Armenian Language Corner

The Desert Does Not Have Walls

The title reflects what any common speaker of Armenian would think. Even Mekhitar Sepastatsi, the founder of the Mekhitarist Congregation, who managed to compile the first of a two-volume “Dictionary of the Armenian Language” (Haigazian dictionary), published right before his death (1749), thought that անապատ (anabad “desert”) meant “not surrounded by walls” and was, then, related to պատ (bad “wall”). When we dissect the word anabad (anapat in Classical and Eastern Armenian phonetics), we come with an-a-bad, namely, the combination of the negative prefix an, the connective a, and the noun bad (pat in Classical and Eastern Armenian phonetics). In a nutshell, anabad would mean “unwalled.”

However, appearances can be deceiving. The origin of the word anapat is Iranian, and we find the word anapatan (“uncultivated”) in Middle Persian, the language spoken by the Sasanians, the ruling dynasty of the Persian Empire from the third to the seventh century A.D.  This word is the negative form of the word apatan (“populous”).

Therefore, while a desert is an anabad (like the Sahara desert), it is also the case for a deserted place, like a ghost town, which we may call an անապատ քաղաք (anabad kaghak “depopulated town”).

Interestingly, the use of the word anabad was historically extended to monasteries away from the cities, which generally became hermitages. There were many such anabads throughout the historical territory of Armenia, starting in the early Middle Ages. As a random example, but fitting to the times, we can cite the hermitage of the Translators (Tarkmanchats anabad), traditionally dated in the fifth century, which was located one kilometer from the village of Banants, in the district of Gardman of the province of Utik (now the district of Dashkesan in Azerbaijan). The Armenian population of the village was forced to migrate in 1989, and one can only surmise what the ruins of the monastery may have become today.