of their actual writings, thus making those manuscripts kept in Matenadaran of unique value.

Matenadaran is currently a thriving institution, which is engaged in a wide scope of international cooperation. The areas of cooperation include not only joint research of written materials but also preservation of old manuscripts, a special skills in which Matenadaran has reached excellence. It is no wonder that the task of renovating some old manuscripts damaged during the recent upheavals in the Middle East as well as training specialists from those countries will be entrusted to Matenadaran.


IX century Bible from Nor Jugha   

IX century Bible from Nor Jugha


It would be a mistake to assume that Matenadaran contains only old gospels and chronicles. The information contained in old books can be quite relevant for modern times. Some of them contain recipes of medicines, beverages, special types of food as well as dyes used in miniatures and illuminations. These can be used for the purpose of restoration as well as for sheer interest and even in modern pharmaceutics. Beverages extracted or brewed in accordance with medieval recipes, restored at Matenadaran are quite palatable to modern visitors who can buy them there.

Matenadaran has still a lot to research and preserve. Modern technologies can only help to discover its riches and display them from new and sometimes unexpected angles. Matenadaran is undoubtedly a treasury of Armenian culture and a landmark of Yerevan, spreading vibes of peace and intercultural cooperation first of all in science and arts, reminding of old-age ties that existed throughout the region and well beyond.


VII century Bible

VII century Bible                 




Currently there are about 23,000 manuscripts in Matenadaran’s collection, and about 300,000 documents. Among them are over 17,000 Armenian fully preserved manuscripts, others include manuscripts (full or partially preserved) on other languages (Latin, Arabic, Persian, Russian, French, Greek, etc).


Musuem’s collection is over 20000 manuscripts

Musuem’s collection is over 20000 manuscripts


Among the most significant manuscripts of the Matenadaran are the Lazarian Gospel (9th century), the Echmiadzin Gospel (10th century) and the Mughni Gospel (11th century). The first, so called because it was brought from the Lazarian Institute, is from 887 and is one of the Matenadaran’s oldest complete volumes. The Echmiadzin Gospel, dated 989, has a 6th-century, probably Byzantine, carved ivory cover. The Cilician illuminated manuscripts by Toros Roslin (13th century) and Sargis Pitsak (14th century), two prominent masters, are also held with high esteem.

The biggest manuscript in the collection is Msho Charyntir (1200-1202) with 601 pages and weight of 28 kg, while the smallest is 15th century Holiday Calendary (“Tonatsuyts”) – 104 pages and 19 grams.



Pages from some of the prominent medieval manuscripts held in Matenadaran