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Marmashen Monastery Needs Some Tender Loving Care

Yeranuhi Soghoyan


17:33, August 25, 2011

Our little group somehow traversed the long neglected road to the equally neglected 10th century Marmashen Monastery perched atop the Akhurian River gorge a few kilometres northwest of Gyumri.

We had come by car and I could only imagine the trek on foot that awaited pilgrims of an earlier age.

Approaching the monastic complex of four churches, the now familiar strains of "a la Turkish" music being played by yet another group of party goers pierced our ears.

It seems that this tranquil and spiritual site has become a favourite pilgrimage site for "kefchi" picnickers as well ever since Armenia declared its independence.

The monastery lies 2 kilometres from the village of Vahramaberd.

An inscription on the south wall of the main church (The Katoghike Church of S. Stepanos) informs us that it was built between 986 and 1029 by Prince Vahram Pahlavuni.

After the Russo-Turkish War (1828-1829), when the Akhurian River became the border between the two empires, a group of Armenians from Kars resettled near the monastery, making it their parish church.

The main church was closed by the Soviet in 1923. It sustained some structural damage in the 1988 earthquake.

Samvel Matevosyan, who today sells candles in the church, says the main problem is the dampness and water that collects under the walls.

"No one seems interested in fixing the problem," he told us.

Samvel's father Seryozha worked as a guard at the church for 40 years, also selling candle to the faithful. After he died, Samvel moved from Gyumri seven years ago to continue the job.

The new caretaker says he explains the problems facing Marmashen to all who visit – even local officials.

"I tell everyone who comes to help and I am asking you to report all this to your readers. The church is solid but water is a tricky thing not to be overlooked. But neither the church authorities nor the Monuments Preservation Agency have taken an interest," says Samvel.

He also complains about the local party-goers and their music.

"We are embarrassing ourselves in front of the tourists. But there is no one in charge and to tell these people to take their revelry up the hill and away from the church," Samvel says.

During the Soviet era, the monastery fell under the jurisdiction of the Department of Preservation and Usage of Historical and Cultural Monuments attached to the USSR Council of Ministers.

Today, according to Shirak Diocesan Primate Archbishop Mikayel Ajapahyan, it is the Ministry of Culture that is responsible for the monastery.

The Armenian Apostolic Church has installed a permanent priest who conducts services every Sunday.

"The Church has permission to use the premises. We don't own it, "said Archbishop Ajapahyan. "It's an archaeological dig site but the work has been halted indefinitely. We have constantly raised the issue of ownership with the government. They claim it has been resolved but it hasn't."

The Shirak Primate says the work required at Marmashen is extensive at that the Church just doesn't have the funds.

"It's the responsibility of the government to take care of the church but they don't seem to be in any hurry. The government invested huge sums into Haghartzin but it was in much better shape than Marmashen."


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Comments (1)
1. Steve02:44 - 2 September, 2011
It is actually welcome news to me that Marmashen still remains under the protection of the Ministry of Culture. The Church should not be telling people not to picnic in the apple orchards that surround the church - it is one of the few freely-available green areas near Gyumri and the abysmal musical taste of the weekend picnickers is not going to be solved by forcing them to move up the hill. As for "embarrassing the tourists", on the many visits I've made to Armenian church sites, the only times I have felt embarrassed is when encountering arrogant priests who think they own the monuments, and the only times I have felt anger is when seeing the recent damage the Church has inflicted on many of them. Marmashen has had more botched restorations than most Armenian monuments. In 1888 the Armenian Church destroyed the original but damaged umbrella-roof and replaced it with a simplified version. In the Soviet-era the rest of the roof slabs were subject to repeated removals and replacements to fix the dampness: whatever success, if any, was undone by the 1988 earthquake which actually inflicted serious damage to the main church's structural integrity. Post-earthquake, the church was extensively repaired by a team of Italian restorers. I don't know how bad this rainwater seepage is, but I suspect that it is mostly cosmetic. The church is 1000 years old – it cannot be expected to be entirely watertight, and cannot be made entirely watertight while still maintaining its historical integrity. If the priest and caretaker don't like that fact then perhaps they should be the ones to leave and move up the hill!
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