Friday, August 3, 2012

The Armenian Literary Tradition at the Library of Congress

2012 marks the 500th anniversary of Armenian printing, as it was in 1512 that Hakob Meghapart (Jacob the Sinner) opened the first Armenian press in Venice, Italy. To mark the occasion, UNESCO designated Yerevan, Armenia's capital city, as its 2012 World Book Capital and the Correr Museum in Venice featured a major Armenian exhibition earlier this year. Now, the Library of Congress - the largest in the world - is showcasing some of its own treasures here, in Washington, DC: "To Know Wisdom and Instruction."

The Armenian Exhibit poster at the main entrance of the Library of Congress.

Dr. Levon Avdoyan, Library’s Armenian and Georgian area specialist in the Near East Section and Curator of the exhibit, says the exhibit took a lot of time and effort. With support from the Dolores Zohrab Leibmann Fund and some generous donations from several Armenian Diasporan families, Dr. Avdoyan managed to put together a display of more than 70 objects from among the 45,000 Armenia-related items held by the Library. Of course, he says, the choice was a difficult one, but his intention was to tell the story of the Armenian literary tradition, while highlighting the Library's invaluable collection.

I got special permission to take pictures inside and what follows are just some of the items on display. 

Before I get there, though, I believe it is important to point out the exhibit's immense contribution to Armenian cultural and public diplomacy, in general. Hundreds of thousands of people visit the Library and I bet that many of them would not be able to identify Armenia on the world map, even if they have heard of the country before. This exhibit - right next door to Jefferson's legendary library collection, by the way - not only provides a crash course on the more recent part of the Armenian literary history, but it also contextualizes it within the Ottoman, Persian, Russian, European and American histories, without all the drama and tragic tone that usually accompanies such Armenian endeavors. And perhaps more important: independently from the Armenian government itself (whether financially, or otherwise).

South Exhibition Gallery, Second Floor


This is a perfect example of privately-supported cultural diplomacy held by the Diaspora in the Diaspora. Since the Armenian printing started outside of the historical homeland in the first place, this is perhaps a perfect opportunity to emphasize, yet again, the non-territorial nature of the Armenian "nation". What is more, despite being very much a museum exhibit, it is far from common attempts to essentialize culture, and instead, reminds everyone - and Armenians, especially - the extent to which both culture and identity are constructed and transformed over time...

The well-designed and neatly decorated intro. 


The first complete Armenian language printed Bible (Amsterdam, 1666). Apparently, Armenian was the second Middle Eastern language - after Hebrew - to appear in print. And it did so in the Diaspora.



The "Verin Noravank" Gospel book (manuscript, 1487). Absolutely beautiful. You can read more about it here. This is not the oldest manuscript in the collection, however. The oldest, also on display, is the Gospel of Mark from 1321.



This manuscript was copied in 1755, more than 200 years after the first Armenian book came out in print. It was bequeathed to the Library by Armenian-American stage and film director Rouben Mamoulian.



The display includes several liturgical items used in mass, such as a prayer scroll from early 18th century Constantinople and lace.





Among other items, there is a book - in Armenian - on cotton production in New Orleans, published in Paris in 1859 (two years before the start of the American Civil War, where the French unofficially supported the Confederate side)...



... and Napoleon's biography in Armeno-Turkish (Turkish, written in the Armenian script), just one of many in the collection.



The exhibition also covers the 20-21st century period of the Republic of Armenia, featuring an old map of Yerevan from 1920, several other Soviet publications...



...and audio excerpts from Komitas' Liturgy and the Anush Opera (follow the links to listen).



When I asked Dr. Avdoyan for an estimate number of visitors, he said they cannot really keep count of everyone who comes in (the usual problem with public diplomacy metrics, right?).



But, he said about 15,000-16,000 of the brochures they had prepared are gone. I believe that should give an approximate range to think about.


In short, whether Armenian or not, I believe this exhibit is well worth a visit if you're in town. It opened in April and runs through September.

If you cannot visit in person, make sure you check out the Library's virtual exhibit, with quite a few details and images. And lastly, check out the accompanying book - To Know Wisdom and Instruction: A Visual Survey of the Armenian Literary Tradition from the Library of Congress - published earlier this year.

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