Last Thursday, the Library of Congress opened its newest exhibition, “To Know Wisdom and Instruction: The Armenian Literary Tradition at the Library of Congress,” and I had a chance to take a tour with its curator, Levon Avdoyan, the Library’s Armenian and Georgian area specialist in the Near East Section of the African and Middle Eastern Division.
The exhibition marks the 500th anniversary of Armenian printing and UNESCO’s designation of Yerevan – the capital of the Republic of Armenia – as its Book Capital of the World, 2012.
The tri-colors of the Armenian flag provide the perfect motif to bring the display together in what Avdoyan describes as a series of “little stories about Armenian tradition.”
In 1512, Hakob Meghapart (Jacob the Sinner) opened an Armenian press in Venice, Italy, and published an Armenian religious book, “Urbatagirk” (the Book of Fridays). The era of Armenian printing had begun. While the Library does not own one of the few copies of the book, the more than 70 objects showcased aptly highlight the movement it sparked.
While many of the items on display are religious in nature, the exhibition also presents secular elements as well. Manuscripts range from 14th- and 15th-century gospel books hand-copied by monks to 19th-century works on palmistry (Constantinople, 1894), fire-fighting (Venice, 1832), cotton production (Paris, 1859) and the first modern Armenian novel, “Armenia’s Wounds,” by K. Abovyan (1848). The first complete Armenian language printed Bible from Amsterdam in 1666 is on display, along with a richly illuminated missal copied in 1722 for the use of the celebrant of the Armenian liturgy and a rare 19th-century musical manuscript by Pietro Bianchini, who was the first to transcribe the Armenian liturgy using European musical notation. A 20th-century Soviet edition of the Armenian national epic, “David of Sasun” (1962) is also on display.
And an interesting note: one of the last items I viewed in the exhibition involved one of my favorite poets, Lord Byron, who apparently traveled to Armenia to learn the language. He wrote, “I found that my mind wanted something craggy to break upon; and this – as the most difficult thing I could discover here for an amusement – I have chosen to torture me into attention. It is a rich language, however, and would amply repay anyone the trouble of learning it.” On display, the noted romantic poet is depicted in a painting “The Mkhitarists Receive Byron on the Island of San Lazzaro,” by Armenian painter Hovhannes Ayvazovski, reprinted in a 2009 book by Shahen Khach’atryan.
“To Know Wisdom and Instruction” is on view through Sept. 26 in the South Gallery of the Thomas Jefferson Building from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., Monday through Saturday. The exhibition is also available online.
Following the exhibition closing, all the exhibition items will be digitized and added to the World Digital Library, where information about each item will be made available in seven languages.