Simple questions rarely have simple answers. That’s certainly true for the following question: “What is the oldest extant example of the Armenian alphabet?”
Initially I though it was a fairly straightforward question to ask and a simple google search would provide the answer. Surely there has to be the oldest surviving image of Armenian writing somewhere, be it carved in stone, minted on a coin or written in a manuscript and someone must have photographed it and put on the internet. But nothing is further from the truth, because in order to answer this question we first have to define the Armenian alphabet. And that’s where the complication only begins. The history of Armenian writing, like most of Armenian history is still shrouded in mystery.
The problem of definition
Most people who are familiar with the Armenian alphabet probably know that it was the 5th century monk by the name of Mesrop Mashtots who invented the Armenian alphabet, sometimes known as the Mesropian or Mashtotsian alphabet. However, there is plenty of evidence for the existence of an ancient Armenian alphabet(s) predating the 5th century.
For example Philo of Alexandria (20 BCE – 50 CE) in his writings noted that the work of the Greek philosopher and historian Metrodorus of Scepsis (ca. 145 BCE – 70 BCE), On Animals, was also translated into Armenian. Metrodorus was a close friend and a court historian of the Armenian emperor Tigranes the Great, and also wrote his biography.1 Surely he would have been familiar with an Armenian alphabet.
Another third century Roman theologian, Hippolytus of Rome (170-235 CE), in his Chronicle, while writing about his contemporary, Emperor Severus Alexander (reigned 208-235 CE), mentions that the Armenians are amongst those nations who have their own distinct alphabet.1
Philostratus the Athenian, a sophist of the second and third centuries CE, wrote:
And they say that a leopardess was once caught in Pamphylia which was wearing a chain round its neck, and the chain was of gold, and on it was inscribed in Armenian lettering: “The king Arsaces to the Nysian god”. 2
There is also plenty of evidence that medieval Armenian scholars knew about the existence of a pre-Mesropian Armenian alphabet.
For example according to Moses of Chorene (5th century historian), Bardesanes of Edessa (154-222 CE), went to the Armenian castle of Ani and there read the work of a pre-Christian Armenian priest named Voghyump, written in the Mithraic script of the Armenian. Moses notes that Bardesanes translated this Armenian book into Syriac (Aramaic), and later also into Greek. Indicating that the ancient Armenian alphabet was different from that of the Syriac and the Greek.1
Moreover, the biography of Mesrop Mashtots, written by his pupil Koryun, tells us that Mesrop and the King Vramshapuh of Armenia themselves knew very well about the existence of a pre-Christian Armenian alphabet. In fact King Vramshapuh was informed about the existence of a certain pre-Christian Armenian script, in possession of Bishop Daniel of Edessa. When the king learned of the synod’s decision, he dispatched his confidante Vahrich Khaduni to Mesopotamia to bring a sample of Daniel’s letters to the royal court for inspection by Mashtots and Sahak (the Catholicos at the time). Mesrop’s disciple Koryun details that when the Danielian script was brought to Armenia, his tutor began to revive the letters for the Armenian language.3
So the original account of Mesrops (re)invention of the Armenian alphabet itself recites the process of recovery of the Armenian alphabet rather than a blank invention. To what degree the letter shapes survived the recovery remains unknown. Whether Mashtots truly recovered the ancient Armenian alphabet or simply discarded it and invented completely new shapes, his work along with that of Catholicos Sahak and the King Vramshapuh has been monumental and worthy of utmost admiration.
Therefore it is also safe to conclude that any pre-Mesropian Armenian writing was already lost at that time or at least very hard to find.
Another important piece of evidence for the existence of a pre-Mesropian alphabet is the fact that the Armenian pre-Christian pantheon included Tir, who was the God of Writing and Science. Similarly pre-Christian Armenian mythology included a spirit known as Grogh. Grogh translates from Armenian as “writer” or “scribe”.
Unfortunately no stone inscription, manuscript or a photograph of the pre-Mashtotsian alphabet has surfaced to this day. That is, if we exclude the ancient (undeciphered) local hieroglyphs from the definition of an Armenian alphabet. Like the Vannic (Urartian), the Hittite or the Luwian (Indo-European) hieroglyphic scripts.
Recent archaeological find of (something resembling) an ancient script in Southern Georgia however, gives hope for future discovery of physical traces of an ancient Armenian alphabet. Even then however, the problem of deciphering due to lack of consistent characters and absence of bilingual translations would probably complicate the process. After all how do we know that 1) It’s a script? and 2) It’s a script for writing Armenian or any other language if we haven’t deciphered it? Such artifacts have to have a considerable quantity of characters and scholars have to be able to decipher them. But until then, for the sake of our journey, we’ll have to do with more credible traces of the Armenian alphabet.
The problem of dating
Next comes the problem of dating the artifacts. So what do we know so far and what artifacts are the contenders for answering our question? In order for us to attempt to answer these questions, we’ll have to dive into the science of Armenian paleography.
I’ve managed to trace several contenders. Most of them however suffer from the problem of dating and we have to rely on approximate dating. Let us examen them. When it comes to Mesropian alphabet we know that it was devised in the 5th century AD. Unfortunately there is very little that has survived from that era. Earliest firmly dated Armenian manuscripts for example come from the 9th century AD. Earlier undated inscriptional and manuscript material exists, but is dated with much less precision and authority than is offered by the abundance of securely dated material from the ninth century on. One exception is the only surviving Armenian script recorded on a papyrus in Egypt, the so called Armeno-Greek papyrus now in the Bibliothèque nationale de France.4 18
Why Armeno-Greek? Because it’s a Greek text written with the Armenian script. Scholars presume that it was written by an Armenian soldier in the Byzantine army or a merchant stationed in Egypt. They believe the author was attempting to learn the Greek language (the lingua franca of that era). The exact date of this artifact is unknown, but scholars agree that it must have predated the Arab invasion of Egypt in 640 AD. This piece of writing could have easily been from the 5th century for all we know. Why it’s not being carbon dated is beyond my comprehension. Perhaps a lack of interest in Armenian literary history.
Another prominent contender for the oldest Armenian inscription, and perhaps the best dated one, is the lapidary inscription on the Church of Saint Sarkis in Tekor in historical Armenia what is presently a Turkish town of Digor in the Kars Province (16km. from the Armenian border). An inscription on the lintel over the western entrance described the structure as “this Saint Sargis’ martyrion” and said that it was built by Prince Sahak Kamsarakan and consecrated by the Patriarch Yohan Mandakuni. The mentioning of these individuals dates the church to the 480s.5 6 7
This inscription was the oldest known example of Armenian lettering and ran, unusually, from bottom to top. This church is also generally held to be the earliest known domed Armenian church.7
Unfortunately virtually nothing of this church remains today. The church was damaged in an earthquake early in the twentieth century and left to ruin and pillage. Most of the damage however was inflicted by Turkish authorities. According to the residents of Digor, the facing stone was removed during the 1960s and used to construct the Digor town hall. This building was demolished in the 1970s and the fate of the stone is unknown.6
“The giant church of Tekor has collapsed and presents a pitiful picture. The image is so disturbing that at first one needs some time to recover from the shock.”
– Ashkharbek Kalantar, writing in 1920
Armenian graffiti in the Holy Land
Armenian presence in Israel predates even Christianity and during the reign of Tigranes the Great it was even part of the Armenian empire. However, its importance in the Armenian culture only reared during the Christian era. Armenia is considered to be the first Christian nation in history, and as such Armenian monks and pilgrims have left many traces of their early presence in the Holy Land.
Dr. Michael E. Stone professor of Armenian studies at Hebrew University of Jerusalem has published perhaps some of the earliest known examples of Armenian script in his book.8 13 Dr. Michael E. Stone worked in the 1970s and early 80ies in the Sinai desert where they found extremely old Armenian inscriptions, not just on Mount Sinai but also in various stopping places in the desert. They were dated archaeologically between 430 and 440 AD, which means they were written in all likelihood when St. Mesrop Mashtots was still alive.
Dr. Stone found several other early Armenian graffiti inscriptions which he considers to be the oldest Armenian writings known to date. A tombstone found under the Catholic Basilica of the Annunciation in Nazareth, where Jesus grew up, contains an Armenian inscription. Dr. Stone dates this inscription before 447 (probably between 430-440). He derives at his date because when Catholic Latins build a new basilica at Nazareth, they discovered a mosaic floor that was damaged in an earthquake. It is known that this earthquake occurred in the year 447. Which means that anything bellow that mosaic floor must have at least been older than 447 AD. The Armenian inscriptions were found underneath the mosaic.
Armenian Mosaic in the Holy Land
About 1000 mosaic floors have been discovered in the land of Israel. Most have been dated to the Byzantine period, between the years 450 and 640, when Muslims conquered the area and church art declined. Most of the mosaics adorned the floors of Greek or Armenian churches.9
Another possible contenders for the oldest Armenian writing could be the several ancient mosaic’s that were found in Jerusalem. Dating these mosaics has proven to be challenging. Estimates range between 5th, 6th and 7th centuries.10
One of such famous mosaics is the so called “Armenian Bird Mosaic”.9 The mosaic floor was found in 1894 near Damascus Gate and the Musrara quarter. Soon after the discovery a room has been built on the top of the discovery, to guard the mosaic from the elements of nature. The plot is the property of the Armenian Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem. It has been dated to 5th-6th century based on the style and the iconography. The proposed dating for the mosaics is fifth to sixth centuries.5 11 (Bezalel Narkiss and Michael E. Stone in Armenian Art Treasures of Jerusalem, New Rochelle, NY, 1979, chapter one, ‘Mosaic Pavements’, pp. 21-28, provides a good discussion and ample bibliography.)
So it’s absolutely possible that this mosaic is the oldest remaining example of Armenian writing.
The inscription reads:
“To the memory and redemption of all the Armenians, whose names are known only to God”.
Armenian mosaics in Jerusalem from the similar era have been discovered several times in history. Another Armenian bird mosaic was discovered beneath the Russian Orthodox Convent of the Ascension located in the village of A-Tur.12 14 According to Orthodox tradition it is the site where Jesus ascended to heaven 40 days after resurrection. On the site of the convent were two 5th Century Armenian churches. One of them was named after John the Baptist. According to tradition his head was found in a jar hidden in a cavity under its floor. Mosaic floors were uncovered during the construction of the convent, and embedded in the chapel’s floor. The inscription mentions a certain “Jacob, Armenian Bishop of Metspin.”
“We never knew there were Armenians on the Mount of Olives, but a tombstone containing an Armenian inscription was found under the Russian Monastery there, proving that Armenians had settled near the place where Christ ascended into heaven on the fortieth day after his resurrection.” – Dr. M. Stone14
The hole in the ground is considered sacred, since according to the tradition it was the place where the head of John the Baptist was found in a jar, hidden by one of his followers in the 1st C, and rediscovered in the 5th C.
More recently, in 2012 a small fragment of an Armenian mosaic was found in Jerusalem, Mount of Olives.15 16 17 The Armenian inscription that was discovered by chance in the monastery was deciphered by M. Stone (M.E. Stone 2011. A New Armenian Inscription from a Byzantine Monastery Mount Scopus, Jerusalem. IEJ 61:230–235). It was revealed next to a cistern opening in a courtyard paved with a mosaic west of the church. The inscription was written in black and red tesserae. On the left side it has a cross of red tesserae and following it the name Grigor E. is written. Apparently the man’s name was followed by his religious title but that section of the inscription was damaged. The inscription ends with the two letters written in red, “K S”, which are an abbreviation of Christos.
The Narses Cross
Another interesting early Christian Armenian artifact is the silver Narses Cross displaying some of the earliest Armenian inscription around the perimeters of the cross and a precious gem, a single red garnet set in a gold filigree at the center. The Narses Cross has been in private collections since before 1956. The assessment of its design and manufacture, as well as the linguistic, palaeographic, and historical analysis of its inscription, attests its authenticity.11
Timothy Greenwood in his paper titled “A Corpus of Early Medieval Armenian Silver” published at Harvard dates the cross to the early Byzantine period (5th or 6th c. AD). He describes the dating as follows:
In terms of its manufacture and design, the Narses Cross is closely related to the family of early Byzantine silver crosses fashioned inside the Empire and should be distinguished, on several grounds, from the group of middle Byzantine crosses.
The inscription on the cross, translated reads:
I Nerseh Koms p‘ar˙ sinful and unworthy made this holy redeeming cross for [the church of] Saint Step‘anos in the village of P‘ar˙akert for the remission of my sins and for the repose + of the souls of our fathers and ancestors and for the prosperity and peace of Armenian houses and our villages and the family of Xorxor˙unik‘
In conclusion we can say that any of the above discussed examples could be the oldest remaining traces of the Armenian alphabet. However, because of lack of certainty it seems that none of them have the final claim to being the oldest, but rather all of them were created fairly close to the early days of the (re)invented Armenian alphabet by St. Mesrop Mashtots. It’s amazing that such examples have survived. It also seems that much has yet to be discovered be it in historic Armenia or any other community outside of Armenia. Considering the amount of discoveries being made in recent history, I am absolutely convinced that this is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to ancient traces of the Armenian alphabet.