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A Monument in Peril Reveals its Secrets

I had studied Mren for a long time before getting there. Mren is a famous Armenian church, constructed in the seventh century during the wars of the Byzantines, Persians, and Arabs. I knew it for its soaring architecture, sculpted reliefs, and precious historical inscriptions. But going to a place reveals so much more.

First, Mren is one of those monuments that warps time and space. It is located in the Kars region of Turkey, on a sweep of high plateau. You walk and walk, and think you are getting closer. Then a ravine blocks your way. Then more walking. Still you are not at the church! Leaving the monument, the same thing happens, only in reverse—you walk away, and an hour later, you look back. Mren has followed you. It must be the strong geometry of the building, and the flatness and featurelessness of the plateau that cause this startling effect.

When I arrived at Mren, though, I knew what I wanted. Pictures, and lots of them. I knew the church, theoretically, down to the square meter, so my feet carried me where I needed to go, as if on automatic. West façade, north façade, east façade; interior, dome, details. I had a long list of things I needed to check off. I had to suppress my excitement and “execute,” as they say.

There were many surprises, though, including interesting (but not creepy) bugs, and little gophers that scooted around the plateau and into holes. The most important “surprise” was the eastern apse of the church. To explain: I got to Mren after the south façade collapsed, around 2008. This means that the church is in precarious condition; it also means that the many inscriptions on the south façade are now in the dirt. But, now, strong light floods in where the south wall used to be. Standing inside the church, I scanned the interior of the apse and began to see… paintings. Lots of paintings! I thought I had seen all the frescos at Mren, but the few published images were only, it turns out, a small fragment of what remained. The newly illuminated sanctuary was covered in draped figures. Elegant in their painting style, active in their poses, and accompanied by Armenian inscriptions, these figures included the first Armenian portrait of Saint Thaddeus, one of the first evangelizers of Armenia. Further inspection and study of the apse revealed, too, that there was an inscription in the “triumphal arch” above the apse. The text was Psalm 92/3:5 “Holiness befits thy house, O lord, for the length of days.”

Let’s help Mren last “for the length of days.” Please join the World Monuments Fund as it features the Cathedral of Mren for Watch Site of the Week and help raise awareness about the site!