Mesrop Mashtots invented the Armenian alphabet in 405 CE through a commission to strengthen the Christian faith, which Armenia had adopted as its state religion in 301. Although Mashtots visited many famous Christian centers in search of suitable letters to express spoken Armenian, chroniclers ascribed his invention to the Lord. As Movses Khorenatsi, the father of Armenian history writes, Mashtots saw “neither in his dream nor awake, not as a vision but in his heart and with the eye of his soul,” how the Lord’s hand was writing “on the stone like on the snow.” However that may be, the letters of the invented alphabet were close to the Greek alphabet.
According to legend, Mashtots began by translating the Biblical phrase, “to know wisdom and instruction; to perceive the words of understanding,” from the Book of Proverbs. The early letters called yerkatagir (“engraved with an iron [chisel]”) referred to lapidary inscriptions important since these early times in Armenia and, probably, reflected the legend. During the fifth century, known as the Golden Age of Armenian culture, Mashtots’ invention led to a rich tradition of manuscript production.
Armenians today regard their alphabet as an important symbol of national identity. The script is present in numerous souvenirs, miniature brooches, and embroidered letters. It appears also in larger forms—shaped and engraved on khachkars (cross-stones), exhibited as street art, and in the city or in public stone “gardens” on the slopes of Mount Aragat.
With the global boom in electronic communications, the traditional art of writing has decreased, even to the point of vanishing. With the dedication of calligraphers, what was once both art and craft can return.
Ruben Malayan is an artist who is inspired passionately by Armenian script. He and other artists can write Armenian letters beautifully, and even create new, elaborate Armenian fonts for computer programs, which ironically are threatening the art of writing. In addition to his calligraphic skills, Malayan dreams of teaching calligraphy to children—a dream gradually coming true.
At the Tumo Center for Creative Technologies in Yerevan, Malayan created a large map with inscriptions in calligraphy by his young pupils—an example of cartographic craft that immediately became a work of art. Malayan wants calligraphy to be not just a momentary fancy but something to stay indelibly with his pupils. To do so, he will teach future artists the art of writing in one of Yerevan’s art colleges.
In the process of learning calligraphy from artists like Malayan, students are helping to revive not only Armenian calligraphy but also their own handwriting.