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Ancient Armenia gave faith an alphabet

By Rich Barlow | October 29, 2005

Few birthdays are cause for a global scholars’ conference at Harvard, but they’re raising a metaphorical glass in Cambridge to toast the Armenian alphabet. It’s not just that at 1,600 years old the alphabet makes Methuselah look like a youngster. These three dozen letters gave a written language of faith to a pivotal country in Christian history.

Years before the Roman emperor Constantine’s famous conversion, Armenia was the first country to adopt Christianity as its state religion, in the year 301. At the time, Armenian was a spoken tongue only, meaning worshipers relied on translators during services to interpret a Bible that was written in other languages.

”Bare oral translations,” an Armenian theologian later wrote, ”were insufficient to satisfy the aspirations of the heart.”

A fifth-century priest, Mesrob Mashtotz, sated those aspirations, devising a 36-letter script (two more letters were added later) so the Old and New Testaments could be rendered in Armenian. For Armenians worldwide, including the Armenian Apostolic Church, religion and language would become intertwined as the life supports keeping the nation’s culture and heritage alive outside the homeland, says James R. Russell, Mesrob Mashtotz professor of Armenian studies at Harvard.

The two-day conference, which ends today, featured a speech last night by one of two leaders of the Armenian Apostolic Church, Aram I, who is on an American tour.

From the life spans of Biblical figures to the millenia-long survival of Christianity itself, longevity is a leitmotif of religion, and Mashtotz’s alphabet is another case in point. His Armenian is phonetic, and its spelling has survived with little change, making it ”very easy for an Armenian schoolchild to pick up a manuscript 1,000 years old and read it,” says Russell. (Armenian and Protestant clerics, however, have undertaken a translation of the Bible into updated Armenian.)

The first words Mashtotz transcribed with his new alphabet were from the introduction to the Book of Proverbs, ”that men may appreciate wisdom.” The alphabet gave birth not just to an Armenian-language Bible but to translations of other Christian texts and a voluminous scholarship.

The effects spilled over beyond Armenia’s border; for example, Russell says that many works of Philo of Alexandria, the great Jewish theologian of the Greco-Roman era, have come down to us only because they survived in Armenian and subsequently were translated into Greek.

The language written by a holy man for religious purposes became the very muscle of Armenian national identity. While Joseph Stalin force-fed the Russian alphabet to several conquered peoples of the Soviet Union, Armenian was one of the rare languages he left untouched, says Russell. The dictator, ”being from the Caucasus [where Armenia is located], knew when to keep hands off,” Russell argues. After a brutal history that included Soviet domination and a genocide by the Ottoman Empire (though modern Turkey disputes the use of that term to describe the slaughter), millions of Armenians live abroad, including about 1 million in the United States. Although Armenia gained freedom after the Soviet Union disintegrated in 1991, political turmoil and poverty have swollen the diaspora, with an estimated million Armenians leaving the homeland since independence.

Aram I’s extended tour — he’s visiting various American cities in addition to the Boston area — is in observance of two anniversaries, the alphabet’s and that of the Antelias Seminary, the 75-year-old institution in Lebanon that has educated generations of Armenian clergy. Aram lives in Antelias, where his branch of the church, the house of Cilicia, is based. (A second branch under another catholicos, or spiritual leader, operates out of Armenia.)

”Most of our candidates for the priesthood, wherever they’re from, usually go through that seminary,” says the Rev. Antranig Baljian, the pastor of St. Stephen’s Armenian Apostolic Church in Watertown, where Aram presided at a welcoming service this week. ”I’ve done it; my son’s done it.”

A key thrust of Aram’s visit is to raise money to endow the seminary, as well as raise its profile. ”Even though that’s a seminary where many of our priests in America have attended,” says Baljian, ”our people don’t know about the seminary generally, the rank and file.”

Aram is treading on familiar territory. St. Stephen’s is part of the Armenian church’s Eastern Prelacy, which runs south to Florida and west to Wisconsin. The prelacy has five Massachusetts parishes with about 2,000 member families, and St. Stephen’s is the largest. This will be the third visit by the catholicos to that parish in the last decade.

Says Baljian, ”He always comes to Watertown.”

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