Mesrob the Vartabed (known as Mashdots) (438 A.D.)
St. Mesrob was born in the village of Hatzegatz in the province of Daron. In his early years, he learned both Greek and Persian and served in the Armenian royal court. Later, he decided to enter the ranks of the clergy, and with some other young men he went to preach in the province of Koghtn around 395 A.D. During this period, he felt the great need of the Armenian people for an alphabet of their own, so he petitioned Catholicos Sahag, and together they requested the aid of King Vramshabouh.
After much research and travel, Mesrob was able to come up with the skeleton of an alphabet. However, it did not meet the needs of the Armenian language. According to tradition, while meditating in a cave near the village of Palu, the saint had a vision, in which “the hand of God wrote the alphabet in letters of fire.” Upon his return to the Catholicos and king, the saint was received with great honors and much joy.
Immediately after the discovery of the alphabet, the Holy Translators worked to translate the Bible; the first words written in the Armenian language were from the Book of Proverbs: “To know wisdom and instruction; to perceive the words of understanding” (Proverbs 1:2). They also opened schools to teach the newly-discovered alphabet, among whose students were the famous translators Yeghisheh, Movses, Tavit, and Vartan.
After the discovery of the alphabet, St. Mesrob spent many years translating and writing literary and ecclesiastical works. He went to many provinces where paganism still existed and preached the word of God in the people’s own language, with the light of the Holy Gospels. During this period, he was invited to Georgia and Caucasian Albania, where he likewise invented alphabets to suit the respective local languages. His life’s works have been recorded by one of his famous students, Goriun, in his book, The Life of Mashdots. St. Mesrob was buried in Oshagan in the province of Vaspouragan, where a beautiful cathedral has been built in his honor, and where one may go and pay homage at the saint’s tomb to the present day.
The Book of Ritual used in the Armenian Church bears the name “Mashdots” and is dedicated to this great saint. Although compiled at a later date, it is based on an earlier sacramental anthology attributed to Mashdots.
St. Mesrob gave the Armenian people the most precious of gifts and continues to serve as an inspiration to all generations. Beloved by all, St. Mesrob is a special inspiration to Armenian writers and poets.
Above: Detail of Mesrob Mashdots, from G.B. Tiepolo’s “Apollo and the Continents” (1752-3) in Würtzburg, Germany.