Awag Vank' Gospels: transcript of audio
British Library curator Vrej Nersessian talking about the Awag Vank' Gospels in May 2007
Armenia: not at the edge, but at the centre
Christianity is an eastern religion. It's not a western religion. It's built on the Eastern Empire, on Constantinople, Byzantium, the Caucasus; so, it's after the seventh, eighth century that Christianity begins to move towards the west, Britain, Germany and so forth.
When you look at Syriac, Coptic, Ethiopian, Armenian, Georgian - these were the homes of the national churches, churches that did not belong to the Empire itself, who separated from the Empire as soon as they could. Because Christianity for them was not just a case of religion, but also of national identity - the need to create an alphabet, the need to create a literature, the need to read the Bible not in Greek or Syriac, but in Armenian, or Georgian.
So all this was quite a crucial issue for them, politically; the sooner they got separated from the Empire, the better, because otherwise I don't think they would exist.
Armenian Christianity comes in from Palestine soon after Christ. Armenians were already going to Jerusalem on pilgrimage; the earliest monument with an Armenian inscription in Jerusalem, on the Damscus Gate, is 461. So, even by the fifth century, Armenians had a hold on the holy sites.
An alphabet is born
But the difficulty with Armenia was that it was between Byzantium and Persia. So it had to decide politically which side to take. And so the Armenian alphabet was created in 406 by Mesrop Mashtots in order to have access to the holy scriptures, and this gave them the opportunity to get away from the Greek and the Syriac tradition.
It's a unique alphabet; unique in the sense that it has served the Armenian language from the fifth century to the 21st century. There hasn't been a single change in the alphabet. The uniqueness of it is that Mesrop Mashtots (written in Armenian, below) was able to determine the sounds of the language and for each sound you have one letter. So it's very simple, in one sense, writing it. Whether you write the letters, whether you connect them or disconnect them, they always keep their shape. They do not change at all.
It's a crucial part of Armenian culture. Anything you make, you include in it the script, because that's what gives it its permanence.
We have Western Armenian and Eastern Armenian, and Classical Armenian, which was the language of the Bible; but the script has remained the same. The same script serves both Western and Eastern Armenian; we have had no reason to change the script. The sounds of the language have remained.
Armenian is an Indo-European language, just like English or French is, in the sense that some of the root words are similar; the development is quite different.
Once the church was established, it's just gone on and on and on! Under the Arab rule, then the Mongols, then the Crusading period and so forth, the Soviets... The Soviet period is a sad period - it was for all the other denominations as well, but Armenians had quite a tough time. Then in 1991 it got its freedom, after 75 years, and the church is beginning to find its way around.
Awag Vank' Gospels: monument to a nation
The Awag Vank' Gospels is an unbelievable manuscript in any tradition. Copied in Erzenka, which is in eastern Turkey now. Uncial manuscript - large capitals.
But the interesting thing about that manuscript is that it traces the history of the manuscript from 1200 right up to 1921. Now this may not sound much; in some cases it's much more. The interesting thing about that manuscript (and many other manuscripts, but best exemplified in this manuscript) is that the manuscript is a memorial. It's something that people trace their history in.
In Armenian there is a saying: Isaiah says, Blessed is he who has a child in Zion. Now, the child in Zion, for Armenians, is a manuscript. Because it's the manuscript that is the source of the donor's, or the scribe's, or painter's, salvation. The idea being that a manuscript, when it is preserved, and the next generation sees it, the next generation has the duty to pray for those who had it copied.
In other words it's almost similar to building a church, or a bridge, or a city. So in that case this Awag Vank' is quite interesting. Because it traces the history of the Armenian massacres throughout the 18th and 19th century. And the reason why it's important is that it really seems to become the memorial of a nation. A living memorial - in other words, as long as the manuscript survives, that memory will also survive in the next generations. Whoever sees it has the duty to pray for the artists and the donor of that particular manuscript.
In eastern manuscripts, there is no rule and regulation. The artist has no format to follow; he can do anything he likes. Theologically he's not restrained, as in some other traditions.
No matter how much work we do in the west on Armenia, always they are just a footnote... Maybe it's an advantage, for preservation's sake!