I am currently determining which of the Armenian Alexander Romance manuscripts I have knowledge of contain kafas (monorhymed poetry) authored by Grigor Ałtamarc’i. These poems, original Armenian compositions to accompany the translated Romance, represent a crucial part of the Armenian reception of the Alexander Romance, and Grigor Ałtamarc’i (along with his pupil Zakaria Gnunec’i) is a notable poet who authored them at a latter stage: the 16th Century.
In the University of Manchester Library’s Armenian Manuscript collection is an illustrated Alexander Romance manuscript dated to 1544 CE, which I saw open to a chimerical Bukephalos at an Armenian exhibition in the Bodleian last year. Questions: a) did it indeed contain kafas, which I suspected from that one double-spread that it did, b) by whom?
What I did not know, and today discovered, is that the entire manuscript is digitised and available to the public.
A blog post by the CHICC Manchester provided details of its digitisation and a few great photos of the process and the manuscript (as well as a second Armenian manuscript digitised at the same time):
Often items from The John Rylands Library are loaned to other institutions for exhibition purposes. In these instances, before the items are delivered to the borrowing institution, we digitise them in their entirety. This can be anything from a single image of say a painting or photograph, or a complete item.
From there, to the digitised Manchester Arm. MS 3 in full, which is extensively and beautifully illustrated throughout, and does indeed appear to contain kafas: red-inked, with a familiar rhyme visible even without being able to translate the poem on sight. Here, Alexander meets headless men (blemmyes in the Western European tradition, though I haven’t – yet – encountered the term in Armenian) and night-foxes near the edges of the world.
It’s fascinating to note where the composition of scenes in the illustrations match exactly those in the Venice mss. 424 of the Alexander Romance, a 14th Century manuscript: a later artist drawing on the Venice mss (or another mss that had drawn on it, etc).
According to the blog post linked above (which is wrong about the red text being a colophon – it’s most likely a kafa – but right that the actual colophon, which is at the end of the manuscript and which I have so far translated only the first half-dozen lines of, gives the scribe’s name as Zakaria, an episkopos/bishop) the manuscript was created at the monastery of Saint George of Samatya in Constantinople. The monastery no longer stands, but wikipedia provides an image of the current church in Istanbul, which apparently remains in Armenian hands.
In this place, nearly 500 years ago, Zakaria worked on this manuscript – while I, at my desk in the UK, have spent the afternoon looking at these images. It is rare that I go from looking at a manuscript to looking at the place (more or less) of its composition. It makes it feel more rooted, as it should be: no longer a manuscript adrift in centuries of words.