Illumination from an illustrated Յայսմաւուրք (Synaxary), seventeenth century. Near East Section, African and Middle Eastern Division, Library of Congress (019.00.00)

The ancient country of Armenia, located on the Armenian Plateau in Eastern Anatolia in the middle of a well-traversed land bridge between east and west, is known as “Hayastan” to its people, who call themselves “Hay.” The region has been populated since Neolithic times, and petroglyphs from this period dot the landscape, bearing witness to the life of its prehistoric peoples. Modern DNA research indicates that many people who today call themselves Armenian descend from the most ancient peoples of Anatolia. The Biblical Hittite Empire (seventeenth to twelfth centuries BC) and the kingdom of Urartu (Ararat, ninth to the sixth centuries BC) were among those that ruled the area.

The first unambiguous references to Armenia and its people occur in the second half of the sixth century BC, when both Greek and Persian records mention the Armenians by name. Abundant Persian inscriptions as well as Classical Greek and later Latin literary evidence are the major sources about Armenia before a native literary tradition began after the creation of a unique alphabet for the Indo-European Armenian language.

The fourth century AD was crucial to the creation of the modern Armenian identity. Christianity began to enter the lands of the Armenians from the south in the second century AD. In the early fourth century the king of Greater Armenia, Tiridates, was converted to Christianity and declared it the official religion of his realm. Almost a century later, because Christian literary works were available only in Syriac and Greek, Armenian King Vramshapuh and the head of the Armenian Church, the Katholikos Sahak, ordered the monk Mesrop Mashtots‘ to create an alphabet for the Armenian language. Around 406 Mesrop created a unique thirty-six-letter alphabet that allowed translation and composition of religious works and proved an essential tool for the survival of Armenian literature and identity. Soon original works in Armenian appeared, including religious, historical, philosophical, scientific, medical, and literary texts.

Ancient and medieval Armenian manuscripts are known for their exquisite calligraphy and illuminations and their production was costly and reserved for the church and wealthy patrons. The last great period of manuscript production ended in 1375, when the Cilician kingdom of Armenia, ally of the Crusader states, fell to the Egyptian Mamluks, beginning the modern Diaspora as Armenians fled to other countries. In these communities far from the homeland the next advance in Armenian literature developed.