Armenia’s ancient manuscripts library, the Matenadaran, stands like a cathedral at the top of Yerevan’s grandest avenue. It preserves more than 17,000 Armenian manuscripts and 100,000 medieval and modern documents. The first Matenadaran for Armenian texts was built by St Mesrop Mashtots at Vagarshapat (Echmiadzin) in the 5th century.
By the early 19th century only 1800 manuscripts were kept at Echmiadzin, after centuries of invasion, looting and burning. The collection grew in importance after the Armenian genocide in WWI saw the destruction of countless tomes. The current Matenadaran was built in 1959, with a research institute dedicated to preserving and restoring manuscripts attached to it.
At the base of the building there is a statue of Mashtots teaching his alphabet to a disciple, while six other statues of great scholars and writers stand by the door. The outdoor gallery has carved rock tombs and khatchkars brought here from ancient sites around Armenia. Inside, the collection includes Greek and Roman scientific and philosophical works, Iranian and Arabic manuscripts, and the 15th-century Homilies of Mush, so heavy that it was ripped in half and carried away to safety by two women after the 1915 genocide. The book was not put back together until years later – one saviour had emigrated to America. The illuminated works on display show swirls of red and gold combining classical borders with luxuriant flowers and gardens.
Many of the rarer books in the collection are researched behind closed doors and are not on display. The ticket office has a gift shop with a nice collection of books and souvenirs.