Mashtotsʿ, Mesrop

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MASHTOTSʿ, MESROP (c. 345440), inventor of the Armenian alphabet and saint of the Armenian church. The major source for his biography is the Life of Mashtotsʿ written by his pupil and associate, Koriwn. The name Mesrop, the etymology of which is still unknown, does not appear in the works of Armenian writers until after the fifth century.

Mashtotsʿ was born to a peasant named Vardan in the village of Hatsʿekatsʿ, in the district of Tarōn (present-day Muş, Turkey). He was educated in Greek letters as a youth. As a young man he entered military service, becoming a clerk in the royal army stationed at Vagarshapat (present-day Echmiadzin). Led to solitary life by his interest in the scriptures, Mashtotsʿ became an anchorite. He evidently headed a kellion (a small group of anchorites) in the 390s. While proselytizing the people of the district of Goghtʿn (Nakhichevan, Azerbaijan), he conceived the idea of inventing an alphabet for the Armenian language and making the scriptures available to the common people. After deliberating with Bishop Sahak of Armenia and King Vam-shapuh of Persarmenia, he learned that a certain Syriac bishop by the name of Daniel had in his possession an alphabet for Armenian, which was immediately solicited. Finding Daniel's alphabet unsuited to the phonetic structure of Armenian, Mashtotsʿ and his pupils set out for Edessa to do research, and there in 404 Mashtotsʿ himself invented an alphabet consisting of thirty-six letters.

Returning to Armenia, Mashtotsʿ founded schools and continued the task of translating the scriptures that he had begun in Edessa. He devoted the rest of his life to literary, educational, and missionary works. At first his activities were concentrated in the southeastern and eastern parts of historical Armenia (i.e., Armenia Magna). He preached in Goghtʿn and then in Siwnikʿ, where he founded schools and established an episcopal see. Subsequently, he went to Georgia, where he invented a script for Georgian and preached the teachings of the Christian church. His concern for the Armenians on the Byzantine side of the border led him in the 420s to Constantinople, where he met the emperor Theodosius and the patriarch Atticus. Having received from them the necessary permission for carrying out cultural work, he returned to Byzantine Armenia, where he established schools and introduced the new script. During his stay there he persecuted an obscure sect known as the Barbarianos and invented a script for Albanian.

After his return to Persarmenia, Mashtotsʿ went to preach in Caucasian Albania (corresponding to parts of present-day Azerbaijan and Dagestan). He then visited those districts of historical Armenia that had been annexed to Georgia and Albania in 363. An important contribution of Mashtotsʿ was to unify the Armenians of these districts through linguistic bonds.

Mashtotsʿ spent the final two decades of his life in Armenia devoting himself to writing homilies and letters, none of which has survived. Some scholars identify Mashtotsʿ with the chorepiscopus Mastoubios of Armenia. Mashtotsʿ died on February 17, 440 and was buried in the village of Oshakan. A martyrium was built over his grave and he was venerated as a saint. The Armenian people consider him the father of the Armenian literary tradition and the creator of the Armenian national identity. His grave is still a major site of pilgrimage.


Akinian, Nerses. Der hl. Maschtotz Wardapet: Sein Leben und sein Wirken, nebst einer Biographie des hl. Sahak, mit einer deutschen Zusammenfassung. Vienna, 1949.

Koriwn. Varkʿ Mashtotsʿi. Yerevan, 1941. Translated into English by Bedros Norehad as Koriun: The Life of Mashtots (New York, 1964).

Marquart, Josef. Über den Ursprung des armenischen Alphabets, in Verbindung mit der Biographie des heil. Maštʿocʿ. Vienna, 1917.

Peeters, Paulus. "Pour l'histoire des origines de l'alphabet arménien." In Recherches d'histoire et de philologie orientales, vol. 1, pp. 171207. Brussels, 1951.

Krikor H. Maksoudian (1987)