About 34km south of Ani the rivers Arpa/Akhurian and Digor join. Just before that point the rivers flow through deep canyons between a flat, grassy plateau. On this plateau there was once a settlement known as Mren. Originally a small town, the site is now uninhabited and the only surviving upright structure is an imposing Armenian church whose lonely silhouette is visible many miles away.
The Historical Background
Throughout the 6th and 7th centuries AD, Armenia found itself on the frontline between two competing superpowers: the Byzantine Empire and the Sassanid Persian Empire.
In the first two decades of the 7th century the Sassanid Empire launched a series of successful campaigns into the eastern territories of the Byzantine Empire. By the second decade of that century most of Armenia and Eastern Asia Minor was in Sassanid hands and in 614 they even captured Jerusalem, carrying away in triumph the most important relic in Christendom, the True Cross.
When Heraclius became emperor in 610 he stabilised the situation by making extensive territorial concessions to the Sassanid Empire. He later launched a series of successful counter-offensives: into Armenia in 624-25, and into Mesopotamia in 627-28. The Sassanids were forced to accept terms advantageous to the Byzantine Empire, one of the conditions being the return of the True Cross (which was reinstated in Jerusalem in 630). After his victory in Persia, in 629 Heraclius made a leisurely return home through Armenia, neutralising any remaining pro-Sassanid elements there and appointing his own governors. His forces are known to have passed within about five miles of the site of Mren, located in the Shirak district of historical Armenia.
When Was Mren's Domed Basilica Church Built?
High up on the west fašade of the church, directly under the nave window, is a dedicatory inscription extending across almost the full width of the gable (see photographs 13 and 14). Written in Armenian, it comprises three lines of text carved into a row of adjoining slabs of facing stone. Parts of the west fašade suffered damage at some point in time and have been reconstructed - so there are some gaps in the inscription where original stones have been replaced by newer ones. The inscription [note 1], with its missing words and letters in square brackets, reads:
In the [...] year of victorious King Heraclius, under the office of Prince [...] the all-praiseworthy patrik, curopalate, and spar[apet of Armenia] and Assyria, and the episcopate of [The]ophilos, and under the office of tanuter Nerse[h] lord of [Shira]k and Arsharunik, this holy church was built [for the intercession] of the souls of the Kamsarakans and for Mren and for the whole [land].
Unusually (for dedicatory inscriptions) nobody is mentioned as the specific donor or patron of the church, although a number of later medieval literary accounts say that Dawit Saharuni had the church constructed.
Partly because of the missing date section of the inscription, there are a number of theories regarding the date of the church's construction.
There is a fifth theory that places the date of the structure's origin to a much earlier period. Toros T'oramanian believed that the Mren church was originally a pagan temple in the form of a basilica, and when it was later converted into a church the apse and dome were added. However, this theory is not supported by architectural or textual evidence.
There are three domed Armenian churches from approximately the same time period that are similar in design to the Mren church. The St. Gayane church at Etchmiadzin was commissioned by catholicos Erz and so must date from between 630 and 641. The church of St. John at Bagawan (now completely destroyed) was, according to its building inscription, founded in 632 by the same catholicos Ezr and was completed in 639. The date of construction of the church at Ozdun is not recorded but it is thought to date from the first half of the 7th century, though with later modifications.
The Later History of Mren
In the 7th century Mren was part of the domain of the Kamsarakans who possessed the district of Shirak. According to the historian Samuel of Ani, in 772 a massacre of the citizens of Mren by the Arabs took place - though the Mren location may be wrong and the result of the misreading of the toponym "Aren". Whatever its location, the wider context of the massacre (the unsuccessful Armenian rebellion of 771-772 against the Arab invaders) did affect Mren. The rebellion led to the downfall of the Kamsarakan dynasty and Mren was eventually bought from them by the Bagratid Ashot Msker (in c.783). High up on the north facade of the church is a short inscription (see photograph 15) that may date from the pre-Bagratid period based on its letter forms: it reads "Remember Awurt, Village Priest of Mren".
On the west facade of the church are a number of inscriptions with dates from between 992 (see photograph 16) and 1063 that reveal something of Mren under the Bagratid kings of Ani. Mren was a bishopric: the church is described as a katolike and one inscription mentions a bishop, episcopos Ter Sahaka Asharuneats. Some of the inscriptions record donations to the church, including one of a vineyard at Mren. An inscription at Marmashen monastery, dated 981, also mentions the donation of vineyards at Mren, as does a donor's inscription from 986 at Horomos monastery.
According to the 13th-century Armenian historian Vardan, in 1163 the atabeg of Azerbaijan, El Denguiz, attacked and burned Mren, killing 4000 of its inhabitants.
At the start of the 13th century the Mkhargrdzeli rulers of Ani conquered Mren on behalf of the Georgians. The church underwent a restoration in the middle of the 13th century when Mren was still under their rule. This appears to have involved extensive repairs to the west and south walls of the church that took the form of large patches of new masonry inserted into the original masonry. On this new masonry on the south facade there were five dated inscriptions: from 1251, 1273, 1284 (see photograph 17), 1288, and 1295 (all were destroyed in the 2008 collapse).
The donation of a vineyard at Mren is mentioned in the foundation inscription of Ani's Tigran Honents church, and yet another Mren vineyard donation is recorded on the walls of the Surp Sarkis church at Khtzkonk. In 1272 Mren's governor, Artashir, the son of Shahanshah II of Ani, sold the town to a certain Sahmadin who, in 1276, constructed in Mren a summer palace with gardens. In 1277 the same Sahmadin restored the Redeemer's chapel in Mren. A donation inscription dated 1320 on the south facade of the domed church indicates that it was still in use at the start of the 14th century (this inscription, no longer extant, was recorded by Nikolai Marr). After that date its history, and that of the settlement of Mren, is unknown. At some point the church was converted into a fortified position - some of the windows and doors were blocked up (see photograph 40) and the exterior roof levels at the four corners of the church were raised. Old photographs reveal similar defensive modifications on many large churches in the Shirak region [note 5]. A low circuit of walls with towers also surrounds the church (partly visible in photograph 9), forming a compact enclosure - the space between this defensive wall and the sides of the church is only some 10 metres wide.
The town of Mren had probably been largely abandoned by the late 14th century or early 15th century. At that time the Kars region was in the hands of the Kara Koyunlu. It later fell under the control of Safavid Persia, but was taken from them by the Ottoman Empire in a series of wars during the 16th and 17th centuries. In 1878 the Kars region became incorporated into the Russian Empire. At that time the lands around Mren were used by Kurdish villagers who kept their cattle inside the church. The Armenian Church made some attempts to claim ownership of the Mren church and its surrounding land, but was unsuccessful because the site was so isolated and empty and because the Russian authorities had plans to settle ethnic Greeks in the nearby villages. However, by the end of the 19th century the church had been mentioned in articles in various Armenian literary and ethnological periodicals.
The church was still almost intact at the start of the 20th century when it underwent investigations by Armenian and Russian researchers. The architect and architectural historian Toros T'oramanian was the first to measure the church, and his plan is still the only one in general use. In 1920, after a brief period within the short-lived Armenian Republic, Mren and the rest of the Kars region fell under Turkish control. The archaeologist Ashkharbek Kalantar was probably the last expert to see Mren until the 1960s. He briefly visited the site in September 1920 [note 6]. By the time of the Thierrys' first visit to Mren in 1964, most of the walls and roof of the south-western bay had fallen.
Most of the south side of the church fell in late January or early February 2008. This collapse was not unexpected: the base of the south facade had been undermined along its entire length and there was almost nothing supporting its weight. The west and north facades are similarly undermined and are now in a state of near collapse, the lintels over the west and north entrances have split, and there is a severe crack all the way up the northwest corner of the church (see photographs 18 and 19) that extends across to the gable of the north arm. Some of the damage since 1920 seems to have been sabotage intended to weaken the structure in order to "encourage" the church's "natural" collapse [note 7].
Mren is now located in the Digor district of Turkey's Kars region, and the church is a little over 1km from the river Arpa that forms the border with Armenia. Border restrictions mean that although the church can be seen from the Kars to Iğdır road, visiting Mren is very difficult. Officially, it can only be done by first obtaining a permit from Ankara - but the act of applying for permission to visit an Armenian site is usually enough of a reason for permission not to be given. Local officials in Kars or in Digor, whether military or civilian, cannot give permission. Attempting to visit Mren without permission is unlikely to be successful: the inhabitants of the nearest villages (Çatak and Karabağ) have been told by the border guards to stop visitors proceeding further, and the whole site is observed from the control tower of a military base that is located on a hill overlooking Karabağ village.
The Mren church is rectangular in plan but with a slightly protruding apse. Its design takes the form of a domed basilica with a pronounced cruciform character that is expressed on the exterior as well as the interior.
The exterior walls are mostly plain in appearance but are enlivened by the rich tones of its facing stone that range from dark brown to rose red. There is sculptural decoration at various locations, in particular over the west and north entrances (this sculpture will be described in detail later). Large sections of the original stone facing on the south and west fašades were reconstructed at a later period and into those newer sections have been embedded an impressive selection of ornate khachkars. Much of the lower courses of the facing stone have been robbed out, undermining the walls of the church.
The cornice of the drum is incised with a row of horseshoe arches on a base of two dogtooth friezes - a form often seen on 7th century Armenian churches. Old photographs reveal that there was a similar and mostly intact cornice on the roof over the aisle and transepts, but it has now entirely vanished. The various sections of the church's roof would have been covered in clay tiles, but the only parts that now survive are the tiles on the roof of the dome. There is nothing to suggest that this is not the original 7th-century roofing. Kalantar saw a similarity in the shape of the roof tiles at Mren with tiles he found scattered around the ruins of the St. Theodore church in nearby Bagaran (modern Kilittaşı, a little to the south of Mren). The St. Theodore church (which is now completely destroyed) was founded in "the thirty-fourth year of King Khosrov" (which equates to 622-623) and completed in 629 according to Timothy Greenwood's reading of its foundation inscription.
There were four entrances to the church. The main entrance was probably the one on the west fašade, there is another on the north fašade that is surmounted by an ocular window, and on the now destroyed south fašade there were two more entrances. The eastern-most of the two southern entrances was (based on its smaller size and simplicity) of lesser importance and it appears to have been walled up at an early date. T'oramanian's plan of Mren also shows a central portal on the south facade that matches the one on the north facade, but no trace of it was visible even before the 2008 collapse of the south side of the church. It may be that the existence of this doorway was speculative on T'oramanian's part. The section of the facade with this doorway was part of the 13th-century repairs, so the original doorway - if it existed - may have been lost during that repair. It would be surprising if a central south entrance had not originally existed (almost all of the large, early Armenian churches have them) and its lost sculpture may have expanded on the meaning of the sculptures over the surviving entrances.
Inside the church are four substantial piers that support the dome and the high, longitudinal, barrel vaults over the nave and transepts. The rectangular corner bays also have longitudinal barrel vaults but they are lower than the nave or transepts and are separated from them by arches.
The drum of the dome is octagonal inside and outside, and the transition from the square bay is accomplished using half-conical squinches. Eight smaller squinches join the drum to the vault of the dome. The dome is reinforced and articulated by eight ribs, the ends of which rest on small imposts. Four large windows pierce the drum (see photographs 11, 21, 22).
The apse partially protrudes from the main body of the church and is semicircular on the inside and with five facets on the protrusion. The apse has three large windows, two of which are currently filled in. There are groin-vaulted chambers on each side of the apse that are accessed by doors in the side aisles. There is a windowless chamber above each of these side chambers (though they may have been just empty voids because there appears to have been no way of accessing them). Beneath the floor of the bay in front of the apse is a small, barrel-vaulted crypt with a rectangular plan, 5.7 metres long by 3.3 metres wide. There is no evidence as to how this underground chamber was accessed. The ground inside the church is very heavily disturbed, having been dug-up by successive generations of villagers looking for buried treasure. Nothing of the original flooring seems to remain.
The interior of the church is very well lit - a typical feature of early churches in Armenia. As well as the large windows in the apse and dome, there are ten additional large windows in other parts of the facade, plus probably three porthole windows (of which only one survives).
Much (perhaps all) of the interior was originally plastered and probably also frescoed. Only a few damaged fresco fragments remain in the apse. They are believed to be from the 6th or 7th century. The inside of the quarter-dome vault of the apse has the very fragmentary remains of a fresco of a seated Christ. On the inside edge of this vault is part of a row of medallions containing the busts of male figures, probably prophets (see photograph 24). Along the extrados of the apse's quarter dome are fragments of a painted inscription in Armenian. There is a full-length figure (an Apostle?) on each of the four surfaces between the apse windows, and another full-length figure, perhaps a bishop, is visible on the north wall of the east arm. A small fragment of fresco also survives on one of the piers supporting the dome, indicating that the fresco paintings were not confined to just the apse.
As mentioned earlier, Toros T'oramanian wrote that the Mren church was originally a pagan basilica. The plan below shows in black what T'oramanian believed was the original structure, and in gray the additions when it was converted to a church.
This theory was presumably based on some specific architectural evidence observed and interpreted by T'oramanian. The piers as they survive today are heavily damaged in parts (see, for example, photograph 31), and the damage reveals that there are no older, smaller piers embedded within. Possibly the piers were in better condition in T'oramanian's time, so he was unable to observe that fact. A feature that may have misled T'oramanian is that the masonry courses in the lower half of the walls on the west side of the side chapels are not bonded into the masonry courses of the adjoining north and south walls of the church. This may indicate that these walls are a result of a late design change (perhaps the side chapels were originally intended to be completely open to the side aisles) but it is not evidence that the side chapels and the apse are later additions. Toramanian's theory arose from the desire at that time to identify pre-Christian structures within early Christian sanctuaries in Armenia. Toramanian saw in the Mren church similarities with the Tekor basilica which he also believed was originally a pre-Christian temple, and considered that the dome at Mren had evolved from earlier examples like the one at Tekor.
The Sculptural Decoration on the West Portal
Above the west entrance of the church are a series of architectural elements: a hooded arch, a semicircular tympanum, and a long rectangular lintel. Each of these elements carries sculpture (see photographs 33 to 35). Parts of the carvings have been damaged when a later structure (perhaps a porch or bell tower) was built in front of the portal.
The tympanum, cut from a single block of tufa, is filled almost entirely by a depiction of two winged angels carved in bas-relief. They stand side-by-side, facing outward, their left and right shoulders almost touching. Their heads have halos and their full-length wings are particularly elaborately rendered with horizontal rows of feathers. In their left hands they each hold a disk-like orb inscribed with a cross, with the forefinger of their right hand pointing to the cross. Carved into the flat surface underneath the arch of their wings are worn inscriptions in Armenian identifying them as the Archangels Michael and Gabriel.
The tympanum is framed with a hooded arch. On the face of the arch is carved a vine-scroll frieze in which bunches of grapes and vine leafs alternate within a sinuous vine stock. Ornamental motifs with grape vines were widespread throughout the Late Roman / Sassanid period, but the motif acquired renewed significance as a Christian symbol [note 8]. The bunches of grapes on the Mren church have a distinctive three-segment form; similar carvings of three-segment bunches of grapes are found on the Ozdun basilica. Above the hooded arch is a fragment of more sculpture: a small section of an arc survives, probably part of the frame of a porthole window similar to the surviving porthole window on the north facade.
On the lintel is a row of six male human figures rendered in bas-relief.
The Sculptural Decoration on the North Portal
The architectural elements of the north portal are similar to the west portal. However, the surfaces of the hooded arch and semicircular tympanum are plain and only the long rectangular lintel carries sculpture (see photographs 36 to 38).
The relief carving on the lintel is smaller in scale and simpler in detail than that on the west portal, and it is also damaged and worn in parts.
Earlier commentators identified the figure next to the horse as Dawit Sarahuni, and the censor-swinging figure as bishop Theophilos. However, in the 1960s the Thierrys interpreted this scene as a stylised depiction of an actual historic event: the ceremony of the return of the True Cross to Jerusalem in 630. They identified the leftmost figure as the emperor Heraclius, standing beside his horse, and the clerical figure as patriarch Modestos, to whom the emperor delivered the True Cross. This interpretation has gained widespread support. The leftmost figure is depicted in rather plain garb and without any symbols of authority, which might put the Heraclius identification in doubt. However, Maranci postulates that it may depict a "humble Heraclius", based on a later Latin textual tradition (perhaps derived from an earlier Greek or Eastern Christian source) that recounts how Heraclius, approaching Jerusalem, removed his crown and imperial garments and entered the city on foot.
Alternative interpretations are that it is a symbolical depiction of the Adoration of the Cross, or that it may illustrate the actual dedication ceremony of the Mren church. Maranci cites 8th and 9th century commentaries that have accounts of church dedication ceremonies that contain rites performed on the exterior of churches involving the use of crosses. After Armenia's conversion to Christianity it is recorded that St. Gregory the Illuminator had wooden crosses erected at cross-roads and in public squares, and that King Trdat when founding a church would create an enclosed area within which would be set an image of the Holy Cross [note 9].
Other Sculptural Elements
The eastern portal on the south side is smaller and considerably simpler in form compared to the north and west entrances. It has no hooded arch and the sculpture on its tympanum is a simple four-armed cross inside a roundel.
The three windows in the apse have a hooded moulding in the form of a continuous band. The windows of the side chambers have hooded mouldings that incorporate figurative sculpture. On the southern window are two serpents with intertwining necks. On the northern window a male figure at the top of the hooded moulding is flanked by two crouching animals - Thierry interpreted this as Daniel in the lions den. The carvings are very worn, and the face of the male figure has been hacked off. Some of the other windows into the church have hooded mouldings with dog-tooth friezes.
There are areas of extensive patching to the original masonry on the west and south facades. This reconstruction, which is from not later than 1251 (the date of an inscription on a repaired section), reused many khachkars (see photographs 30 and 41 to 44). When counted at the start of the 20th century, there were a total of 35 khachkars on the south facade, inside and outside, and 16 on the west facade. Many of them were trimmed slightly to fit their new use. Stylistically, they seem to date from the 10th to the 13th centuries, with khachkars from different periods mixed up together. Amongst the reused khachkars, Samvel Karapetian identified two fragments of what may have been a early Christian stele - one of the fragments is located high up on the left side of the west facade, the other fragment was on the now destroyed south facade.
Other Structures at Mren
To the south-east of the domed church, at some distance away, are the ruins of the palace that Sahmadin had erected in 1276 (see photographs 45 to 47). This palace had on its eastern side a monumental portal - a recessed doorway under a muquarnas vault, with the whole set in a tall rectangular frame. Above the rectangular frame was a foundation inscription in Armenian that was recorded by Nikolai Marr. In it, Sahmadin tells of his purchase of Mren from Artashir and the construction of his palace.
The portal was still intact when seen by Kalantar in 1920. It is now completely destroyed and, except for a few small fragments, all of its masonry has been removed from the site. To the east of the domed church was a small chapel dating from 1277 that was built (or restored) by Sahmadin. A photograph exists of it, taken in 1890. A description from 1878 mentions beautiful khachkars carved on its walls and a tombstone in front of its doorway [note 10]. The same description mentions a second chapel located to the east of the domed church and surrounded by ruins - it had three doors and an inscription on an arch above one of the doors was dated 1301. Both chapels no longer survive and, like the palace doorway, all of their masonry together with their concrete core has been removed from the site.
Several old photographs exist of a large monument composed of a number of ornate khachkars (see photograph 50). Some books say that it was located at Horomos, others say that it was at Mren. Mren is more likely - the monument is not visible in any photograph of Horomos, and a 19th-century visitor to Mren mentions the existence of several large khatchkar monuments. A massive upright fragment of concrete core, stripped of facing stones, still survives at Mren, and a similar-sized fragment lies in pieces: one of these fragments may be all that is left of the khachkar monument.
Around the domed church is a dense cluster of ruined buildings, part of the settlement of Mren. The urban layout is very irregular and split into a number of distinct districts. The majority of the buildings are simple in form: single story and single chamber structures constructed of rough basalt boulders. Stone robbing may account for the complete lack of surviving ashlar masonry amongst the buildings, but the quantity of cut stone must have always been small. The approaches to Mren have fields bordered by low stone walls and with lanes running between those walls - these are probably the remains of the gardens and vineyards mentioned in medieval accounts. Except for the (probably late) fortified wall around the church, the settlement area of Mren appears to have been undefended. In the RAA periodical Vardzqpogr [note 11], Samvel Karapetian, using satelite imagery, postulates that two other ruined structures visible at Mren might be churches - however, both the structures are not churches.
1. This translation is by Timothy Greenwood and is published in his A Corpus of Early Medieval Armenian Inscriptions, Dumbarton Oaks Papers, volume 58 (2004).
2. Michel and Nicole Thierry, La cathédral de Mren et sa decoration, Cahiers Archaéologiques, volume 21 (1971), pages 43-77.
3. Christina Maranci, Building Churches in Armenia: Medieval Art at the Borders of Empire and the Edge of the Canon, Art Bulletin, volume 88 (2006), pages 656-675.
4. Christina Maranci, The Frontier: Heraclius, Armenia, and The Church of Mren in the forthcoming Vigilant Powers: Three Churches of Early Medieval Armenia.
5. See, for example, the old photographs of the Oğuzlu and Shirakawan churches. Old photographs of the domed hall church at Aruch show a tower attached to its east facade; an early engraving of Mastara shows raised walls over its apses and a tower-like structure against its north facade; the church of St. John at Burakan had particularly well-built tower additions at its corners (demolished in the 1990s?); Philippe Dangles has identified to the east of Tiknis a ruined church inside a later fortified enclosure wall that appears to have been abandoned by the period of the wall's construction.
6. Ashkharbek Kalantar visited Mren in September 1920. He recorded that the south-west corner of the church was still standing, but that the base of the corner was completely destroyed. Ashkharbek Kalantar, (Karakhanian, G., ed., Gurxzadyan, V. G., trans.), Armenia from the Stone Age to the Middle Ages, Paris 1994, page 75.
7. It is difficult to be certain about such damage. However, at Mren, damage that does not seem due to the looting of stone for building materials or to treasure hunting includes the removal of the the roof cornice (to enable water penetration), the removal of facing stones from the base of the facades, the removal of structurally important masonry from interior pilasters and piers, and the removal of masonry from parts of the drum of the dome. The complete removal of all traces of the two chapels and Sahmadin's portal is also unlikely to have occured as a result of stones being taken for building materals.
8. For example, John 15:5 - "I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing".
9. It is possible that from this tradition evolved the monumental stone steles that were found in Armenia before the period of the Arab conquests. These steles, which probably had either votive or memorial functions, typically stood on stepped pedestals and were composed of short columns, generally rectangular in section, with capitals surmounted by stone crosses.
10. Recorded in the 1878 inventory of Armenian monuments in the Kars region compiled by Vardapet Srapian on behalf of the Catholicos of Armenia, George VI.
11. In Vardzqpogr (Duty of Soul), issue 7 (2012), pages 39-40.
23rd March 2006 - This webpage is first published, with photographs by Richard Elbrecht.
14th April 2006 - Some small additions and corrections.
24th March 2013 - Content updated and greatly expanded, reformatted to fit new website design, many new photographs added.