The monastic complex known as Marmashen Vank is located on a shelf overlooking the left bank of the Akhurian River, 15 km north of Gyumri in the Shirak province of the Republic of Armenia.
The churches at Marmashen are the best surviving examples of the "Ani school" of medieval Armenian architecture to be found in the Armenian Republic. The buildings at Marmashen are so similar in style to those at the monastery of Khtzkonk that it is probable the same architects and craftsmen created both monasteries.
Marmashen was the dynastic burial place for the Pahlavids.
An inscription (see photograph 7) dated 1029 is carved on the south façade of the Katoghike (Cathedral) church, the largest church in the complex. It states that Prince Vahram Pahlavouni constructed the monastery, but does not give precise references to any specific buildings within the monastery. The historian Samuel of Ani mentions only the construction of a single building between 989 and 994. Vahram Pahlavouni (967-1045), also rendered as Pahlavid, was the sparapet (commander-in-chief) of the army of the Armenian kings of Ani.
In 1064 the Seljuk Turks looted the monastery.
Another inscription, on the north wall of the Katoghike church, records the restoration of the monastery by Bishop Grigor Pahlavid and his brother Gharid in 1225. The inscription gives detailed information about the authors and the sponsors of the restoration, and their donations of furniture, sacred vessels and vestments, fields, vineyards, and villages to the monastery.
In the 19th century it was said that the name Marmashen was a corruption of the name Marmarashen meaning "a building built of marble". The monastery is still known locally as Marmarashen. There is no marble used in its construction, but the name may just signify the high quality of the stonework.
Earthquakes in 1139, 1275, 1668, and 1926 were felt in this part of Shirak, but their effects on the structures at Marmashen are not known.
In 1888 Catholicos Khrimian Hayrig started a limited rebuilding of the monastery. This work appears to have included the destruction of the original umbrella roof of the Katoghike church with the simplified version that survives today. The edges and surfaces of the original roof were articulated with ribbing and fluting like the roof of the church of Saint Sargis at Khtzkonk. The engraving below, from Alishan's "Shirak" published in 1880, depicts the original roof as well as the St. Astvatsatsin church before its collapse.
In 1893 Lynch said the churches were "falling into ruin". Lynch described the surroundings of the monastery as "bleak and unrelieved by vegetation", but extensive orchards of apple trees now surround the monastery.
At the start of the 20th century there was a village next to the monastery. In 1920, when Turkey captured Alexandropol, the monastery was reportedly looted and burnt.
A great deal of reconstruction and repair work was undertaken on the churches during the Soviet period, but it is not clear exactly what work was done at what time. Photographs in books from the 1940s depict a re-roofed Katoghike church. In 1945 the little St. Petros church was restored. Between 1950 and 1954 the pitched roof of the Katoghike was again entirely renewed. More reconstruction was done on the buildings between 1954 and 1957, along with excavations of the monastery's ancillary buildings. Missing or badly damaged architectural details were replaced; following the recommended practices of the time, the replacements have a simpler design in order to distinguish them from original medieval work.
In 1988 the earthquake that devastated most of Gyumri also shook the monastery of Marmashen. The west façade of the Katoghike church lost much of its structural connection to the adjoining north and south walls, and a severe crack developed in the dome.
An Italian restoration team from the "Centro Studi e Documentazione della Cultura Armena" (CSDCA) undertook post-earthquake consolidation works on the Katoghike church. Steel rods were inserted into holes drilled through the core of the walls, and were secured by end plates on the exterior surfaces of the walls. Steel cables were used to pre-stress the dome and its drum. The roof slabs on the pitched roofs were removed and reset (re-using the stones from the 1950s). Fallen or loose stones were re-inserted into the façade. Cosmetic repairs were done by filling cracks with mortar the same colour as the stonework.
The original paving stones that covered the floor of the St. Stephanos church have been removed and replaced (by the CSDCA?) with machine-cut stone slabs . The St. Petros church still retains its original medieval stone flooring – but the CSDCA group seems to have plans to destroy it and replace it with modern paving.
The remains of a total of five churches are visible on the site, plus traces of ancillary structures and a defensive wall.
The largest church at Marmashen Vank ("A" on the plan above) is known as the "Katoghike" or, alternatively, the "church of St. Stephanos" . It was probably completed in 1029, the year that the dedicatory inscription on its south wall was carved.
It has the plan-type that is sometimes referred to as a domed-hall. It is rectangular externally, with two v-shaped niches in the north, south, and east facades. The dome has a distinctive umbrella-roof, the gables of which rest on clusters of three colonnettes. These colonnettes divide the exterior of the drum into 12 sides. The drum is circular internally, and is pierced by four windows. It rests on pendentives that are supported on clustered piers.
A blind arcade runs around the outside of the building. Clusters of colonnettes (see photograph 8) supporting an arch frame the north and south windows. The east and west windows are more conventional in form, with ornate rectangular frames.
The church has a single entrance, through the west façade.
Inside the church there is a row of niches framed by a blind arcade that runs along the base of the apse (see photograph 13) – this layout is similar to that found inside Ani’s cathedral.
In front of the west façade are the foundations of a jamatoun, "B" on the plan, whose roof was supported on four columns, the bases of which still survive. It perhaps dated from the 13th century. The graves of Vahram Pahlavuni and several members of his family, including his wife, are said to lie under the floor of the zhamatun. At the northeast corner of the jamatoun is a memorial stone that marks the supposed burial-place of Vahram: the stone itself dates from the late 19th century.
The St. Astvatsatsin Church
To the north of the Katoghike church, and with only a narrow space separating them, is another church, "C" on the plan, that closely resembles it in design though on a smaller scale. Known as St. Astvatsatsin, it is now mostly in ruins. It was still standing in the middle of the 19th century, but had collapsed by the 1890s (see photograph 16).
Its drum was cylindrical and had a conical roof. The capitals of the blind arcade on its façade are almost identical to those of the Katoghike church.
The St. Petros Chapel
To the south of the Katoghike church is a small chapel called St. Petros ("D" on the plan). It has an inscribed-cross plan, with a cylindrical drum and conical roof.
Its walls are very plain compared to its neighbours. The only decoration is around the entrance, and on a rectangular window frame above the entrance (added later, according to some books).
It is said by some books to be rather older than the rest of the buildings, but its interior details suggest the same time-period as the neighbouring churches. However, if it is from an earlier period it may be the church Samuel of Ani wrote about.
The Circular Church
Located to the west of the three previously mentioned churches are the foundations of a fourth church ("E" on the plan). It was circular externally; internally it had four apses with four chapels in each corner. Its design is almost identical to the church of St. Sargis at Khtzkonk monastery, which dates from 1029. The absence of any fragments from the upper parts of its structure, or from its roof, may indicate that this church was never finished.
Northeast of the circular church, the foundations of a rectangular structure made from cut stone have been excavated – it is thought to have been a mausoleum. The monastery was originally surrounded by a defensive wall, parts of which were excavated in the 1950s.
The Ruined Chapel
To the north, on a low hill overlooking the monastery, there are the ruins of a fifth church. Enough of it remains to show that it was small chapel with a free-cross plan. Fragments of the collapsed structure reveal that it had a dome and a circular drum.
The chapel is surrounded by a graveyard. Most of the gravestones have a 19th century date, but fragments of ornate medieval khatchkars lie scattered on the slopes to the south and southeast of the chapel.