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Chapter 45
This webpage reproduces a chapter of
A History of Armenia

by Vahan M. Kurkjian

published by the
Armenian General Benevolent Union of America

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though,
please let me know!


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Chapter 47

 p447  Chapter XLVI
History of Education among the Armenians

by Prof. Kevork A. Sarafian​1

The Beginnings

It is almost impossible to fix a definite time at which formal education began to function in Armenia. The chief reason for this uncertainty lies in the fact that Armenian historical records do not go back beyond the date of the introduction of Christianity. Furthermore, such historical records as are available give only meager accounts of the social, educational and cultural conditions of the nation.

The fact that the Armenian language was in full bloom at the time of the introduction of Christianity is a proof that there existed in Armenia intellectual classes, at the courts and in the shrines of paganism, long before the Christian era.

The "weak" King, Artavazd, according to Moses of Khoren, is praised by Plutarch as the author of poems and discourses written in classic Greek. Classic plays were presented not only at Artashat or Tigranocerta, but in the important cities of Armenia, as both Dr. H. Asdourian and Bishop Gulesserian affirm. Father Hatzouni, too, a Mekhitarist scholar, agrees with this belief;—

The Armenian nation has not had, prior to Christianity, any public education, the result of which is the lack of literary productions. The Armenian was satisfied with the moderate educational training received in the family as well as in military and  p448 political circles like the ancient Greeks, who gave such training to their children prior to the glorious development of their culture.

After Introduction of Christianity

When Christianity was formally adopted by King Trdat in 301 A.D. as the official religion of the country, there still existed in Armenia a strong sentiment for the old paganism. It is therefore no wonder that Gregory the Illuminator, after converting King Trdat to Christianity, persuaded him to order the temples of polytheism demolished and in their places new churches constructed. Yet Christianity would not have been able to send its roots into the depths of the Armenian soul without the inauguration of an effective system of education. Agathangelos, the fourth century historian, portrays the details of this educational program:—

"Trdat, the King, gave orders to gather together Armenian children from different provinces and different locations in the confines of Armenia to train them in the literary arts; he ordered also the appointment of faithful teachers for these children. Furthermore, he ordered the bringing together of some of the foul and pagan priesthood at suitable places in different groups and classes, and financed the education of all by royal subsidies. The plan was to separate them into two major groups, one group to study the Syriac language and literature, the other the Greek. And all at once, in a very short period, the sections of the country in which the people were savage-minded, sluggards and brutish, they all became scholars of the prophets, erudites of the apostles, the heirs of the Gospel, and not at all ignorant of all the Commandments of God."

Agathangelos describes also the establishment of a Royal school, where young princes and even the King himself were educated.

In this campaign for popular education, the Christian church provided the spiritual leader­ship, and the King's treasury supplied the financial support. However, owing to adverse political conditions, the Armenian state did not enjoy a permanently independent life. Therefore, the responsibility of educating the youth of the nation fell upon the shoulders of the Church. But the Church was able to educate only a limited number of persons for leader­ship.

The educational progress of Gregory the Illuminator was not native; it was international in character, the teachers were of foreign  p449 origin, the chief textbook was the Bible, which at this time had not been translated into Armenian, but was read in the Greek and Syriac languages. Armenia as yet lacked an alphabet of its own.

Second Attempt at Revival

Upon the death of St. Gregory, the momentum of the evangelistic activity and educational endeavors were gradually slackened. Also, the reactionary opposition of the adherents of the pagan worship had begun to reassert itself.

Nerses Partev, the Katholikos, made heroic efforts to revive the educational consciousness of the nation. Nerses was the finished product of the Greek Cappadocian School, having been trained in Caesarea as well as at Byzantium. He called a national council which convened at Ashtishat during 362‑363. This famous gathering made, among others, the following decisions of the utmost importance:

a) To open schools at various places to teach Syriac and Greek.

b) To establish at suitable places poorhouses, orphanages, hospices, hospitals, etc., and to support them through the proceeds of agricultural lands belonging to the Holy See.

c) To found monasteries and convents for both sexes. Nerses was the founder of more two thousand such institutions.

The schools established by Nerses were permeated by the international spirit of early Christianity, where foreign languages were taught, and where the Biblical truths were propagated. Nerses himself was a pupil of the Greek father, Basil the Great of Caesarea. He died about 372. The death of Nerses was soon followed by great political upheavals. King Pap confiscated the rich estates attached to the Holy See.

Golden Age

No period in the history of Armenia equals in importance the short space of time which covers the reign of King Vramshapouh (391‑414 A.D.) and the pontificate of Sahak Partev (390‑439 A.D.). During this period a nation was born — a nation which lived forever after, throughout centuries of persecution, bloodshed and turmoil. It was not, therefore, an idle exercise of the imagination on the part of Korioun, the historian of this age, to say, "At that time the blest and enviable land of the Armenians became unquestionably wonder­ful."

 p450  This Golden Age was a period of feverish activity in the fields of (1) literature, (2) education and (3) evangelization.

The educational program inaugurated by Gregory the Illuminator and Nerses the Great was international in character. The Scriptures were read in the churches, not in the Armenian language, but in Syriac and Greek, of which the great majority of the people could understand nothing. The decrees of the King and all the official records were written in the Greek, Syriac and Persian alphabets. Because of the inefficiency of the native schools, large numbers of students were under the necessity of going abroad for their higher education.

The blessed teacher, Mashtots (Mesrop) worried greatly at seeing the expensive journeys which Armenian students were compelled to take in their wanderings among the schools of Syrian science. For the functions of the church were carried on in Syriac in the monasteries and churches of Armenia, and the masses could hear but not understand anything that was spoken there; they were not familiar with that language.

The Alphabet and Education

Mesrop, who was called the Teacher of all Armenia, saw the necessity of a basic intellectual tool, namely, a written language. His great achievement in creating the Armenian alphabet is described in Chapter XLI.​a With the language reduced to an alphabet, Sahak, Mesrop and all the leading Armenian scholars set themselves to the task of translations, original literary productions and the enrichment of the national literature. Mesrop, actuated by an intense zeal for evangelization, resorted to the most potent means for achieving his end. He and Sahak counselled the King to open schools. Says Moses of Khoren;—

"When Mesrop arrived and brought with him the alphabet of our tongue, with the order of Vramshapouh, he and Sahak gathered select groups of children who were intelligent, well-bred and sweet-voiced, and established schools in all the provinces, and educated children throughout that portion of Armenia which was under the Persian rule."

Mesrop established two types of schools;—

a) A School for Leaders. At Vagharshapat, the capital of Armenia, a central school was founded, offering education to a select group of students who were to be trained as leaders. In this central  p451 school the children of the princes were educated also. Especially was this true of the glorious house of the Mamikonians.

b) Schools for the Common Folk. Sahak and Mesrop organized also at numerous centers elementary schools where at least the rudiments of reading could be taught the children of the common folk. They "asked and begged from the King, young children to learn the alphabet. And as soon as a great number of them became familiar with it, the latter (Mesrop) ordered the teaching of the alphabet in every place," according to Korioun.

And after the great work of St. Sahak was carried out," says Lazar of Pharb, "schools were established for the education of the common folk, and the classes of literate people were increased, vying with one another."


Tigran the Great had transplanted Greek actors into his newly constructed capital city, where Greek theatres had also been built. Artavazd, another King of the pre-Christian period, wrote Greek tragedies​b during the days of his captivity at the court of Cleopatra in Egypt. Aside from this fragmentary knowledge, we are in the dark about the Hellenism of the pagan period. Our historians, however, mention several Armenian intellectuals whose genius shone in Hellenic centers.

Tiran Haigazn was a pupil of Dionysius, the grammarian. Lucullus admired his scholar­ship and personality, and took him to Rome. He was the first man to engage in bookselling as a business, and he organized a library.

Cicero (106‑43 B.C.), appreciating the abilities of Tiran, invited him to his house to arrange his books for him. The great Roman statesman and orator organized a school in his home, where Tiran taught grammar and where Roman children came to study the literary arts.

Hellenism Becomes Popular

After the introduction of Christianity into Armenia, the Armenians became ardent devotees of Hellenism. Although this type of Greek culture did not exclude the works of Plato, Aristotle and other great philosophers, it was deeply tinged with religious color. It was the Hellenism of the Alexandrian and Neoplatonic Schools. Not only did the Armenians absorb the Hellenism of this period, but they also  p452 gave to the world a few outstanding leaders, such as Proeresios, David the Invincible, St. Yeznik of Koghb, Moses of Khoren, Lazar of Pharb, and in later years, Grigor Magistros, Ohan Otznetsi, Nerses of Lambron and others.

Middle Ages

Throughout the Middle Ages and thereafter, education was centered in the monasteries. St. Karapet of Taron owned twelve large burghs with a total population of 22,813. In this way this monastery was equal in its extent and wealth to some of the principalities owned by the nakharars. Even before World War I, there were 216 monasteries in Armenia. It was in these institutions that Armenian culture was preserved during the dark ages; manuscripts were copied, monks were educated and libraries were organized. Even at the present time, some of the monastic centers fill the educational needs of Armenians outside the confines of the Republic of Armenia.

Monastic Activities

The School of Sewniq was the most distinguished center of learning. Orbelian describes it as a fountain-head of knowledge, standing at the head of all Armenian science. "The schools were very far advanced there. They were very rich, and were like the Athenian schools of Greece and Rome."

The School of Sewniq is not mentioned until the commencement of the seventh century. Such famous teachers as Anania of Sewniq, Stepan of Sewniq, Moses the Poet, Ohan Orotnetzi and Grigor of Tadev added luster to the name of this school. The School of Sewniq did for theology and philosophy in Armenia what the University of Paris did for France. Grigor of Tadev (1340‑1420) represents in Armenia the peak of the Scholasticism of the Middle Ages. His chief work, Kirk Hartsmants (The Book of Inquiries), is the most authoritative essay representing Scholastic learning in Armenia. It is a sort of religious encyclopedia. Besides this, he left two volumes of sermons, entitled Amaran and Dzmeran, which embody the scholastic thought in religion and morals.

Monastery of Narek

During the tenth century this monastery became prominent as a splendid center of learning. Gregory of Narek (951‑1003) made the name of the institution immortal.

 p453  Monastery of Sanahin

Another monastery built by the Bagratid Kings which served as their sepulchre, and became a famous seat of learning during the eleventh century, was that of Sanahin.

Some Men of Science

Anania of Shirak was a distinguished mathematician and astronomer of the seventh century. He traveled widely, to satisfy his thirst for scientific learning, and studied under many masters. His work, A History of the Universe, in ancient Armenian, served for centuries as the textbook of science in Armenia. He also wrote a book Measures and Scales, in imitation of Epiphanus​c of Cyprus.

Mekhitar Heratsi, in the twelfth century, studied the Arabic works on Medicine and wrote a treatise, Chermants Kirk, (Book about Malaria), which became a source-book for Armenian physicians.

Twelfth Century Renaissance

The Bagratid dynasty came to an end with Gagik II. With the fall of Ani in 1046, many Armenians took refuge in the Taurus Mountains and carved out for themselves there the independent Kingdom of Cilicia. Here they established friendly relations with the European peoples. Out of the resulting intercultural contacts, the light of a lesser Renaissance dawned in the new centers of Armenian learning.

Outstanding Leaders

Nerses Shnorhali (1098‑1173) was educated by Grigor Vkayaser (the Philomartyr), who is said to have been the translator of Chrysostom's Life. Nerses became the Katholikos of all Armenia in 1166. He wrote Pastoral Letters for the benefit of monks, bishops and married clergy, and a series of "Instructive Verses," in which he exhorted youth to love virtue, learning and morals. Writing to the married clergy he encouraged them to love learning. "No one among you should love blindness of ignorance in the study of your subjects, as a result of indolence or worldly occupation."

Mekhitar Kosh (died 1213) is another eminent Armenian of the lesser Renaissance, who not only taught many young men in his monastery, Kedig — built by himself — but also enriched Armenian  p454 culture through a compilation of the Armenian Code in 1184, at the request of King Vakhtank and Bishop Stepanos.

Monastic Centers

Two of the monasteries of Major Armenia emerged during the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries as centers of education of medieval "university" type. The term Hamalsaran or "university" is used to describe the school located at the monastery of Gailatzor, near Erevan.

Father Hatsouni quotes from a manuscript (IX, 1091), now in the monastery of St. Lazar, Venice, a passage which indicates that in Armenia the licensing of teachers was practiced at this time. Grigor of Datev, giving the rank of vardapet to Thomas, writes to Arjishetsi, "I gave him authority and license to teach, to organize classes and to teach there the laws of God."

We have also information regarding the status of teachers and scientists in Armenia, in the following law;—

This law exempts from all taxation the medical doctors, vardapets, and all scientists and literary men who live in cities and villages; and no one has the authority to tax them, to dishonor them or to scorn them or to beat them. They can be made trustees for the orphans.

Darkest Age

The period beginning near the end of the fifteenth century may rightly be called the darkest age of Armenian cultural life. While Europe was being flooded with the light of the Renaissance, Armenia was being bathed in bloodshed, as a result of the invasion of the Turks, Tatars and Mongols. Wherever their feet trod, not even an herb was left to tell the story of a living civilization.

Light in the Colonies

The Armenian colonies in Venice, Genoa, Crimea, Moldavia, Valachia, Poland, Amsterdam, Marseilles and even in Madras made their various contributions to the development of Armenian culture. Thus, the first Armenian publication, "Barzadoumar," was printed in Venice in 1512. In the following year four Armenian books were printed. In 1673 Oskan, a bishop, established his printing office in Marseilles. In 1674 Matthew Vanandetsi published in the same city a Rhetoric written by Hovhannes Holov.

Besides these activities, Jesuit missionaries made an effort to  p455 educate a few young Armenian converts in the College of Propaganda at Rome. Later, they established a Catholic patriarchate in Bzmmar, Lebanon, and in 1852 the seat of the patriarchate was transferred to Constantinople. While the educational influence of these missionaries was not very great, it accomplished beneficial results. It aroused the Armenian leaders from their lethargy and stimulated them to activity.

The Amrdolou Monastery came into prominence during the seventeenth century as a center of awakening. One of the graduates of this monastery, Hovhannes Golod, later Patriarch of Constantinople in 1713, opened a seminary in Scutari (Constantinople). He counteracted the activities of Catholic propagandists, by arming the Armenian clergy with the intellectual weapons of the Latins. "Under Golod, Constantinople was transformed, a literary movement was set in motion which kept up with his school."2

Mekhitarists as Factors in Awakening

The influence of the Mekhitarists has been greater than that of the Latin missionaries. The Armenian monks belonging to the order of Mekhitar, although Catholic, were actuated by a yearning desire to educate and enlighten their own nation. Mekhitar, the founder of this monastic order, situated on the island of St. Lazar, Venice, emphasized, among other things, the teaching of Armenian history and language. Later, another branch of this order was established in Vienna. Mekhitarists collected Armenian manuscripts, enriched the Armenian literature, and gave to the nation a host of leaders.

American Missionaries

In the great Renaissance of the Armenian people during the nineteenth century, American missionaries played a very important part. From the first day when Rev. William Goodell settled in Constantinople in 1831 to the end of World War I, the American missionaries made considerable contributions to the education of Armenians. They not only stressed elementary education, but established colleges and other institutions of learning. Notable among these colleges were, The Central Turkey College of Aintab, in 1874; Euphrates College of Harpout in 1878; Anatolia College at Marsovan in 1886; Central Turkey Girls' College at Marash in 1882; St.  p456 Paul's Institute at Tarsus, in 1888. Besides these, there were other colleges, such as International College at Smyrna, 1903; American College for Girls at Constantinople, Syrian Protestant College at Beirut — now a University​d — Robert College at Constantinople, in which institutions many Armenian students received their education.

The chief distinctive contributions of American education have been in the special stress laid on feminine education, liberalization of the curriculum, introduction of physical exercise and popularization of elementary mass education.

Native Seats of Higher Learning

Constantinople was the chief center of the intellectual awakening. Armenian colonists there not only developed a number of elementary schools, but made great efforts to establish colleges as well. Among the colleges, Nubar-Shahnazarian was the most prominent, but was in existence only a short time. The Central College (Getronagan) and the Berberian gave the nation several worthy leaders. Armash, as the center of theological studies, like the ancient monastery of Gailatzor, won great fame during the administration of Patriarchs Malakia Ormanian and Elishé Tourian. Among its alumni are men of great prominence, such as Papken Gulesserian, Adjutant Katholikos of Cilicia at Antilyas, Torgom Koushakian, Patriarch of Jerusalem, Mesrop Naroyan, Patriarch of Constantinople, all deceased, and among the living ones, Archbishop Karekin Khachadourian, long prelate of the Armenians of South Armenia, now Patriarch of Istanbul.

Among the short-lived institutions Sanasarian College at Erzerum, Cilicia Institute of Aintab, Getronagan Varjaran of Mezireh, Harpout, and other secondary schools, such as Sourp Garabet in Caesarea, Yeremian School of Van, and the Senekerimian School of Sebastia, all of high standing, were swept away in the cataclysm of 1915.

The Armenian churches in the provinces financed parochial schools in such towns as offered a quasi-public elementary education. Local private schools also met the needs of children of more prosperous people.

Educational Societies

In addition to the parochial schools, private educational societies maintained a number of elementary schools in the interior provinces.  p457 Among these organizations the work of the United Societies has been most fruitful in the past. Azkanouer Hayouhiats and Tebrotsasser Dignants organizations also supported schools for girls. After the extinction of the United Societies, the educational work of this group was taken over by the Armenian General Benevolent Union. This is one of the best Armenian organizations founded by Boghos Nubar Pasha. The ramifications of the A. G. B. Union touch almost every phase of Armenian national life. In the field of education this is the only great lay society that supports elementary schools in the Near East, and the Melkonian Institute, a collegiate foundation on the island of Cyprus, maintained by the Melkonian donation of 500,000 English pounds. This fund is entrusted to the A. G. B. U., and from the proceeds the Union also finances the publication of historical, philological and Armenological works.

The A. G. B. U. at present maintains schools in the Mediterranean Area, and subsidises Armenian classes in Diaspora. Because of their jurisdictional dependence on the Armenian Diocesan authority, the number of Armenian schools in Russia was smaller than those of Turkey. But in Russia the Armenians had developed a more efficient and effective educational system than their compatriots in Turkey. Furthermore, pedagogy as a science grew with such rapid strides in Russian Armenia, under the influence of German education, that before World War I, this portion of Armenia occupied a high standing in this science, even comparable with that of several nations of Europe.

Early Awakening

The awakening of a consciousness for education was stirred by the founding of Nersesian College in Tiflis (1823) and Lazarian College (1816) in the Moscow-Lazarevski Institute. Among the pioneers of the movement was Khachadour Abovian, an alumnus of Nersesian College and the University of Dorpat, Estonia, who became the champion of popular education and the introduction of the vernacular language. Stepan Nazarian was another leader who exerted great influence in the movement of secularization, progress and enlightenment. He too was an alumnus of Nersesian College, and the University of Dorpat (1832), receiving his Ph.D. later from the University of Kazan. Until his death in 1879 he served on the faculty of Lazarian College. Through the newspaper, Husisapail (Northern Light), which he began editing in Moscow in 1853, he  p458 championed the cause of vernacular Armenian, and fought for its universal adoption.

Mikayel Nalbantian (1829‑1866) was another pioneer in the movement towards enlightenment. He especially advocated the education of Armenian girls. Education, according to him, must be free from ecclesiastical influence. Nerses Ashtaraketsi, Katholikos and statesman, was the most brilliant figure in the constellation which illumined the Armenian horizon under the shadow of Ararat in the early decades of the nineteenth century. In 1823 he founded the Nersesian College, where a host of Armenian leaders were trained. Among the schools of higher learning, Kevorkian Jemaran or Seminary of Etchmiadzin, also played a major part in training leaders. It was founded during 1873‑74 by Katholikos Kevork (George) IV.

Education in the Republic

In Armenia under the Russian rule, the common school was unknown until the creation of the Republic. In 1913 Katholikos Kevork V reorganized the parochial schools. These schools formerly were restricted by the regulations of Polojenyé, a sort of internal constitution of 1836 for the Armenian community in Russia. However, following World War I, Armenia became independent (1918), and on Nov. 29, 1921 became an autonomous republic, federated with Russia.

Under the new regime, attention was at once given to reorganization of the schools. The result was the creation of a unified, modern, compulsory public school system, secular, supported and supervised by the State. In the heroic efforts to eradicate illiteracy, not only the formal educational institutions but other cultural agencies as well, contributed their share. Throughout the country, cottage reading rooms, clubs and libraries flourished in increasing numbers.

The University of Erevan and other institutions of technology, pedagogy, medicine, agriculture, music and art, offer courses in higher education. The Academy of Science, independent in its organization, is making great contributions to the advancement of technological and scientific discoveries.

The curse of illiteracy having been wiped out in Armenia, a great number of newspapers and periodicals and hundreds of books are being published in the country at the present time.

Education of women has shown notable progress. The head of  p459 the Commissariat of Education is a woman. The rector of the Medical Institute is a woman; so is the director of the National Library. There are numerous female doctors, judges, lawyers, engineers and what not.º In the University of Erevan, women lecturers — Arishian, Mirzakhanian, etc. — work side by side with men.

The National Library of Armenia is said to be the richest in material in the Soviet Union. It treasures 11,000 valuable manuscripts. These ancient documents are being subjected to a thorough study by historians, linguists and scientists, in search of hitherto undiscovered facts about the cultural and political history of Armenia and its neighboring countries.

Labor and technology have received special emphasis in the education of Armenians. As a result, an essentially agricultural nation has accomplished great results in a technological way and industrialization has advanced rapidly in recent years.

The Editor's Notes:

1 Prof. K. A. Sarafian, M.A., Ph.D, L.L.D., Holder of Diploma for Distinguished Service to Higher Christian Education.

2 Patriarch Hovhannes Golod, P. Gulesserian, p93.

Thayer's Notes:

a Chapter XLI — rather incidentally: the subject is in fact covered in Chapter XIX.

b Artavazd's Greek tragedies: Plutarch, Life of Crassus, 33.2.

c More properly, Epiphanius (Gk. Epiphanios) of Cyprus: the author of a Treatise on Weights and Measures; for an unsympathetic sketch of him, but with a brief bibliography, see EarlyChurch.Org.

d Syrian Protestant College at Beirut, now a University: the American University of Beirut; see their page on the history of the institution, which includes interesting 19c photographs.

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