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Cathedral of Mren

Mren Cathedral, listed on the WMF World Monuments Watch in 2014, sits on a desolate plain on the frontier with Armenia, and it is the privilege of the WMF team along with the Turkish Ministry of Culture to perform the first in depth assessment of the site in more than 100 years. Before we depart for the site we must stop for supplies: bottled water, bread, juice, fruits, and, of course, Kars cheese, a well-known staple of the Kars region. As we run from shop to shop in downtown Kars I ask the architect, Yavuzbey, how I can help. “Someone must get the cheese.” I cross the street to enter Büyük Zavotlar to be confronted by our other Turkish colleagues sitting with tea and sampling the goods. “Have you tried this cheese? It is delicious!” says Ömer emphatically. A 45 minute drive brings us to the village of Karaba? where we are to meet up with a military convoy that will transport us each day to the site of Mren Cathedral. Mren is in a military zone that separates two countries with no formal diplomatic relations. As we wait by a school, the children excitedly wave to us from the windows. Soon their teachers allow them to join us for photos and questions. They are enthralled with the visitors from America, Russia, China, and Macedonia who have come to their little village. The military arrives. I greet the commander and he smiles broadly and says “ho?geldiniz (welcome)” which puts us all at ease. The 30 minute ride in the back of the covered truck is bumpy and dusty as we drive over the foundations of an unexplored ruined city. The truck stops and we climb from the truck, put on our gear and walk through chest high grasses, carefully navigating our way across hidden piles of stones. To the east is Armenia and to the south, Mount Ararat. In front of us rises the impressive 1,400 year old structure that is the focus of our visit. We enter Mren Cathedral and set out our tools and photo equipment. Soon the tourists transform into the world’s best experts who wander off in teams to survey bas reliefs, wall paintings, masonry work, cracks in walls, and across ceiling vaults, and out onto the site searching for lost palaces and khachkars. I pinch myself for being included in such august company. Already two of Mren’s nine bays have collapsed as the magnificent structure loses its battle with gravity. By mid-afternoon we gather in the nave to feast on cheese and bread, tomatoes, cucumbers, and bananas washed down with sour cherry and apricot juice. It is a well-deserved feast for a determined team. The soldiers who watch us become increasingly helpful and friendly as they listen to Turkish traditional music on their iPhones. We are individually and together sketching up shoring plans as emergency measures to buy time until funding and the will can be found to conserve its remaining vaults, dome, and precious artwork. “Tamam (OK),” we say to each other as we pack up our things and head for the truck at the end of the day. We joke that there should be a sign at the back of the truck: “Abandon hope all ye who enter here.” We hold on tight as the truck lunges, rocks, shakes, and fords the shallows of the Digor River. The sun sets as we head back for Kars. We are sore and hungry but very satisfied because tomorrow we will do it again. WMF is grateful to the Ambassadors Fund for Cultural Preservation and the US Embassy in Ankara for their support of WMF's program in Mren carried out in collaboration with the Turkish Ministry of Culture and Tourism.