September 2006


Shat lav!

I am back in Weimar.

My trip from Vanadzor, Armenia, to here was, thankfully uneventful. I splurged on my trip back, spending 14,000 dram instead of 5,000, just so that I could stop by the Museum of Armenian Letters. For most Armenians, this price differential is huge, but since I am rarely in Armenia, splurging seemed like the order of the day.

The Museum of Armenian Letters does something that is typical of Armenian culture: celebrate the alphabet.

The Celebration of the Armenian Alphabet is everywhere you go in Armenia. From my first stop, in Kapan, a mining city about 100 kilometers from Iran, to Vanadzor, and everywhere in between, I saw many celebrations of the alphabet.

Saint Mesrop MashtotsIn Kapan, my friend R took me to church on Sunday morning—his Armenian Christian Church is named in honor of Saint Mesrop Mashtots, the man who was given, from God, the Armenian alphabet in the early part of the fifth century. He did so to help bring Christian materials into the Armenian language, developing 36 letters along the way. (A few more have since been added to help cope with sounds introduced by foreign tongues.)

It started me pondering the Latin alphabet at this juncture.

Outside of childhood, I cannot recall ever having celebrated the alphabet—and in childhood, I only saw posters of the alphabet at school and on my bedroom wall (Mother helpfully put up a poster of the multiplication table as well). In my school, once we had learned to print the alphabet and, later, to write cursive, the alphabet posters vanished.

Saint Mesrop MashtotsThe last time I was at the Library of Congress in Washington was a very long time ago, and the Matenadaran in Yerevan is not quite the same—it’s a historic archive of important Armenian manuscripts—a wealth of material, much of which was nearly destroyed by Turkey at the beginning of the twentieth century. The collection on display inside the Matenadaran is stunning—it’s amazing to see the illuminated manuscripts with colors so bright and vivid, you would swear they had just been inked yesterday. Welcoming visitors to the archive is a statue of St. Mashtots teaching the alphabet to a pupil, and after you’ve entered, as you climb the stairs to the small museum, you pass under a mural of St. Mashtots with the alphabet.

I lost count of the number of times I saw imagery of the alphabet around Kapan and Yerevan—but I noted in my diary how common the celebration of the alphabet was—and I even bought a woolen hanging with the alphabet on it, along with Mt. Ararat (another common image used in Armenia, but more on that some other time).

Then, the piece de resistance: I was sitting in a car (technically a Marshrutka), along with three other passengers and the driver, en route from Yerevan to Vanadzor. Along the way, I was looking out the windows, enjoying the beautiful scenery, when I looked left and realized we were passing something related to the Armenian Alphabet. There was a veritable forest of letters and people were crawling all over them and taking photos.

Later that evening, I was talking to the B&B owner’s daughter, and I described seeing this park—she, and the family, immediately knew what I was talking about and they too had been to the park and taken photos. I immediately decided that I wanted to see the park in person, even if it meant taking a taxi to the airport instead of riding in a Marshrutka to Yerevan and then taking a taxi from there.

Luck was smiling upon me, for when I arrived at the park, the weather could not have been more picture perfect, and I got the photos I wanted. The driver kindly took my photo as well, and when we got back in the taxi to continue our journey south, all I could say was “shat lav”: very good.

Me and A!

This is me and the Armenian letter “A”.

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