Father Nerses Akinian was one of the most prolific and renowned names of Armenian philology in the first half of the twentieth century.
He was born Gabriel Akinian on September 10, 1883, in Artvin, an area in northeastern Turkey that was part of the Russian Empire at the time. He was sent to the Mekhitarist seminary of Vienna at the age of twelve, in 1895, and entered the Viennese branch of the congregation in 1901 when he was anointed a celibate priest and renamed Nerses. He followed the courses of the University of Vienna, where he studied Greek, Latin, and Syriac, history of Greco-Roman and Byzantine culture, philosophy, and theology. After graduation in 1907, he would have a wide number of functions in the Mekhitarist Congregation for the next decades. He was first a teacher at the seminary (1907) and later its deputy principal (1908-1911) and principal (1916-1920). Along his educational tasks, from 1909 until his death Fr. Nerses Akinian was also the head librarian of the Vienna monastery and the editor, with intermittencies, of Handes Amsorya, the Armenian Studies journal of the Viennese branch of the Mekhitarists. He became a member of the general board of the congregation in 1931 and superior of the monastery from 1931-1937.
From the very beginning, Akinian passionately pursued historical studies, following the general orientation of the Viennese Mekhitarists, and researched the whole extent of Armenian history and literature with German-like rigorousness and method. He was an indefatigable traveler, and would go to many countries to study Armenian culture and gather thousands of Armenian manuscripts and printed books for the library of Vienna. In 1912 he represented the Mekhitarists of Vienna at the consecration of Catholicos Gevorg V Sureniants (1911-1930) and traveled to his birthplace, Artvin, and Eastern Armenia, where he visited Ani, Garni, Geghard, and other ancient places. During World War I, he collected money to help the refugees of the Armenian Genocide, as well as Armenian war prisoners in Germany and Austria.
In 1924 Fr. Akinian was assigned to pastoral mission in Soviet Armenia and he would also visit Moscow, Nor Nakhijevan (Rostov-on-the-Don), Batumi, Tbilisi, and Lvov. This gave him the opportunity to visit ancient monuments and research collections of ancient Armenian manuscripts, particularly in Armenia, where he worked at the collection of Holy Etchmiadzin (which would be later moved to Yerevan and became the basis for the collection of the Matenadaran). In 1929 he was arrested, suspected of being a foreign spy, and forced to leave Armenia after a forty-day imprisonment. He went back to Vienna and continued his studies in different cities of Western Europe, including Berlin, Munich, Tubingen, Paris, Rome, and Livorno. In 1939 he went to the Middle East, but remained stranded in Beirut for the next seven years due to World War II. He spent his time teaching at the local Mekhitarist School and studying available Armenian manuscripts. He returned to Austria in the fall of 1946 and spent his last years in Vienna. In 1954 he earned an honorary doctorate from the University of Vienna.
Akinian published most of his studies in Handes Amsorya over more than a half century . Many of them were also published in book form. He published more than 40 books related to Armenian medieval literature, Armenian text issues, and Armenian Studies in general. He also compiled catalogues of Armenian manuscripts conserved in collections of Cyprus, Poland, Ukraine, and elsewhere. He discovered and published works by fathers of the Church and various early Christian authors (John Chrysostom, Pseudo-Dionysus the Areopagite, Irenaeus, Ephrem the Syrian, Proclus, and others). Some of his studies on Armenian ancient authors, like Koriun, Movses Khorenatsi, Yeghishe, Ghazar Parpetsi, and others, became controversial due to his penchant to accommodate their texts and chronologies to his views. He passed away on October 28, 1963, in Vienna, leaving more than a dozen unpublished works in the archives of the Mekhitarist Congregation.