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A Cathedral on the Verge of Collapse: The Campaign to Save

Mren An Interview with Dr. Christina Maranci By Lucine Kasbarian

MEDFORD, MA — Dr. Christina Maranci, Arthur H. Dadian and Ara T. Oztemel Associate Professor of Armenian Art and Architecture at Tufts University in Medford, Mass., has issued a call to save the 7t h century Mren Cathedral of Western Armenia, located in the Kars region of present-day Turkey. Prof. Maranci’s areas of expertise include Byzantine art and architecture, and the art and architecture of the Transcaucasus—principally Armenia. She is considered one of the world’s authorities on the Mren Cathedral. According to Dr. Maranci, “the cathedral of Mren is now in danger of collapse.

Constructed circa 638 AD, Mren is a masterpiece of world art and a product of the ‘Golden Age’ of Armenian architecture. Bearing an inscription naming the Roman emperor Heraclius, and a unique sculpted relief image of Heraclius returning Christendom’s greatest relic-—the True Cross—to Jerusalem, Mren preserves precious
material evidence for one of the most dramatic and yet poorly documented moments in history. It is also the largest domed basilica surviving from the region, and a key example of the architectural achievements of the seventh century.”
Dr. Maranci stresses that Mren may not be standing much longer.
“Photographs from the 1990s to the first decade of the 21s t century show the progressive collapse of the south façade. Now the entire south aisle lies in rubble on the ground, severely compromising the domed superstructure of the monument and opening the interior and its wall paintings to the elements,” she says. “The prospect of stabilizing what is left is at present doubtful, however, because of Mren’s position within a military zone in Eastern Turkey (Kars province) next to the closed
Armenian-Turkish border. Visiting the site is forbidden.”
Dr. Maranci is campaigning to raise awareness about Mren’s precarious condition. “Mren has stood for over a millennium, bearing world history on its walls,” she says. Its collapse would represent a tragic loss to human knowledge.”
Following is an interview with Dr. Maranci. Lucine Kasbarian: For years, scholars and travelers have been unable to obtain official permission to visit this site. When was the last time that architectural experts had access to Mren?
Christina Maranci: The last time anyone was able to do substantial scientific work there was in the 1960s when Nicole and Jean-Michel Thierry visited multiple times. I have never been there although I have tried to get permission.
LK: Observers say that Mren Cathedral seems to rival in size the Great Cathedral of Ani, and contains bas-reliefs and remnants of frescos not unlike those at the Cathedral of the Holy Cross in 20 Aghtamar. Is forbidden access the reason why Mren is not as well known as these other two monuments?
CM: Mren and Ani are comparable in size, and Mren probably served as a local model for Ani Cathedral in its domed basilica layout and form, although Ani exhibits typical features of the 10-11th century Armenian architectural tradition. Mren has sculpted bas-reliefs on its portals and over some windows, and preserves fragments of wall painting in the eastern end. However, it bears nothing like the program of figural reliefs at Aght’amar—something that makes this church anomalous even in the
Armenian tradition. Aght’amar’s wall painting is also better preserved. But the inaccessibility of Mren surely shaped its scholarly reception and public awareness about it. Toros Toramanyan, known as the father of Armenian architectural historiography, tells us that he himself was only able to visit it for one day.
LK: The website VirtualAni.org describes Mren as being one of four structures similar in design and which were likely built around the same time, the other three being the St. Gayane Church—built between 630 and 641 AD at Etchmiadzin; the church of St. John at Bagavan—built between 632 – 639 AD and north of the Lake Van region but now destroyed; and the Odzun Basilica—probably built in the first half of the 7t h century AD in the Odzun region of Armenia. How does Mren compare in
historical importance to these other structures?
CM: Gayane is obviously important for its connections to the conversion to Christianity tradition and because of its connections to the Patriarch Ezr, who is thought to have built it. If the church of Bagavan were standing today, it would have been, by far, the largest domed basilica in the region. Odzun is difficult to discuss, because it has been renovated so many times. While it dates to the early
medieval period, it is generally thought to have a 9t h century phase and perhaps even later ones. Mren is the only one of these monuments that is linked to the broader global world via its epigraphy and sculpture. It speaks directly to the network of relationships between empire, frontier, and local Armenian nobility. There is much more to say but this is a start, one hopes.
LK: Even as Mren is on the brink of collapse, would you say that it is one of the more intact monuments still standing in the Kars/Ani region?
CM: Well, it is hard to say. So many are in danger, so many have collapsed, and so many have been lost to historical record. But it is remarkable in many ways that a 7th century monument, so isolated and in such a seismic area, has survived as well as it has—so far.
LK: How can readers of this interview help bring attention to Mren Cathedral so that scholars and restorers might conduct important inspection and preservation work and so that Mren may become a protected site?
CM: I am in the midst of contacting UNESCO and, of course, nominating the monument to the World Monuments Fund. I will also be organizing a global petition in the very near future. In the meantime, readers who would like to get involved in the campaign to save Mren Cathedral may signal their interest by contacting me at: Christina.Maranci@tufts.edu 98th Times Square Armenian Genocide Commemoration
NEW YORK, NY — A large throng is expected to participate in the 98th Anniversary
Commemoration of the Armenian Genocide to be held in Times Square (43rd St. & Broadway) on Sunday, April 21 from 2-4 pm. The organizers invite people of all backgrounds to join together to commemorate the Armenian Genocide and subsequent genocides during Genocide Awareness Month and to speak out against this horrendous crime against humanity.
The theme of the Armenian Genocide Commemoration is “Turkey is Guilty of Genocide: Denying the Undeniable is Criminal.” This historic event will pay tribute to the 1.5 million Armenians who were massacred by the Young Turk Government of the Ottoman Empire and to the millions of victims of subsequent genocides worldwide. Speakers will include civic, religious, humanitarian, educational, cultural leaders, and performing artists. This event is free and open to the public.
Dennis R. Papazian, PhD, immediate past National Grand Commander of Knights of Vartan and Founding Director of the Armenian Research Center at the University of Michigan-Dearborn, and Dr. Mary A. Papazian, President of Southern Connecticut State University, will preside over the ceremonies.
21
Dr. Dennis Papazian comments, “Recent momentous events encourage me to believe that the long vigil of the Armenian people waiting for recognition of their genocide by the Turkish government may be coming to a positive conclusion. An influential Kurdish leader in Turkey, a member of Parliament and vice-president of the pro-Kurdish Democratic Society Congress, Ahmet Turk, admitted that the
Kurdish people played a significant role in the “torture and massacre of Armenians, Assyrians and Yezidis” during the Armenian Genocide and apologized to the Armenian people.
Dr. Papazian continues, “A second momentous event was the publication of a book in Turkey entitled “The Armenian Genocide” by Hasan Cemal, the grandson of Cemal (Jamal) Pasha, one of the three main authors of the Armenian Genocide. Hasan Cemal, a member of the Turkish establishment and a newspaper columnist, began his inquiry into the Armenian Genocide following the killing of Turkish diplomats by a group of young Armenians who went by the name of ASALA. At first, Hasan Cemal supported the official government point of view, and as he became more knowledgeable, finally
concluded that indeed there was a genocide of the Armenians perpetrated by the Young Turk party which controlled the Ottoman government in 1915-1923. The book has inspired many members of the Turkish elites to reevaluate their denial of the Armenian Genocide.”
The 98th Commemoration is organized by the Mid-Atlantic chapters of the Knights & Daughters of Vartan, an international Armenian fraternal organization headquartered in the United States, and cosponsored by Armenian General Benevolent Union, Armenian Assembly of America, Armenian National Committee of America, Armenian Council of America and the Armenian Democratic League-
Ramgavars.
Participating Organizations include the Diocese of the Armenian Church of America, Prelacy of the Armenian Church, Armenian Missionary Association of America, Armenian Catholic Eparchy for US and Canada, Mid-Atlantic ACYOA, AYF, Armenian youth organizations, Armenian university and college clubs.
LOUSSAPATZ THE DAWN [loussapatz.n@gmail.com]

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