St. Gregory of Narek

Piecing Together the Words of a Saint


POTSDAM, Germany — A revolutionary technology developed in Germany has made it possible to reconstruct an early version of Saint Gregory of Narek’s Book of Prayers (or Lamentations), conserved in the Matenadaran in Yerevan. The work is a manuscript dating back to the 13th-14th century, and is one of the earliest copies of the 10th century original, which has been lost. The task presented to restorers seemed hopeless due to the desperate condition of the manuscript. The book had fallen into decay, its pages reduced to fragments, and those were in utter disarray so that it was impossible to place the individual pieces of pages in their original order.

There was no way to salvage the precious manuscript using traditional methods of restoration. In 2016 the Fraunhofer Institute initiated a feasibility study to determine whether its methods could be successfully applied to recovering damaged documents at the Matenadaran. Fraunhofer is recognized as the leading organization for applied research in Europe, with 72 institutes and research centers ( The method adopted is known as automated virtual reconstruction; as explained in an article in the institute’s publication FUTUR, the so-called ePuzzler, which the Institute has developed, is “a reconstruction software that uses sophisticated image-processing and pattern detection algorithms to automatically recompose scanned paper fragments into complete pages.”

There are three stages in the reconstruction process. The fragments are digitized, to make it possible to process them virtually. “Then the ePuzzler processes the digital copies and reconstitutes them into full pages. The third stage goes beyond the reconstruction of single pages to embrace mechanisms both for the automated match-up of single pages to form complete files and for development of their content.”

Funded by the German Foreign Ministry, the Fraunhofer scientists organized two workshops in Yerevan, in which they presented the virtual reconstruction technology and preparation and procedure of digitalization work to the members of the staffs involved in restoration, digitalization, research and archive at the Matenadaran. Together they drew up potential applications scenarios, and selected and digitized exemplary material for sample processing. The results were very promising and work continued. At the end of last year, the Narek project was completed, with the financial support of the Foreign Ministry. The word was conducted by Fraunhofer collaborators Siranoush Varderesyan and Henry Zoberbier under the direction of Dr. Bertram Nickolay, head of the  Department for Security Technology. It is expected that in September the results of the project will be presented to the public in Germany.

The advantages of the virtual reconstruction method pioneered by Fraunhofer should be obvious: in the case of ancient and damaged documents, it is important to reduce manual handling to an absolute minimum. Once the virtual reconstruction has been completed, work can proceed on actual physical restoration.

For the Matenadaran this technology may prove to be a godsend. The world famous institute in Yerevan houses a collection of inestimable value, parts of it have been welcomed into the “Memory of the World Register” of UNESCO. Its experts enjoy recognition internationally for their advanced skills in restoring books and documents and the institute, as FUTUR writes, “is the key reference point and port of call for all enquiries regarding restoration and reconstruction in the region.”[1] Despite this high level of expertise, work on restoring the immense amount of manuscripts has been hampered by the lack of adequate technical support.

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Sharing the Fruits of Revolutions

There is a wonderful irony in the fact that this particular technology from Germany should come to the aid of cultural protection in Armenia, at this particular moment in history, when Armenia is going through a profound revolutionary transformation. Many Germans, following the events of the past weeks in the media, have been reminded of the peaceful revolution carried out by East Germans in 1989, which brought down the Berlin Wall and led to national reunification — an unthinkable development, during which not a shot was fired. The events unfolding in Armenia in April and May recalled that experience, for its steadfast commitment to non-violent, peaceful change.

Now, it turns out that the revolutionary technology developed by Fraunhofer became famous for its application to the reconstruction of documents belonging to the files of the Stasi, the Communist East German State Security Service, which had been torn, shredded or otherwise physically destroyed at the time of the 1989 peaceful revolution. Through the Stasi Fragments Project, the Fraunhofer group reconstructed the files of that entity, beginning a four-year pilot phase in 2007. This was no mean task. There were 15,000 sacks of documents that had been ripped by officials seeking to destroy the evidence, and 400 sacks were slated for processing in the pilot phase.

On the cultural level, this method has been successfully applied to reconstruct books that were destroyed in the collapse of the Historical Archive of Cologne, as well as works of the great German scientist Wilhelm Gottfried Leibniz. There are 200,000 pieces of paper, on which this seminal thinker noted down his ideas on a vast array of themes, handwritten fragments now being deciphered, ordered and published thanks to the Fraunhofer method. The technology can also be applied to three-dimensional objects, making it possible to recover statues and frescoes that have been damaged by natural decay or even terrorism.

And now the precious work of Gregory of Narek has been recovered. The Armenian saint who lived from 950 to 1003, has been honored in recent years by the Pope, in the spirit of Christian unity. On the centennial of the genocide, Pope Francis officially declared him a Doctor the Church and on April 5 of this year he unveiled a bronze statue of Gregory of Narek at the Vatican (




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