500 Years of Armenian Printing Celebrated in US

Special Issue: Celebrating 500 Years of Armenian Printing
The Armenian Weekly, Sept. 1, 2012
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“To know wisdom and instruction; to perceive the words of understanding” (Proverbs 1:2). These were the first words translated into Armenian upon the creation of the Armenian alphabet in the early 5th century by St. Mesrob Mashdots. This year marks UNESCO’s selection of Yerevan as the World Book Capital of 2012, corresponding with the 500thanniversary of the first printed book in Armenian. The Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. has inaugurated an exhibition—which runs from April 19 to September 26—that features 76 items from Armenian print throughout the centuries.

A scene from the Library of Congress exhibit

Curator Dr. Levon Avdoyan authored the 100-page illustrated catalogue titled “To Know Wisdom and Instruction: 500 Years of Armenian Printing,” which describes the items on display at the Library of Congress. He stresses that although the celebration of the anniversary is important, its main goal is to illustrate the ancient literary tradition of the Armenian people. “We did not plan a beautiful exhibit, although there is plenty of beauty in it. We designed the exhibition to educate in a non-didactic way about all aspects of that tradition—including its musical extension.” The presentation, he added, “was fashioned to showcase the growth of the Armenian-language collections from some 7,000 items in 1992 to an estimated 45,000 today.”

The exhibition at the Library of Congress, through its various books, poems, and maps, represents large elements of Armenian history and culture since the 14th century. Avdoyan’s dedication to the exhibition has been instrumental in both its inception and continuation over the past several months. Two smaller exhibitions in the Greater Boston area also celebrated the 500th anniversary of Armenian printing this year.

Harvard University, with the assistance of several Armenian organizations such as the National Association for Armenian Studies and Research (NAASR) and the Armenian Cultural Foundation (ACF), held its own exhibit in April featuring the first Armenian printed book, Urbatagirk(“Book of Fridays”) by Jacob the Sinner. The director of NAASR, Marc Mamigonian, considers the exhibition both celebratory and educational. “The primary mission of the exhibition was to educate Harvard students who might otherwise be unaware of Armenian history and culture. Thus, the exhibition covered a lot of ground in a relatively succinct manner. I think the celebratory aspect of the exhibition is implied—we did not set out to make this a ‘hooray for the Armenians’ exhibition, but the texts and materials included testify to a book culture of which Armenians can be proud.”

An item from the Library of Congress exhibit

As the principle organizer of the event, Prof. James Russell of Harvard University reached out to Armenian groups in the area, as well as his colleagues at Boston University and Tufts for cooperation. This milestone is an opportunity for Armenians and non-Armenians to appreciate the antiquity and perseverance of the Armenian alphabet, he says.

“The Armenian alphabet was essential to the survival of the Armenian language, culture, and tradition. I think this story of cultural survival against unbelievable odds should be of interest to any person aware that cultural diversity is as vital as biodiversity, not only to the quality of life, but to life itself,” notes Russell, who holds the Mashtots Chair in Armenian Studies. He is very pleased with the popularity of the Harvard exhibit, and hopes for similar presentations that raise interest in the culture of Armenian print.

Shortly after the conclusion of the exhibit at Harvard, another opened at the Armenian Library and Museum of America (ALMA) in Watertown, featuring a larger collection of books on display, which will be shown through November 30. This exhibition focuses on similar aspects of the occasion, such as the creation of the Armenian alphabet, and the subsequent development of Armenian printing over the centuries. Many questions are addressed about Armenian history and the legacy of the manuscripts.

The exhibition will be accompanied by a day-long symposium at ALMA on Sat., Sept. 15.

Another exhibit will be opened in Michigan. on Oct. 18 with a keynote lecture by Levon Avdoyan. The exhibit is jointly organized by the Armenian Research Center-Dearborn and the Alex Manoogian Museum at the St John’s Armenian Church in Southfield, Mich. The first leg of the exhibit will be in the Mardigian Library at University of Michigan-Dearborn (Oct. 18 to mid-November), after which the exhibit will move to the Manoogian Museum (Dec. 11 to early January).


Lilly Torosyan

Lilly Torosyan is the Assistant Project Manager of Hamazkayin’s h-pem, an online platform to engage young diasporans in Armenian art and culture. She holds a master’s degree in Human Rights from University College London and a bachelor’s degree in International Relations from Boston University, where she served on the ASA Executive Board. Her writings primarily focus on highlighting unique facets of, and approaches to, identity, community, art and youth events.

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