Frescoes &
Art of Book
The Art of The Book

Printing and Engraving

By Ninel Voskanian

fter the creation of a special alphabet (the Armenian alphabet), the growth of printing was, for humanity as it was for Armenians, the next major step toward the universal diffusion of knowledge and the propagation of civilization. 

Because of a precarious geographical location, Armenia's primary concern was the preservation of her language and religion when national independence disappeared after the fourteenth century. Only by enormous sacrifice, both material and physical, was it possible to create Armenian schools and churches, open printing houses, and publish books in the native language. Just sixty years after the discovery of printing by Gutenberg, when a good number of advanced nations enjoyed independent power and financial security for the preservation of their language and culture, certain Armenians, fleeing their devastated country for different corners of the globe, through an immense personal effort also established printing houses. The latter, by the publication and diffusion of works in Armenian, created a resource of knowledge not just for Armenians in the diaspora, but also for their compatriots who suffered the vexatious yolk of foreign occupation. 

Urbat'agirk', Yakob Meghapart, Venice, 1512. Photo: Ara GülerThe first Armenian printer was Yakob (Hakob), a person of great accomplishment and humility, considering the contribution he made to his nation. Modestly he took the nick name Meghapart (Sinful). Hakob Meghapart founded, very far from Armenia, in Venice, by who knows what difficulties, a printing house and published the first book in Armenian characters -- Urbat'agirk' (Prayer book and Almanac) in 1511 or 1512. His efforts resulted in five different titles suited to the interest and needs of his nation, thus Urbat'agirk' is a mixture of rhymed prayers, tales inspired by legends and incantational prayers taken from amulets. It also contains the Holy Mass and the liturgical prayers used in the Armenian Church. Another book, the anthology Aght'ark, contains astrological and medicinal works. Parzatomar  is a calendar-almanac, while Tagharan  is an anthology of poetic works in which Armenian authors from the Middle Ages, such as Nersés Shnorhali, Frik, Hovhannés T'lkurants'i, and Mkrtich' Naghash, were published for the first time. 

The second Armenian printer was Abgar Dpir of Tokat, who undertook his typographic activities some fifty years after those of Hakob Meghapart in the same city of Venice. In 1565 on an over-sized sheet Abgar Dpir published the first Armenian calendar under the title Kharnayp'nt'or tomari (Universal Calendar) and then edited a book of Psalms. Eager to bring his work nearer to his own country, he moved his printing house to Constantinople and there continued with the publication of several precious works. 

The third printer was Hovhannés Terznets'i, who, together with Abgar Dpir's son, Sultanshah, translated and edited The Gregorian  Calendar in 1584 in Rome. The names of these four, Hakob, Abgar, Sultanshah and Hovhannés, are known to us through their printed books. During the first century of the Armenian press, there were also non-Armenians who were printing with Armenian characters, called Mesropian after the founder of the alphabet. For example in the Armenological works of Guillaume Postel, Ambrosius Theseus, Leonhart Thurneisser, and the orientalism of Palma Cayet samples of printing in Armenian characters can be found. 

During the centuries following the discovery of printing, numerous Armenian presses were created in various Italian towns. On the basis of the quality of books published, the number of works issued, and the longevity of the endeavor, the Mekhitarist Publishing House [290, 1794] on the island of San Lazzaro in Venice lagoon is of particular importance. It was established in the eighteenth century, and in its time played a major role in the renaissance and evolution of Armenian culture. 

Arakk' Yezobosi, Aesop's Fables, Triest, 1784. Photo: Gulbenkian Foundation ArchiveAt first the Catholic Armenian Mekhitarist Fathers had their works printed by the Italian Antonio Bortoli, but later they set up their own presses. These have been in continuous service since 1788 and have gained a universal reputation for the high quality and technique of production. In 1776 a splinter group of the Mekhitarist Fathers established themselves in Trieste where they founded a second printing center from which some sixty precious titles were published. In 1811 these fathers moved from Trieste to Vienna, where until today they continue to sponsor works in the Armenian language or related to Armenology. 

In the second hundred years of Armenian publishing activity, there was a notable increase in the number of printers. Hovhannés K'armatanents' edited books in Armenian in Lvov, Poland, Hovhannés of Ankara and Nahapet Giwlnazar in Venice, Hovhannés Jughayets'i in Leghorn (Livorno), Italy, etc. Special attention should be paid to the printing firm founded by the Primate of the Armenians in Iran, Khach'atur of Caesarea, in the seventeenth century in New Julfa. He struggled to propagate culture among the faithful of his jurisdiction. He opened schools and libraries, had churches built, collected manuscripts and undertook the difficult task of publishing books locally. 

If in the early sixteenth century when Hakob Meghapart was starting his typographic activities there were already more than 200 printing houses at work in Venice, Khach'atur founded his press in Persia where none had previously existed and he himself had never personally seen one. In 1641, works such as Life of the Fathers  (Harants' vark')  were issued from the new installation of New Julfa. Its quality was not very high, but it was a pioneer undertaking, since it was not only the first book in any language to be published in Iran, but it was also the first one printed in the whole of the Near East. It is noteworthy that both paper and ink were made individually. Amsterdam was also an important center for the history of Armenian printing thanks to Voskan Erevants'i and the Vanandets'i family.  Voskan rendered great service to the evolution of Armenian culture by publishing the first Armenian Bible in 1666. It has never been equaled in its typographic and artistic conception. The famous Dutch artist-bookbinder Albert Magnus executed the binding of certain copies; these remain among the prized volumes of libraries in Paris, Leiden, and Amsterdam.  In the Holy Etchmiadzin printing house founded in the eighteenth century Voskan Erevants'i and his followers edited works such as: Girk' ashkharats'oyts' (Book of Geography) in 1668  and Aghuesagirk' (Book of Fables) of Vardan Aygekts'i originally thought to be the work of Movsés of Khoren, the History of Arak'el of Tabriz (Tavrizhets'i), the first Armenian book printed during the lifetime of its author, Girk' aghot'its' (Book of Prayers) in 1772 and K'erakanut'ean girk' (Grammar), etc. 

To escape his creditors Voskan moved his printing business to Marseilles and published sixteen other works, among them Girk' aghot'its', the first edition of Gregory of Narek's works, and the volume entitled Arhest hamaroghut'ean, the first Armenian arithmetic book to be printed and among the first works to be written in vernacular Armenian or ashkharapar. Voskan Erevants'i was not content with just publishing high quality books of rich content, but he also increased production by raising the number of copies of a title to 3,000. He set up permanent Armenian language printing establishments and trained a whole generation of printers, who in turn founded their own firms in Amsterdam, Leghorn, Constantinople, Smyrna, and other cities. 

World Map of Ghukas, Amsterdam, 1695. Photo: Ara GülerIn the seventeenth century Tovmas, Ghukas and Matt'éos Vanandets'i through their presses established in Amsterdam dramatically improved the art of Armenian printing. Between 1610 and 1717 they published more than twenty precious titles, including The History of the Armenians by Movsés Khorenats'i, Thesaurus linguae Armenicae  by Joannes Schröder and the first printed map in Armenian, World Map which even today commands admiration not only for the fine quality of its execution, but also for its precision. 

In the eighteenth century the main center of Armenian printing moved from Europe to Constantinople. After works published in Constantinople by Abgar Dpir T'okhat'ets'i, there was an hiatus of a hundred years. During the eighteenth century more than twenty printers were active in the Ottoman capital. Some of the most famous were the engraver-printer Grigor Marzvanets'i, Astuatsatur of Constantinople, Step'anos Petrosian and the Arabian family. The printers of Constantinople played a very appreciable role in the diffusion of Armenian culture. For the first time a series of the important works of ancient Armenian historians and philosophers was published such as History of the Armenians by Agat'angeghos in 1709, Treatise on Logic  by Siméon of Julfa, the History attributed to P'awstos Buzand, Book of Questions by Eghishé, and works by the famous Armenian rhetor and poet Paghtasar Dpir. 

At the end of the eighteenth century in Madras, India, Shahamir Shahamirian founded an Armenian printing house from which a number of volumes originated. He was the author of two of the most important of them, Orogayt' p'arats' (The Trap of Glory) of 1773 and Nor tetrak or (New Notebook Called the Guide), works dedicated to history and politics that had a powerful influence on the national liberation movement within the Armenian community in India. In Madras Harut'iwn Shmavonian also opened a printing press; his greatest service to the art was the publication of the first periodical in Armenian, Azdarar of which eighteen numbers were issued from 1794 to 1796. 

Tetrak aybbenakan, St. Petersburg, 1781. Photo: Ara GülerThe first Armenian printing house in Russia was set up in Saint Petersburg in 1781. Grigor Khaldariants' had type sent from London, and under the sponsorship of the Primate of Armenians in Russia, Bishop Hovsep' Arghut'ian, he edited the first Armenian book to be published in the Tsarist realm, Tetrak aybbenakan (ABC Reader) in 1781. He then printed works such as Banali gitut'ean (The Key to Science), Shavigh lezvagitut'ean (Linguistic Guide), and Enhanrakan (Encyclical Letter) by Nersés Shnorhali. 

After the death of Khaldariants', Arghut'ian transferred the press to the Armenian colony in Nor Nakhichevan in Southern Russia, where he published several precious books including the metric work of Hakob Nalian, Grk'oyks koch'ets'eal hogeshah (Book Called Enrichment of the Soul). Later the operation was again moved to Astrakhan where several more titles were published. 

Although Armenian printing was started as early as 1512, due to the precarious conditions and political turmoil in Armenian proper, the first press to be established on native soil only came 250 years later. In the second half of the eighteenth century thanks to the Catholicos of Etchmiadzin Siméon Erevants'i's efforts, the situation of Armenians in the homeland was improved. He organized the instruction of children, supervised the reorganization of the monastery library, and founded at Etchmiadzin the first Armenian printing press under the sponsorship of Grigor Mik'ayelian-Ch'ak'ikian. 

The solemn opening of the press was in 1771, and in the following year the first book to be printed on Armenia soil appeared: Siméon Erevants'i, Zbosaran hogevor (Spiritual Recreation). After that a Tagharan (Song Book), a Girk' aghot'its' (Book of Prayers) and other important works were published. Very soon the Holy See of Etchmiadzin created next to the printing house a small paper factory and a foundry for the manufacture of Armenian font. 

In the nineteenth century numerous new printing firms were opened everywhere Armenians lived: Erevan, Shushi (Karabagh), Van, Mush, Alexandropol (Leninakan), New Bayazid (Kamo), Akhaltskha (Armenian Georgia), Ganja (Azerbaijan), and also in Moscow, Tbilissi, Baku, Shamakhi, Rostov, Theodosia (Crimea), Jerusalem (St. James Patriarchate), Calcutta, Bombay, Singapore, Teheran, the Island of Malta, New York, Boston, Geneva, Varna and Rusjuk (Bulgaria), Athens, Cairo, Alexandria, and in quite a few other places. The first Armenian printers as the Armenian scribes of the Middle Ages did not spare any efforts; thanks to their sacrifice, works which remain the glories of Armenian literature came into being or were saved from disappearing. 

. Armenia continues to cherish this important legacy of 1600 years of codex and book production.  The famous and unique Institute of Ancient Manuscripts, the Matenadaran, in Erevan is named after the creator of the Armenian alphabet, Mesrop Mashtots', while the largest printing house in Armenia bears the name of the first Armenian printer, Hakob Meghapart. 


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Updated 10 July, 2002 ..
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