(53 Mesrop Mashtots Av; www.matenadaran.am; 10.00-16.00 Tue-Sat; closed Sun & Mon)
Armenia’s ancient manuscripts library, the Matenadaran, stands like a cathedral at the top of Yerevan’s grandest avenue. It preserves more than 17,000 Armenian manuscripts and 100,000 medieval and modern documents, but the original single display room could show fewer than 1% of them. A second room was opened in 2006 to show manuscripts from the Armenian kingdom of Cilicia. The museum provides virtually the only opportunity in Armenia to see examples of this important art form.
The first Matenadaran for Armenian texts was built by St Mesrop Mashtots at Vagarshapat (Echmiadzin) in the 5th century. By the early 19th century only 1800 manuscripts were kept at Echmiadzin, after centuries of invasion, looting and burning. The collection grew in importance after the Armenian genocide in WWI saw the destruction of countless tomes.
The current Matenadaran was built in 1959, with a research institute dedicated to preserving and restoring manuscripts attached to it. At the base of the building there is a statue of Mashtots teaching his alphabet to a disciple, while six other statues of great scholars and writers stand by the door. The outdoor gallery has carved rock tombs and khatchkars brought here from ancient sites around Armenia.
Inside, the collection includes Greek and Roman scientific and philosophical works, Iranian and Arabic manuscripts, and the 15th century Homilies of Mush, so heavy that it was ripped in half and carried by two women after the 1915 genocide. The book was not put together until years afterwards – one saviour had emigrated to America. The illuminated works on display show swirls of red and gold combining classical borders with luxuriant flowers and gardens. Many of the more rare books in the collection are researched behind closed doors and are not on display.
The ticket office is entered from the outside to the right of the main entrance steps and the gift shop (a good collection of books and souvenirs) to the left - it is worth paying for the English-speaking guide. Items include the oldest-surviving manuscript (dating from 989), the earliest Armenian printed book (printed in Venice in 1512) and translations of many important works into Armenian. Armenians are particularly proud of the copy of Ptolemy's map which shows Armenia extending from the Black Sea to the Caspian.
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