The year is 1915. The mass extermination of the Armenians living in the Ottoman Empire and the destruction of Armenian heritage has commenced. In order to survive, untold numbers are forced to flee their homes, their livelihoods, their ancestral lands. Those who survive try to find refuge outside the borders of the Ottoman Empire. On the road to exile, there are those who desperately try to save what they can of their heritage, taking with them Armenian manuscripts to preserve their ancient culture from destruction. The largest Armenian language manuscript, “Homilies of Mush,” was among them.
The story goes that, while escaping to Eastern Armenia, two women from Mush find a large manuscript in the ruins of St. Arakelots Monastery. Realizing its value, they decide to try and save it at any cost. The manuscript, which weighed about 27.5 kg, is divided into two parts; each of them take one part and promise the other to deliver it safely to Eastern Armenia, in this way increasing the chances that at least one part of the manuscript can survive. And then they separate.
After days of struggles, one of the women reaches Etchmiadzin and hands over her half of the manuscript to a priest. It is believed that, when she reached the city, it was already midnight, and the priest forgot to ask her name. The journey of the other half of the manuscript, however, encounters many hardships. When the second woman reaches Erzurum, she becomes ill and decides to bury her part of the manuscript near a monastery in case something happens. After some time, the woman dies.
The manuscript lays buried until it is discovered by a Russian soldier, who takes it with him to Tbilisi. He hands it over to the Armenian Ethnographic Society, which is headed by Armenian ethnographer Yervand Lalayan.
Lalayan brings the manuscript to Yerevan and gives it to the Museum of Literature (currently the Yeghishe Charents Museum of Literature and Arts). Several years later, upon the establishment of the Matenadaran, the largest depository of Armenian manuscripts in the world, the two parts of the “Homilies of Mush” were finally reunited. The manuscript survives.
This beautiful and heartbreaking story is known by almost everyone in Armenia. There is a statue dedicated to the two women in Yerevan’s Circular Park, there are animated films about the survival of the manuscript and even a novel written by Italian-Armenian writer Antonia Arslan.
Whether the details of the story are accurate or not, today the “Homilies of Mush,” is displayed at Yerevan’s Mesrop Mashtots Matenadaran and continues to astonish visitors with its size and turbulent history.
Written in the beginning of the 13th century, the manuscript represents a series of ecclesiastical speeches, testimonials and descriptions of historical events, which are written according to church holidays. The “Homilies of Mush” is also adorned with mesmerizing illustrations, which are among the best examples of Armenian miniature artwork. According to records, the manuscript was commissioned by a wealthy merchant named Astvatsatur from the city of Baybert in 1200 and was written by Vardan in the Avag Monastery in Yerznka (currently Erzincan, Turkey). The author of the illustrations was a man named Stepanos. It took them about two years to complete the manuscript, the pages of which were made from calf and heifer skins.
Interestingly, the “Homilies of Mush” was saved from destruction not once, but twice. As records show, after it was completed, Mongol-Tatar forces invaded Baybert. Astvatsatur was killed and all of his belongings were taken, including the manuscript. Soon, Armenian priests from Mush learned that a Turkish judge had confiscated the manuscript, claiming that Astvatsatur owed him money. The priests collected money (around 4000 silver coins) and were able to negotiate the return of the manuscript. They took it to St. Arakelots Monastery in Mush, where it stayed for centuries until 1915.
It is believed that the manuscript originally had 660 pages. Currently, 601 pages are kept at the Mesrop Mashtots Matenadaran, 17 are at the Mekhitarist complex in Venice and one surviving page is at the Mekhitarist monastery in Vienna. Several pages of the manuscript were also kept at the Russian State Library, which were exchanged in 1977 and given to the Matenadaran.
Armenian illuminated manuscripts have always been one of the most striking examples of Armenia’s rich and diverse cultural heritage. During the Golden Age of Armenian arts and literature in the 5th century, the art of manuscript writing thrived in Armenia. For centuries, monks and priests in monasteries scattered throughout Western and Eastern Armenia spent years creating thousands of manuscripts, leaving behind a vast repository of cultural heritage. While thousands of those survived through the centuries, the destiny of many others is not known today.
“Throughout Armenian history, our spiritual and material heritage, especially our manuscripts, lived through the same good and bad days of our nation,” says Dr. Gevorg Ter-Vardanyan, the Head of Depositories at Yerevan Mesrop Mashtots Matenadaran.
Because of their unique features and superb illustrations, Armenian manuscripts have been constantly subjected to vandalism and destruction by foreign invaders during different time periods. For example, in 1170, when Seljuk Turks invaded Syunik’s Baghaberd forest, they destroyed around 10,000 manuscripts. However, as Ter-Vardanyan notes, Armenians have always worshiped books and manuscripts, and sometimes went through unimaginable hardships to preserve them.
“I remember I read in the record of an old Gospel that, during the 16th century, Turks invaded an Armenian village in Artsakh, looted the church and took captives,” Ter-Vardanyan says. “After some period of time, the priest of the church, whose sons were in captivity, learned that the invaders would free them for a ransom. He travelled to Gandzak and, upon arrival, saw that the church gospel was also on sale. With a heavy heart, the priest gave all his money and took the manuscript, leaving his two sons in captivity.”
Towards the end of the 19th cenury and during the first two decades of the 20th century, the systematic genocide of Armenians in the Ottoman Emprie became the most devastating period for Armenian cultural heritage. When invading Armenian cities and villages, Turkish soldiers not only destroyed churches and cultural monuments but also stole and burned thousands of ancient Armenian manuscripts. The “Homilies of Mush,” the gospel and hundreds of other manuscripts survived thanks to numerous sacrifices, but what about other manuscripts?
According to Ter-Vardanyan, scientific cataloguing of Armenian manuscripts started relatively late, toward the end of the 19th century. Consequently, the exact number of manuscripts created in Western and Eastern Armenia is not known. In his book “Genocide and the Loss and Survival of Our Manuscripts,” Ter-Vardanyan writes that, according to very rough calculations, there were around 62,500 Armenian manuscripts extant just before the genocide. However, even though thousands of manuscripts from Vaspurakan and other places had been collected and transferred to Armenia—thanks in great part to the efforts of Catholicos Gevorg V—there are now only about 31,000 preserved Armenian manuscripts throughout the world.
According to different accounts by priests, the number of preserved manuscripts was much higher than the number reaching Armenia. For example, around the 1910s, Yervand Lalayan travelled to Van and wrote descriptions of around 1,565 surviving manuscripts from Vaspurakan, which were hidden during the Hamidian massacres of 1894-1896. Later, only a portion of those reached Armenia. Because of the chaotic nature of that journey, hundreds of manuscripts were lost and their destiny is still unknown.
As Ter-Vardanyan writes, Turkish soldiers did not always burn the manuscripts. There are several genocide survivor accounts which indicate that, along with church treasures, the soldiers also stole manuscripts. It is believed that, today, thousands of Armenian books and manuscripts are hidden in the Turkish archives and libraries. Ter-Vardanyan says that, several years ago, one of his colleagues from Europe had a chance to explore Turkish libraries and museums, and saw a variety of Armenian manuscripts on the shelves. The man, however, was told in advance that he should not tell anyone about the manuscripts he saw in the archive. And this is not the only story indicating that Turkey hides Armenian heritage within its archives. Ter-Vardanyan says that, several years ago, someone from Turkey contacted him and told him that one of the museums in a Turkish city has chests full of Armenian manuscripts. The person mentioned that those can be taken to a third country, where experts can inspect them with the purpose of purchasing them. However, the transaction never came to pass.
Dr. Ter-Vardanyan believes that, besides the demand to recognize the Armenian Genocide, Armenia should also insist on getting back its cultural artefacts kept in different archives in Turkey. According to him, the first and most important step is to properly research and finalize the lists of all Armenian manuscripts, and later raise the issue in international courts. Even though benefactors have donated ancient Armenian manuscripts gathered from different corners of the world to the Matenadaran, the fate of many others still remains unknown.
Special thanks to the staff of the Mesrop Mashtots Institute of Ancient Manuscripts.