The Armenian alphabet

In spite of his age – next year he will be eighty –, Andrei Bitov is a prominent figure in Russian postmodern literature. In 2006 his collection of surrealist short stories Дворец без царя (A Palace Without a Tsar) received the Ivan Bunin Award. However, his first major work was the Уроки Армении (Lessons about Armenia), published in 1978, at the age of forty-nine, in which he compiles a subjective encyclopedia of his everyday observations and reflections gathered during his Armenian journey. Last year, this book was awarded the Yasnaya Polyana Prize, a most prestigious Russian literary recognition. Below we translate a part of the entry “Alphabet”.

“If not the first, but at least the second question that had been asked of me after arriving on Armenian soil, was: ‘Well, how do you like our alphabet? Beautiful, isn’t it? Tell me, but really, which one you find prettier, yours or ours?’

“It is a great alphabet, in which the sound is perfectly matched by the graphical representation. The whole is directed to one purpose, the circle closes up. The stubborn sound of the Armenian speech (‘the Armenian language is a wild cat,’ writes Mandelstam), coincides with the forged iron shape of the Armenian letters, the words mounted in writing clank like a chain. I can clearly imagine how these letters were created in the smithy: The metal bends under the hammer blows, the slag burns out of it, and only the bluish luster remains, which for me is present in every Armenian letter. With these letters you could shoe a living horse. Or you could carve them out of stone, because in Armenia the stone is just as natural as the alphabet, and neither the hardness nor the malleability of the Armenian letters is in contrast to the stone. And the upper arch of the Armenian letters is just as similar to the shoulder or vault to the ancient Armenian churches, as this same arch appears in the outline of their mountains or the contours of the female breast. So, to the Armenians, this surprising merging of hardness and softness, rigidity and flexibility, male and female, both in the landscape and in the air, in the buildings and in the people, and, of course, in the sound of the language, is universal.

“This alphabet was created once for all, in an ever-valid perfect form by a brilliant man, who deeply felt the spirit of his birthplace. This man was the image of God in the moment of creation. After the creation of the alphabet, this was the first phrase he mounted in writing:

Ճանաչել զիմաստութիւն եւ զխրատ, իմանալ զբանս հանճարոյ

Čanačʿel zimastutʿiwn ew zxrat, imanal zbans hančaroy

“And this phrase exactly means what it includes:

For gaining wisdom and instruction; for understanding words of insight.

(Solomon’s Proverbs, 1:1-2)

“When he mounted in writing – not ‘wrote down’ or ‘drew’ – this sentence, he discovered that one letter was still missing. Then he created it. Since then, 405 A.D., the Armenian alphabet ‘stands.’

“To me, there can be no more compelling story. You can find out a man, and you can also find out a letter, but you cannot find out a man who has forgotten a letter. It could only happen like this. So, this man did exist. He is no legend, but just as historical a fact, as the alphabet itself. His name was Mesrop Mastots.

“If it were up to me, I would erect a monument to Mastots with a statue of this last letter as solid evidence that he was right.”

mashtots mashtots mashtots mashtots mashtots mashtots mashtots mashtots mashtots mashtots mashtots mashtots mashtots mashtots mashtots mashtots mashtots mashtots
However, to the Armenians all letters are equally important. Therefore, they commemorate Mashtots with the statues of each letter, carved in the form of a khachkar (medieval Armenian stone cross) in Oshakan, in the monastery founded by him, where, since 440, his tomb has been a pilgrimage site to all the Armenian faithful, as well as in the nearby “Field of the Armenian alphabet”.

The other images are from Ganzasar monastery, Karabagh, where Mastots first established a monastic school for the teaching of the Armenian script