Archive for January, 2012

Armenian Printing: The Prelude

January 27th, 2012    |    No Comments »

The first Armenian book to be printed with Gutenberg’s movable type was published in Venice five centuries ago this year. Titled “Urbatagirk,” or the “Friday Book,” Hakob Meghapart’s trailblazing 124-page collection of prayers, cures for illnesses, and quotations from Gregory of Narek was released in Venice in 1512.

But the appearance of the Armenian alphabet in a printed book predates this milestone by 26 years. This credit goes to a German travelogue on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, printed on June 21, 1486. Now, thanks to the digitization efforts of the Bayerische Staatsbibliothek in Munich, Germany, the 526-year-old alphabet, along with its original transliteration, can be viewed online here.

There is, however, an important distinction to be made between the alphabet and Meghapart’s work: the Armenian alphabet in the German book (unlike the printed book itself) was realized through an engraved woodcut block, not the printing press of Meghapart’s “Urbatagirk.” In other words, Meghapart remains the pioneer of Armenian printing—an effort that paved the way for the mass-production of myriad Armenian books.

Still the German travelogue, known by its Latin name “Peregrinatio in terram sanctam,” deserves mention in this 500th anniversary year of Armenian printing, and we are grateful to Dr. Levon Avdoyan, the Armenian collection specialist at the Library of Congress, for pointing out the digital version.

“Peregrinatio in terram sanctam” was authored by Bernard von Breydenbach, the dean of the cathedral of Mainz, which, as it happens, is also the birthplace of Gutenberg, and illustrated by the Dutch artist Erhard Reuwich. The volume describes the pilgrims’ journey from Germany to Jerusalem between April 1483 and January 1484, and makes note of the different peoples—Greeks, Jews, Syrians, Ethiopians, and Armenians, among others—they encountered on their travels.

Of the 12 editions of the “Peregrinatio” printed between 1486 and 1522, only two contain the Armenian alphabet—a testament to both the fallibility of woodcut printing and the revolutionary nature of the Gutenberg printing press. The Rev. Fr. Vrej Nersessian, the former curator-in-charge of the Christian Middle East department at the British Library and a leading scholar on Christianity in the Middle East, offers a detailed comparison of the various editions of “Peregrinatio” in a 1991 article in the Journal of the Society for Armenian Studies. Fr. Nersessian was also the first to translate Breydenbach’s description of the Armenians into English.

“…These Armenians are in sufficient number in Jerusalem to have their Bishop,” Breydenbach wrote. “[They] have a large and impressive Church of St. James which is situated in the place where the Apostle was beheaded and martyred.” The favorable observations quickly turn critical as Breydenbach identifies the “errors” of the Armenians, enumerating the ways in which their religious customs differ from those of the Roman Catholic Church.

His last line reads: “The Armenians have a language of their own which has as much in common with ours as the Divine Liturgy which they practice.” It is followed by the curious woodblock alphabet.

That Armenian history stretched far into the past was not lost on Breydenbach. But perhaps even he could not have guessed that at the dawn of modernity, this very alphabet, set to movable type by Meghapart, would help cement a national identity from Venice to Jerusalem to Etchmiadzin, and beyond.

The Armenian alphabet in the 1486 German travelogue "Peregrinatio in terram sanctam." As the Rev. Fr. Vrej Nersessian notes, the alphabet is missing the letter "o."