Endangered?: Plan to transport manuscripts from Matenadaran worries specialists

Some are concerned that ancient works will be destroyed.
Eleven activists of art and science have sent an open letter to the President Robert Kocharyan with an appeal to ban sending valued illustrated Armenian parchment manuscripts for exhibition in France.

The manuscripts to be taken to Paris for the “Holy Armenia” exhibition planned for February-March in the Louvre are kept in the repository of the Matenadaran in a special climate and are not even included in the main exposition of the institution.

“These are treasures that are untouchable; they should not be transported, exposed to temperature changes, should not be exposed to unjustified risks, and the government of the Republic of Armenia is not competent to make such a decision, because those treasures belong to the Armenian nation, so exporting them from Armenia means risking their existence,” says Levon Chookaszyan, the head of the Yerevan State University UNESCO Chair of the History of Armenian Art.

The exhibition plans to present: the Echmiadzin New Testament of 989 that includes the oldest known Armenian miniatures of 6th-7th centuries; the ivory cover of the Echmiadzin New Testament of the 6th century; the New Testament of 1211 illustrated by Margare and known for its unique illustrations of Ani citizens in their national costumes, the oldest New Testament in Armenia with a silver cover of 1255; part of the 1286 Bible recited at dinners with 200 miniatures ordered by King Hetum II; the New Testament of eight miniaturists that was finished by Sargis Pitsak in 1320; the Malatia New Testament illustrated by Toros Roslin in 1267-1268 and other manuscripts.

“These manuscripts are our sanctum sanctorum. How can they be taken out of the country? Even more, they plan to do it by plane. Anything can happen to the plane or during the exhibition. And then the manuscripts are kept in special climate. It is inadmissible to take them from 20 degree temperature to 0 degrees,” says Chookaszyan.

Two of the manuscripts have been included in the list of special cultural values and are protected by government order from export.

“I don’t know how they plan to transport them. The law prohibits the export of those manuscripts whether to Louvre or to the Metropolitan, because those are unique values for both the Armenian and the world culture,” says Shoghik Asoyan, the head of the Agency for Preservation of Cultural Values.

Sen Arevshatyan, director of the Matenadaran Institute says the transportation of the manuscripts will not risk their value.

“The governmental decision temporarily suspends the law prohibiting the export of several manuscripts for exhibition and I sanction the exhibition of our manuscripts in the Louvre, because we don’t get such opportunity every day,” says Arevshatyan.

He says the Matenadaran has special safety boxes that have already been used to take some manuscripts to a number of exhibitions and that there have been no problems previously.

But the concerned intellectuals disagree. Their letter continues:

“The simultaneous transportation of these unique manuscripts to France especially by air is fraught with irretrievable and catastrophic consequences.”

The letter also mentions a case in which works by Arshil Gorky were lost in a plane crash, and paintings by Martiros Saryan burned on a ship.

Vigen Sargsyan, the coordinator of the Year of Armenia in France and the aide of the President of Armenia told Armenianow the manuscripts are insured and that the Matenadaran has guaranteed their safety in the special boxes.

“No one can guarantee a hundred percent safety during transportation. The risk is there in any case, and even the Matenadaran is not secured from risks. But the matter is the extent to which you are in control of the risks. At the moment we take all the possible measures to exclude the possibility of any incident,” Sargsyan says.

“Even if there is the factor of uncontrollable risk, the expectations of the exhibition are bigger. We don’t get opportunities of having an exhibition in Louvre every day,” says Sargsyan.

But Chookaszyan says the parchment manuscripts are so gentle that simply a change in climate may cause serious damage to them.

“It was a miracle the manuscripts have survived 1700 years and have lived up to our days. We don’t have the right to endanger them,” he says.