At the top of Mashtots Avenue, 18 meters above its level, as if rising from the rock, stands The Institute of Ancient Manuscripts (Matenadaran), built in 1957. Hardly a tourist leaves Yerevan without visiting the institute, one of the most interesting places in Armenia.
The monument to Mesrop Mashtots, who invented the Armenian alphabet in 405 AD, is situated in front of the building. The scholar is seated with one arm raised aloft, pointing the way to literacy and knowledge to his first pupil Koryun, who bends his knee before his teacher. The letters of the Armenian alphabet are carved into the wall behind.
Before the entrance to the museum, stand the sculptures of ancient philosophers, scientists and men of the arts including the forefather of national historiography Movses Khorenatsi (V century) and the prominent scientist Anania Shirakatsi (VII century). The interior of the building is enriched with sculpture, ceramic, fresco and mosaic, creating an impression of solemnity, as well as simplicity.
Matenadaran, which in ancient Armenian means “manuscript store”, is a major centre for the study and preservation of Armenian works of literature. In ancient times and the Middle Ages manuscripts were reverentially guarded in Armenia, and they played an important role in the people’s fight against spiritual subjugation and assimilation. The major monasteries and universities had special writing rooms, where skilled scribes copied books by Armenian scholars and writers, and Armenian translations of works by foreign authors.
Visitors to Matenadaran can see the best examples of manuscript books and the wonderful illustrations to them in the exhibition hall on the first floor. There are works on history, philosophy, mathematics, medicine, astronomy and geography. On a separate stand is the largest Armenian manuscript in the world, weighing 34 kilograms(700 calf skins were used in its compilation). Next to this giant is a tiny book measuring 3×4 centimeters and weighing a mere 19 grams.
Matenadaran is constantly acquiring manuscripts found in other countries. Several hundred books dating from the thirteenth to eighteenth centuries have recently been sent by Armenians living in Libya, Syria, France, Bulgaria, Romania, India and the USA. Many of these manuscripts are restored in a special laboratory so that the scholars can learn more about the history and culture of Armenia, the Caucasus, as well as the Middle East.
In early 2008, the Armenian government initiated the construction of a new building adjacent to the existing one. The new premise is 3 times bigger that the main one and serves as a depository of one of the world’s richest collections of handwritten books related to history, philosophy, medicine and literature.