The Matenadaran is one of the oldest and richest book-depositories in the world. Its collection of about 17000 manuscripts includes almost all of the areas of ancient and medieval Armenian culture and sciences - history, geography, grammar, philosophy, law, medicine, mathematics, cosmography, theory of calendar, alchemy, chemistry, translations, literature, chronology, art history, miniature, music and theatre, as well as manuscripts in Arabic, Persian, Greek, Syrian, Latin, Ethiopian, Indian, Japanese , other. In this center of cultural heritage many originals, lost in their mother languages and known only by their Armenian translations, have been saved from loss. The history of the Matenadaran dates back to the creation of the Armenian alphabet in 405. It is named after the creator of the alphabet Mesrop Mashtots. This center of manuscripts has a history of centuries. The nucleus of this collection is the Echmiadzin Patriarchal Matenadaran.
According to the 5th century historian Ghazar Parpetsi the Echmiadzin Matenadaran existed as early as the 5th century. It got a particular importance after 1441 when the Residence of Armenian Supreme Patriarch-Catholicos removed from Sis (Cilicia) to Echmiadzin.
Hundreds of manuscripts started to be copied in Echmiadzin and nearby monasteries, especially in the 17th century. Little by little the Echmiadzin Matenadaran became one of the richest manuscript depositories in the country. In a colophon of 1668 it is noted that in the times of Philipos Supreme Patriarch (1633-1655) the library of the Echmiadzin monastery was enriched with numerous manuscripts. The manuscript procuring was widely practiced during the rule of Hakob Jughayetsi (1655-1680). Unfortunately, during the 18th century Echmiadzin was subjected to repeated attacks of the enemies. Already at the beginning of the 19th century only a small number of the manuscripts were left from the rich collection of the Echmiadzin Matenadaran. After the Eastern Armenia joined Russia in 1828, a new era started for the Echmiadzin Matenadaran. The Armenian cultural workers procured new manuscripts and put them in order with more confidence. The famous specialist of manuscripts Hovhannes archbishop Shahkhatunian compiled the first catalogue of manuscripts of the Echmiadzin Matenadaran, which included 312 manuscripts. Its French and Russian translations with a preface written by academician M. Brosset were published in St. Petersburg in 1840. The second and larger catalogue, which included 2340 manuscripts, was compiled by Daniel bishop Shahnazarian and is known as 'Karenian catalogue' after the name of the publisher. It was published in 1863. The number of the Matenadaran manuscripts was especially increased later, when private specialists were involved in procuring, description and preservation of the manuscripts.
In 1892 the Matenadaran had 3158 manuscripts, in 1897 - 3338, in 1906 - 3788 and on the eve of the World War 1st (1913) - 4060 manuscripts. In 1915 the Matenadaran received 1628 manuscripts from Vaspurakan (Lim, Ktuts, Akhtamar, Varag, and Van) and Tavriz.
On December 17, 1929, the Echmiadzin Matenadaran was decreed state property. The 4060 manuscripts which had been taken to Moscow in 1915 for safekeeping were returned in April 1922. Some more 1730 manuscripts, collected from 1915 to 1921 were added to this collection. Soon the Matenadaran received collections from the Moscow Lazarian Institute of Oriental Languages, the Tiflis Nersessian Seminary, Armenian Ethnographic Society, the Yerevan Literary Museum, etc. In 1939 the Echmiadzin Matenadaran was transferred to Yerevan. To facilitate the safety and research of the manuscripts, on March 3, 1959, according to the decision of the Armenian Government, the Matenadaran was reorganized into an institute of scientific research with special departments of scientific preservation, study, translation and publication of the manuscripts. The cataloguing and description of the manuscripts and archive documents was put on a scientific basis. Thanks to hard efforts, today the Matenadaran can offer a number of catalogues, guide-books of manuscript notations and card indexes. The funds of the Matenadaran are the following - the manuscript fund, the archives, the library and the press fund. To preserve the treasures of the cultural heritage and to extend their lives, the restoration and bindery departments were opened, where new methods are being worked out using the achievements of contemporary science and technics. The scientific work of the staff became more purposeful and systematic after the reorganization of the institute. Only after 1959 the scholars of the Matenadaran have published more than 200 books, including armenological works of great scientific value. The volumes of the scientific periodical 'Banber Matenadarani' ('Herald of the Matenadaran'), are also being published. In order to give the scholars a wider opportunity to study the Armenian hand-written treasures and to make this work easier, the Matenadaran can offer them the scientific description of the manuscripts. In 1965 and in 1970 the 1st and 2nd volumes of the brief catalogues of the Armenian manuscripts were published, containing detailed auxiliary lists of chronology, fragments, geographical names and forenames.
In 1984 the 1st volume of the Main Catalogue was published. In the course of the last decades the Matenadaran has published a great number of old Armenian literary monuments and among them the works of the ancient Armenian historians Koriun, Yeghisheh (5th century), Sebeos, Hovhan Mamikonian (7th century), Kirakos Gandzaketsi (13th century), 'History of Georgia' ('Kartlis Tskhovreba'), the Armenian translations of the Greek philosophers Theon of Alexandria (1st century), Zeno, Hermes Trismegistus (3rd century),works of the Armenian philosophers David Anhaght (5th-6th centuries), Hovhan Vorotnetsi, Grigor Tatevatsi (14th century), works of the medieval poets Hovhannes Yerzenkatsi (13th-14th centuries), Khachatur Kecharetsi (14th century), Martiros Ghrimetsi (17th century), Naghash Hovnathan, Paghtasar Dpir (18th century), etc. Of a great value are the 'hishatakarans' (colophons) of the Armenian manuscripts, volumes of short chronicles and Persian Firmans (Decrees). The development of science in our country, the exhibiting facilities of the Matenadaran brought an unprecedented recognition to this great Armenian manuscript depository, promoting the procuration of the manuscripts.
Individuals both in Armenia and foreign countries often donate preserved manuscripts and fragments to the Matenadaran. It is enough to mention Harutiun Hazarian from New York, who has donated 397 Armenian and non-Armenian manuscripts; Rafael Markossian from Paris has bequeathed his motherland 37 manuscripts; Varouzhan Salatian of Damascus donate more than 150 manuscripts in memory of his parents; Arshak Tigranian of Los Angeles, Karpis Jrbashian and Gevorg Bakirjian of Paris and many others. Appreciable are the names of those hundreds of individuals having in their possession only one manuscript, who have given it away nonetheless.
In 1969 95-year old Tachat Markossian of Gharghun village (New Julfa, Iran), sent a manuscript to the Matenadaran, dated 1069, copied in the Narek Monastery, having as prototype 5th century Gospel, written by Mesrop Mashtots. Hovhannes Bostanian of Lyon, France, lived through the genocide (1915), without parting with the only manuscript and only in 1967 he had an opportunity to come to the Motherland and to donate it personally to the Matenadaran.
Julien Hovsepian of New York had only one fragment of an Armenian manuscript with a rare miniature, and he gave it to the Matenadaran. All the treasures of the Mashtots Matenadaran are being worked up and studied in the departments of scientific preservation and bibliography and are open for historians, philologists and scholars, who study different branches of science, giving an opportunity for a thorough study of all the branches of the medieval history and culture. Each sample of the ancient Armenian culture is significant and the staff of the Matenadaran jealously endeavors to save them from loss. For this purpose planned works are being carried out to register the manuscripts kept by individuals both in the native country and abroad. Many dedicated devotees of Armenian manuscript relics, young and old, are voluntarily involved in this work. The administration of the Matenadaran also places great emphasis on the acquisition of microfilms of Armenian manuscripts kept in foreign museums and libraries in order to complete the scientific research and publications.