The history of Armenia is revealed in this poignant interview with Anahit Gharibyan, who became a member of the country’s diaspora at one year of age, and again in her sixties. One of the world’s ten oldest civilizations, Armenia has endured in no small part due to the profound devotion of the Armenian people who have spent much of their lives in exile.
Anahit's story personifies this bond. She was the first employee of Armenia Tree Project Charitable Foundation (ATP), founded in 1994 by Armenian-American philanthropist Carolyn Mugar. During the winter of 1992, while visiting Armenia, Ms. Mugar saw that families desperate to heat their homes were burning their own furniture, and thousands of trees were being cut for fuel. She decided to commit towards preventing further deforestation in Armenia.
Under Anahit’s supervision, about one million trees were planted across Armenia. She joined ATP as the manager of the Community Tree Planting Program, a position she held for 16 years until she moved to Los Angeles in 2010. Anahit then became a Community Outreach Manager for ATP, with her primary focus being the implementation of ATP’s Building Bridges Program on the West Coast.
The Armenian Diaspora is one of many facets of Armenian heritage that Anahit touches upon in her inspiring account of her personal history and that of her country. The term diaspora (from Greek meaning "I spread about") is defined as a scattered population whose origin lies within a smaller geographic locale. Diaspora generally refers to the involuntary mass movement of a people. Chief among the distinctions social scientists make between migrant communities and a diaspora is the degree to which people relate personally or vicariously to the homeland to a point where it shapes their identity.
Since antiquity, Armenians have established communities in many regions throughout the world. However, the modern Armenian diaspora was largely formed as a result of the Armenian Genocide of 1915, when the Armenians living in their ancestral homeland in eastern Turkey, known as Western Armenia to Armenians, were systematically exterminated by the Ottoman government.
Anahit's story, and that of ATP, offer hopeful lessons of how goodness can be born of tragedy. She also offers insight on the inter-related traits of patience, persistence and humor--and how these characteristics, like trees, can be cultivated and serve as great sources of strength.
I learned a great deal about the history of Armenia through Anahit's experience. I think you'll find the conversation fascinating and moving.
Returning to the Homeland
Meg: You became a resident of your own country only as a young woman, after having grown up in neighboring Russia. Can you tell me what your transition was like, returning to the homeland you had left as a one-year-old, at 22 years of age -- and a newlywed?
Anahit: My family moved to Russia to live in Rostov-on-Don when I was one year old. My father graduated from the Yerevan Institute of Zoo Technology and Veterinary Medicine and was sent to work in one of the villages near Rostov. At the time, the graduates of all Soviet institutes had to work obligatory for two to three years in some town or city in the USSR where they needed a qualified specialist. My father was lucky -- he was appointed to a place close to the city where he was born. Later we moved to Rostov, as my brother and I had to go to school.
I uttered my first words in Russian because we were surrounded by only Russians. My parents tried to not lose their language and spoke to each other in Armenian. My brother and I could understand them, but would only respond to questions in Russian. My grandfather and grandmother would tell us folk tales about the history of Armenia. My grandfather would sing the Armenian song, “Dle Yaman” while he was working -- he was a tailor -- and when he would end the song, he would burst into tears. We all understood that he missed Armenia and the song would make him very emotional.
When I got married to Henry and moved to Yerevan, I had a wonderful feeling that all people surrounding me are my relatives as they are all Armenian. I think it’s a similar feeling is had by every other Armenian living abroad among “odars” (non-Armenians) who comes to visit Armenia. I was happy to find myself in a very beautiful city with specific national architecture which differed very much from the industrial regular Russian cities that have no face or personality.
My transition period in Armenia was not that long and was pretty much complete by the time of the birth of my first daughter Zaruhi (Zara). Her first words were in Armenian.
The History of Armenia | When Home Becomes "Autonomous Territory"
Meg: Can you explain why your family moved to Russia?
Anahit: I spent my formative years in Russia because of my father’s family. My grandparents come from a former Armenian village called Nors in Nakhichevan, which is situated at present Azerbaijan. Before 1921 Nakhichevan was part of Yerevan province. On March 16, 1921 the Soviet Russia and Turkey came to an agreement in Moscow, which defined that Nakhichevan was passed to the Soviet Azerbaijan “with the status of an autonomous territory”.
In 1918–1920, as a result of two Turkish invasions, part of the Armenians population in Nakhichevan -- about 25, 000 people were assassinated by the Turkish occupants and bands of Mousafats, and part of them were forced to leave their homeland. My grandfather and grandmother were lucky to survive and flee to Nor Nakhichevan in Russia in 1918.
Nor Nakhichevan, literally New Nakhichevan was an Armenian settlement near Rostov on Don. It has an interesting point in the history of Armenia. In 1778 Catherine the Great invited Armenian merchants from Crimea to Russia and they established a settlement on the Don, which they named Nor Nakhichevan after one of the ancient areas of Armenia. As a result more than 12 thousand people moved to the Don region. In 1928 Nor Nakhichevan was combined with Rostov on Don.
My father, his sister and three brothers were born in Nor Nakhichevan. However, the place of birth in their passports was noted as Rostov on Don.
Learn about one of the longest traditions in the history of Armenia, making Lavash while singing a folk song!
Turning a Problem into a Solution
Meg: Can you give some background on how ATP came about?
Anahit: As a result of the Armenian Genocide that began in 1915 and the Turkish invasion of independent Armenia in 1918 -- 1920, there was an Armenian Diaspora and Armenians moved to all corners of the world. It’s said that you can go to any country in the world and will find at least one Armenian.
The Diaspora helped to create Armenia Tree Project and contribute in so many ways to the development of Armenia. You see, even in tragedy, there can be goodness and my experiences with people from the Diaspora have been an inspiration to my work.
The early 1990’s were probably the most difficult years in the history of Armenia since the Genocide. There were about 500,000 homeless people after the earthquake and 200,000 refugees who arrived from Azerbaijan. There was an economic blockade and an energy crisis.
Immediately after the devastating earthquake in 1988, the Armenian Assembly of America came to Armenia to help. The Assembly established the first Armenian-American organizational presence in Yerevan. ATP’s founder, Carolyn Mugar was among the first trustees of the Assembly to come for assessing the situation and to participate in the development of the process of assistance. At the time, she was powerfully struck by the tremendous needs that existed and wanted to do something to help fill those needs. On return trips to Armenia in the early 1990’s, during the bitter winters of the energy blockade, what she and her late husband, John O’Connor, saw was a country not only with huge deforestation, where people were cutting trees and park benches for heat, but also the tremendous need for food and jobs. She and John observed the devastated human, economic and environmental conditions and searched for a way to change the situation.
The Beginning of Anahit's Journey with ATP
Based broadly on the Jewish National Fund’s tree planting in Israel, the idea developed into the establishment of Armenia Tree Project (ATP) in late 1993/1994. Diasporans funded the project by donating money to plant trees in honor or memory of someone.
Carolyn’s vision was ahead of its time. She wanted to connect the Diaspora with Armenia by giving them an opportunity to put down roots in the homeland while at the same time reaching out to the people in Armenia. By planting trees, particularly fruit trees, ATP would provide food and jobs for the future of a beleaguered nation.
The first employees of the Armenian Assembly of America (AAA) office in Yerevan were people who knew English at that time. One of my friends was among the first Yerevan office staff members. She was the person to tell me that new projects were opening up at AAA. ATP was functioning under the umbrella of AAA. I was lucky to be interviewed by Carolyn and was hired in November 1993 to work at ATP.
Forced into Deforestation
Meg: I understand ATP was founded after the trees were used for in fuel in Armenia during the embargoes related to the Karabagh war. For readers who aren’t familiar with that conflict, can you describe it?
Anahit: Throughout the history of Armenia, Armenian's have lived in the Karabakh, or Artsakh as we refer to it, for a few thousand years. Its name translates as “mountainous black garden” because much of it is a lush temperate forest. The Armenian–Azerbaijani conflict in the area has a long history, but it really flared up in the late 1980’s as the Soviet Union was dismantled.
Through Russian led negotiations, a cease fire was reached in May 1994. The cease fire remains in effect today. Because of the war, Armenia’s eastern and western borders have been blockaded by Azerbaijan and Turkey for nearly twenty years. There is no trade or travel from Armenia to either country.
In the early to mid 1990’s, Armenia suffered an extreme energy shortage, due to having its sole nuclear reactor shut down for safety concerns after the massive Spitak earthquake that left tens of thousands dead. With no viable sources of energy, Armenians cut and burned down trees for heating and cooking. Because Armenia could not get any fuel across its borders, the level of deforestation was massive. The borders continue to be closed today. The Metsamor nuclear power plant was reopened after being repaired and now provides around 40% of the energy needs of the country, while imports of fuel from Iran and Russia provide the rest.
An Unexpected Tragedy in the History of Armenia
Meg: Armenia suffered the Spitak earthquake in 1988. Can you speak about that event in terms of the landscape and its impact, and ATP’s efforts?
Anahit: The most tragic event in the history of Armenia was Spitak Earthquake in 1988. I remember that day very clearly. I was at the lesson at school and when the first shock occurred and tremor reached Yerevan, one of my pupils fell down on the floor as my classroom was on the fourth floor of the school building. We did not understand at first what happened and realized it was an earthquake when parents rushed to school to take their children home. The people were frightened, many moms were crying.
The earthquake happened on December 7, 1988 at 11:41 am local time. Later it was estimated that if the earthquake had occurred five minutes later, classes would have ended in Gyumri and Spitak and the children would have already left the unstable school buildings. The short delay would have saved many kids’ lives.
The center of the earthquake was in Spitak. It took 25,000 lives and left 500,000 homeless. The whole city of Spitak was destroyed and the surrounding cities of Leninakan and Kirovakan were heavily damaged. Even many of the small villages were damaged, as poorly constructed buildings collapsed. The Metsamor Nuclear Power Plant was closed down because of damage.
The Whole World Was With Us
Armenia was paralyzed. Most of the hospitals in the region were destroyed. It was winter and it was very cold. Public officials were not ready for a disaster of this scale and the relief effort was poorly coordinated. Armenian government asked for help. As they were still part of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev, who was visiting in the US, asked for America’s help. It was the first time since World War Two that the Soviet Union asked for foreign assistance.
Humanitarian aid from all over the world poured into Armenia in forms of rescue equipment, medical supplies, and search teams. From the very first days, our people felt like the whole world was with us. The help was very generous, though much of it had a great deal of trouble reaching Armenia, as the border with Azerbaijan was blocked and what did come through was damaged by the Azeri’s.
The Armenian Assembly of America (AAA) came immediately after the earthquake to help rebuild Armenia. In 1989, The Armenian government gave the Assembly permission to open an office in Yerevan. It was the first Western nonprofit to do so.
Reviving a Destroyed Region Through Armenian Tree Project
ATP, one of AAA's projects, was born later in 1993. The re-greening of the earthquake zone was one of our primary goals. In 1995, we performed tree planting activities in Spitak and Gyumri, the country’s second largest city.
We continue our work in that area until now. However, we cannot afford implementing massive tree planting as the network of irrigation systems in these cities have been completely ruined by the earthquake. The institution buildings in Spitak and Gyumri that can afford constructing small irrigation systems on their territory receive trees. One of them is the Boghossian Education Center and the park nearby -- the pride of ATP.
The earthquake left deep wounds in the geographic region; it also scarred the lives of many families, and ultimately scarred the history of Armenia. Nevertheless, the region is gradually reviving -- thousands of new houses and apartments have been built in the economically depressed area. Many new hospitals, schools and kindergartens and clubs opened their doors for the population of those cities.
Human memory is organized in a way that throughout time the happiest moments of your life you remember better than the sorrow and tragedy.
The History of Armenia Characterized by Poverty
Meg: How is deforestation linked to poverty?
Anahit: Poverty affects everything in the world. It is the reason for wars, rebellions and conflicts. Forests cannot be far from it.
In Armenia, as in other developing countries, deforestation is closely linked to poverty. Among the chief causes are lack of economic opportunity, lack of long-term sustainable forest management plans, lack of alternative fuels and a lack of knowledge.
The energy crisis of the 1990’s had a particularly negative impact on the Armenian forests. Human settlements around forested areas largely depend on the forests for their livelihood. Since close to 50% of the people in Armenia live in poverty and many of them are dependent on the forests, the stress on the forests is unsustainable. People cut trees for wood to heat their homes and to cook their food. In the early 1990’s people even cut fruit trees for fuel in the winter.
Although more and more villages now have access to natural gas, they cannot afford to pay for the gas, since it’s cheaper for them to cut trees. Many of the villagers realize quite well the harm they impose on nature; still they do it for the survival of their families. To combat deforestation, it is necessary to contribute to decreasing the level of poverty in rural Armenia and educate people about the numerous values forests have.
If no solution is brought up for the relief of Armenia’s poor population, the deforestation will continue until the forests are completely cleared. When the forests die, the poor will have no resources left to sustain them.
Community Tree Planting Rejuvenates Over One Million Trees
Meg: I understand ATP’s three-tiered initiatives are tree planting at rural and urban sites, environmental education and advocacy for sustainable development, and community development and poverty reduction. Can you talk about these objectives?
Anahit: The tree planting initiative consists of Community Tree planting (CTP) and Rural Mountainous Development (RMD).
CTP is the oldest program of ATP, 16 years old, working since 1994. In spring 2010 CTP planted 35,741 trees at 125 sites in Yerevan and 10 regions of Armenia -- Armavir, Kotayk, Aragarsotn, Ararat, Vayots Dzor, Shirak, Syunik, Tavush, Lori, Artsakh.
Reforestation activity started with backyard nurseries in Aygut and later a 6-hectare reforestation nursery was established with the help of the Mirak family in Margahovit village, near Vanadzor, designed to produce up to one million trees each year.
In total during the 16 years of CTP activity, we have planted and rejuvenated 1,026,857 trees at 842 sites. We have planted these trees in partnership with residents of urban and rural communities at parks, public sites and institutions and enhanced food availability through the creation of fruit orchards planted in villages and rural backyards.
Our trees come from two state-of-the-art nurseries in Karin and Khachpar that produce high quality seedlings for CTP.
"Plant an Idea, Plant a Tree"
Between 2004–2010 the Rural Mountainous Development (RMD) Program reforested 861 hectares of the devastated hillsides in Gegharkunik and Lori regions with 2.5 million trees from Aygut backyard nurseries and Mirak Nursery. All those sites have become subject to serious erosion and landslides over the past 20 years. The new forests were established with oak, pine, ash, and maple seedlings which were indigenous to those regions.
ATP works with community members to advance their understanding, commitment, sense of ownership, long-term vision, and skill set on how to manage these new forests and existing forests. Our goal is to raise the consciousness of the population about the importance of the forests and to empower people to become stewards of their environment, while increasing their standard of living and hopes for their children’s future.
ATP is paying great attention to environmental education which is very essential in preparing Armenian youth for becoming environmental stewards of their country. ATP designed a curriculum “Plant an Idea, Plant a Tree.” The curriculum was approved and recommended by the Republic of Armenia National Institute of Education as a manual for science teachers in public schools. All schools in Armenia have received the curriculum. The manual provides teachers with information to teach students to appreciate nature and become advocates of change, to initiate creative, positive and tangible solutions to some of the environmental problems around them.
Today ATP in collaboration with National Institute of Education provides country-wide trainings on environmental education in all regions of Armenia. Since 2006 about 1,000 teachers have been trained by ATP staff.
If You Give a Man a Seed...
The Michael and Virginia Ohanian Environmental Education Center at our nursery in Karin is a state-of-the-art facility in which students from primary and secondary schools, colleges, as well as professionals in the field, attend trainings and seminars on trees and the environment. In 2009, ATP Ohanian Environmental Education Center at Karin Nursery hosted 827 schoolchildren, students, professionals (teachers, experts, etc.) and international volunteers.
Another achievement of ATP is creating and publishing a sustainable forestry training manual in collaboration with Yale University School of Forestry, and introducing it to the Ministry of Agriculture and Armenia State Forestry Service for consideration as a guidebook for forestry officials and members of local communities. The manual will help ATP train current and future foresters, as well as local residents who wish to become involved with community based forestry initiatives.
ATP reforestation initiatives made great improvements in the socio-economic situation of refugee and poor families in Gegarkunik and Lori regions. ATP supported Aygut village families by giving them opportunities for additional and very often the only source of income by employing them to grow and plant trees in the mountains surrounding the village. Hundreds of unemployed villagers of Lori region participated in seasonal reforestation planting activities, thus supporting their families.
The History of Armenia, Living Conditions Compromised Environmental Projects
Meg: I understand that when the project started, people in the communities could not understand the work ATP was doing. Can you talk a little bit more about this mindset and how that compares to attitudes today?
Anahit: The Soviet Union existed for about 70 years. The Soviet system was a created utopia, governed by the Communist Party. The Soviet constitution guaranteed housing, health care, education, food, and jobs. In reality, the Soviet economy could not fulfill those guarantees. They were only on paper, except that everybody had a job. The people would be imprisoned if they were not working. However it had its positive side: hunger and homelessness did not exist. The other positive thing from the Soviets was that the Soviet education system was free and people would get a decent level of knowledge at the universities and the country had highly educated and skilled specialists.
The supply of food and clothes, furniture and books were limited. You had to be a party member or a scientist, professor or at least a spaceman to have an access to it. The middle class would pay extra money to get, for example furniture. I remember that my husband and I had to leave for Moscow, the capital of the USSR to buy chairs, table and sofa for our dining room as it was the only city where you could get anything with a little bribe.
The housing construction and utility services were provided by the state. This also included building houses and creating living conditions in the cities that also comprised environmental projects. People lived and worked under the Soviet system, and having no freedom and luxuries, they were still happy as they were not familiar with lives beyond the Soviet border.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union and its mode of life, the majority of the population could not understand what to do and how to live. They were frustrated and did not care about the state, its economy or the surroundings they lived in. Their goal was to survive and to bring up children in that desperate situation.
When the project started the people in the communities could not understand our work. They asked why you are giving us trees when we need food and kerosene for heating. We had to explain that they are planting trees for their children, grandchildren, for their future. In this post-Soviet period, where people were used to the State doing everything for them, the notion of responsibility needed to be developed. And we worked hard with every establishment, every village to make people understand our goals.
However, the mentality has changed since the collapse of the Soviet Union 15 years ago and people have started to realize that they are creators of their own fortunes.
Great Things Happen When the Community Works Together
Meg: What is the Backyard Nursery Program?
Anahit: By 2001 ATP was successfully planting 50–60 thousand trees annually. We had positive results and a high survival rate, and had a lot of requests for trees every planting season in spring and fall. It was good, but it was not enough to solve the question of deforestation that continued putting Armenia in danger of desertification. As poverty and deforestation are linked, ATP decided to create new program which would plant considerably more trees, but also address the widespread poverty and despair suffered by nearly one half of all Armenians.
ATP started with the village of Aygut and performed a survey of the 290 households. We had to know the needs of the villagers and build a trusting and collaborative relationship with them. During that process the first group of villagers was identified for implementing the Backyard Nurseries project. Backyard nurseries at village homes were created for growing large numbers of trees for reforestation of the eroded slopes and providing income from ATP when the trees are out-planted.
In 2004 a pilot project began with 17 families, who grew 20,000 trees. After the successful implementation of it in 2004, ATP expanded the program and began working with hundreds of families to produce seedlings. In 2005 the number of families was already 153, in 2006 -- 330 and it grew with every other year. This project doubled the annual income of the participating villagers and was a real help to the people who live in frustration and poverty. The backyard nursery micro-enterprise program was selected as the National Winner for Armenia of the Energy Globe Awards, also known as the World Award for Sustainability, in 2008.
Saving a Man and His Family
Meg: Could you share a specific story of someone whose life has been improved through ATP’s efforts?
Anahit: One of my favorite people whom I got to know during my work at ATP is the Karin Nursery worker, Sarkis (Sako) Budaghyan.
Sarkis was born in 1970 in Chelaberty village, Azerbaijan, close to Kirovabad. His father was a tractor driver and his mother worked in the field. There were 5 boys in the family. Sarkis studied till the 8th grade and at the age of 14 he started to work with his father as a tractor driver. At 18 he was called to the Army and served in Russia in Inner Forces near Kirovochepetsk. In 1988 when Sarkis was in Army the Armenian–Azerbaijan conflict started and his family moved from Azerbaijan to Armenia, to the town Oshagan.
Sarkis returned from the Army to Oshagan and married a girl from Aparan village. The first boy Aram was born in 1992, the second Hratch was born in 1994. In 1995 the young couple moved to the refugee village Karin constructed by the UNHCR. In 1996 ATP established its first nursery and Sarkis was hired as a guard. In 1996 his third son Karen was born and they celebrated the event at the Nursery. In 1998 Sarkis at last had a daughter, Karine.
At present Sarkis does everything: electricity, molding, digging, planting and even grafting. Grafting is a very accurate work which is usually performed by women. Sarkis jokingly says “when it is time for grafting I join the women’s team of the Nursery”. His salary has increased 5 times since the start.
Sarkis has told me that if he did not find this job at the nursery he would become a shepherd -- that would have been the only possibility available. That means that he would not see his kids and family for months.
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Some Friendly Competition Throughout the History of Armenia
Meg: Can you tell me about the “Tree City Armenia” competition?
Anahit: Our project had a board member and a great supporter, Colonel Moorad Mooradian. He was one of the best people from the Diaspora whom I knew. He died last year. I met him first in 1994 and respected him very much. Moorad was devoted to Armenia with all his heart. When in 2007, he advised us to start a project which was derived from the experiences of the U.S Arbor Day Foundation; we decided to implement it in the frames of CTP. We called the competition “Tree City Armenia” and included it in the villages of Nor Artamet, Zoravan, Tsakhunk, Artashar, Karmrashen and Irind, which would compete for having the highest survival rates of trees -- ranging from 96% – 98% -- and serve as a perfect example for others village and communities to follow in the future.
The selected above-mentioned villages had equal potential and similar possibilities to get included in the program and compete with each other. An extra 2 – 3 seedlings of various species of fruit were distributed to each family in spring and fall of 2007 accordingly. In spring 2008, ATP encouraged the competing villagers by adding 2 more trees to each family.
Finally, after studying the quality of work at the villages and counting the survival rate, at the end of the planting season 2008, ATP publicized the names of the six villages. The winning village received a TV set, a DVD player, ATP’s documentary film on DVD and a Certificate of Excellence.
The other 5 villages also showed very high results and received prizes -- DVD players with ATP film and Certificate of 2nd place for their wonderful work in re-greening their community, territories, simultaneously advancing socio-economic growth in their regions. All these villages were included in ATP’s high donor site list.
Mesrop Mashtots Significant to the History of Armenia
Meg: I know that Mesrop Mashtots is one of the most significant figures in the history of Armenia. Can you see any connection between Mashtots and ATP’s efforts?
Anahit: The name of Mesrop Mashtots is everywhere in Armenia. We have St. Mesrop Mashtots church in Oshakan, a beautiful monument of Mashtots in Yerevan at Matenadaran, the monument of the alphabet on the outskirts of Mt. Aragats north of Ohanavan Village. We first get to know the name of Mersrop Mashtots when we start learning the Armenian alphabet.
Mesrop Mashtots lived in the fourth century. It was the time when the Armenian language and alphabet were destroyed during the spread of Christianity in Armenia as they were viewed as symbols of paganism. Mesrop Mashtots was a very educated person and he could not stand the fact that that most of the schools and other state institutions were using different languages such as Greek, Pahlavi (Persian) and Syrian.
Mesrop Mashtots decided to revive the Armenian alphabet. He started his search for the lost scriptures and scrolls in remote provinces of Armenia; he even visited the provinces of Armenian Mesopotamia and Syria. At that time many dialects were used in Armenia and he understood the need for the creation of universal, standard Armenian. During his trip, he compiled the modern Armenian alphabet composed of 36 letters, adapted from the original alphabet used during the history of Armenia.
An Oath to Preserve the History of Armenia and The Armenian Language
Mesrop Mashtots’ second great deed was translating the Holy Bible from Greek and Syrian into the new Armenian alphabet. Many of the modern linguists consider the translation of the Bible into Armenian as the "Queen of Translations."
Our project came to Oshakan St. Mesrop Mashtots church in fall 1998. It started as a regular ATP site in 1998 with a couple of trees planted by contract, and in 2000 it was included in the list of the churches for ATP tree plantings dedicated to the 17th Centenary of the adoption of Christianity in Armenia. In 2001, the St. Sarkis Armenian Church of Dallas, Texas sponsored 500 trees at the site for the 17th Centenary.
Since the work began in 1998, there are now 653 decorative and 368 fruit trees at the site. The site looks very attractive and well cared for. We always take the guests of ATP to see the planting.
This church reminds me more of an educational institution rather than a church in the definition. It is a place where students of Universities and schools come to give an oath to keep their language, as a means of preserving the history of Armenia, the country and the nation.
Armenia, The Crossroads of Europe
Meg: I understand that trees, particularly apricot and pomegranate trees, and poplar and walnut trees were important throughout the history of Armenia and occupy a special place in Armenian literature, folk lore, and music.
Anahit: Armenia is situated on the crossroads of Europe; it is considered to be part of Europe. However, our art is Asian, especially painting. I would like to talk about painting as I know a little bit about it from my friend painter on batik. Nune Aghbalyan is a well-known Armenian artist and she is a professor of the Yerevan Academy of Arts. I like to sit in her studio, look how she works and listen to the stories she tells about art.
Armenian art was born thousands of years ago. People had no knowledge and they were afraid of nature. Throughout the history of Armenia, they beganto paint nature trying to get in contact with it. People would give much meaning to the forms. They would give human qualities to animals and plants. They would paint everything they saw. The very first Armenian painting was carved on cave walls. In Armenian cave carving different simple forms or symbols have a special meaning: a circle – sun, a triangle – mountain, a square – field, a bird – sky, a fish, water, and a net – hunting. The cave carvings were so precise and beautiful that they are still very modern. These symbols have been so popular that they are even widely used in modern jewelry art and fashion.
Trees, Fruit and Animals Significant to the History of Armenia
Unlike in European art, in Armenian–as well as in all Asian paintings– humans were not really depicted. Artists throughout the history of Armenia would focus on birds, animals, fruit and ornaments in their art.
The ornamentation of Armenian manuscripts appeared at the same time as the Armenian script and literature. Every animal, bird or fruit had special meaning: a dove meant good news (Noah sent a dove from Ararat), snake – wisdom, a rooster- martial spirit, a lion – power, grapes – fertility, crane – birth of a child, a deer – fulfillment of a wish and many others.
Armenian women both from town and villages started making lace and embroidery very long ago. In the old lace ornaments one can see the ancient patterns: signs of “the sun”, cross-shaped flower stars, rosettes, trees, and birds.
Flowers and fruit of brightest colors are present in almost every Armenian painting. The most popular Armenian fruit -- pomegranate symbolizes family, fertility, and hope for a man.
Adapting to Other Cultures
Meg: I’m told that Khor Virap is a beautiful and important spot in the history of Armenia -- can you tell me what it means to you personally and whether you can see any link between the site and ATP’s work?
Anahit: Khor Virap Monastery planting project is probably the most important one that supervised during my whole career as the manager of CTP. There were many challenges and many achievements at this site.
The question of tree planting at Khor Virap was first discussed in 1997 when the Armenian Church and Diaspora started to plan the celebration of the 1700th Anniversary of the Proclamation of Christianity as the state religion of Armenia in 2001.
At the time I first met Archbishop Mesrop Ashjian, who was the Executive Director of the 1700th Anniversary projects, we started working together and eventually became very good friends. It was his wonderful and trustworthy nature that inspired in me the belief and led me -- a former Soviet resident -- to start getting interested in Christianity. At the time, I didn’t even know what St. Trinity meant. He was the first person to tell me about the importance of Khor Virap Monastery -- that it was the place where Grigor Lusavorich (St. Gregory the Illuminator) was imprisoned for thirteen years before curing King Trdat III of a disease. This caused the conversion of the king and Armenia into becoming the first nation to adopt Christianity as the state religion. So for me, working at Khor Virap has brought me much closer to my religion.
A Difficult Environment
ATP’s initial plan with Archbishop Ashjian was to plant 17,000 trees at Khor Virap on the slopes of the hill. However, research showed that the site was very challenging in terms of climate and geography. It did not meet ATP’s site selection criteria (there was no irrigation system, poor soil, no security, etc.). Thus the first recommendation of ATP was not to perform the large scale planting, but instead to plant 170 symbolic drought resistant trees.
Many suggestions were made and plans drafted throughout the two years that followed and the decision was made to conduct a thorough investigation of the hill. In winter of 1999, the irrigation research group “Manana” was hired to work out the irrigation system construction plan. The group performed the work and received a high appraisal from the state commission. They said that $50,000 was necessary to ensure a high survival rate. It included large scale construction of an irrigation system, trenches, changing the soil on the slopes, constructing a supplementary irrigation system able to meet the shortfall in projected water requirements, etc. However, ATP could not afford such a large sum just for one church and made a decision to spend all that were donated for that project on all Armenian churches.
Creating a Park From Scratch Through Hard Work
In the summer of 2000, it was decided that ATP would execute a new reduced plan for Khor Virap, which was to construct a very simple irrigation system able to ensure 1,700 trees and shrubs with water on the front slope of the hill. The system was constructed within a period of twenty days. The first tree planting took place on October 28 with the first evergreen tree planted by the Catholicos of all Armenians, Garegin II.
For most Armenians this is a very important site, and is easily accessible from Yerevan. On weekends, you will often see weddings, performances, snack stands and doves being sold for release. In summer, it is the hottest point in Armenia. The temperature reaches 50 degrees Celsius.
For me as well as for all ATP staff, it is a place to feel proud of as we managed to create a park that has never existed under Soviets at such a vital location. We are happy that we can provide shade for all pilgrims and tourists who visit Khor Virap.
The History of Armenia | Ancient Love Prevails
Meg: I believe Anahit has been considered a traditional name throughout the history of Armenia, and actually was the name of a pre-Christian goddess. Can you tell me anything about the pre-Christian beliefs in Armenia, and specifically any legends or myths associated with the name Anahit?
Anahit: There are many opinions on the origin of the name. Some people believe that it is an Iranian name, and others believe that it is pure Armenian.
The name Anahit became popular because of the legend of a beautiful and wise daughter of a shepherd, who later became the wife of the famous monarch, King Vachagan II. As a prince, Vachagan would travel around Armenia in villager’s clothes, so he could learn about the life and problems of his people. During one of these trips, he met Anahit. He fell deeply in love with her and asked her to marry him. She said she would only marry him, if he learned a craft. So, Vachagan learned to weave brocade. Once he mastered his craft, Anahit then agreed to marry him.
Many years later, as the then King Vachagan II again dressed in villager’s clothes was wandering around his country, he was deceived by a priest, who locked him up in a terrible dungeon. Anyone who was locked-up and lacked a skill was killed, but those who had a craft where allowed to live as prisoners. King Vachagan wove a most beautiful brocade, which was later sold to Queen Anahit. Vachagan wove a secret message into the pattern, which was deciphered by Anahit, who came with the army to save her king.
A Personal Tragedy
Meg: After establishing roots for more than a million trees in your homeland of Armenia, you became a transplant in another country. What prompted undertaking that transition?
Anahit: At the end of 2006 my husband Henry and I were living a happy life of parents of two married daughters and a little grandson in the US, doing what all people of our age do - waiting for the phone calls from children, framing every photo of Nikita, spending a lot of time with friends, enjoying our mutual work at ATP--my husband was a driver for ATP. We were shocked by the news that Henry had cancer in the last stage. It was difficult to believe that my husband who had never been sick during all our marriage was condemned.
Our battle for life began and it gave us seven more happy years together. In 2009, after two surgeries in Armenia, we made a decision to move to the U.S. to be closer to our children. We wanted to spend as much as possible time with our kids, because we realized that his disease was unpredictable.
At that time we had already a new grandson Henry O’Connor who was waiting to meet his grandpa. The magic of the name was unbelievable! My husband was joking that he would never die as there was another little him in L.A.
A couple of months after arriving in L.A., his condition became worse. We went together thru that difficult time from the very beginning till the end trying not to lose our sense of humor. I cannot imagine how people can get through all those terrible things without it. Henry had another surgery and started chemo therapy, which was physically exhausting, sometimes a nightmare, but he would continue to joke. After he lost his beautiful, thick and completely straight hair, new hair grew, which was very curly! We could not stop laughing looking at his new hair-do. A new boost to live and enjoy happiness was the birth of our third grandson John in 2012.
Living Like There's No Tomorrow
I have noticed that many people with cancer once they know about their disease make a decision to continue their life as if they do not know about it: they try to do as many kind and useful things as possible. Henry chose to spend time gardening and fixing things at our daughters’ places and enjoy his life with three grandsons: he was teaching and playing chess with Nikita and taking Henry and John to playground, always “spoiling” them with candies and funny toys.
On August 23, 2013, Henry died. He spent his last years surrounded by love of his children and grandchildren. He was buried under a beautiful tree which reminds that the last 20 years of his life he was working for the project planting trees. Our colleagues in Armenia have put a plaque in his memory at the Karin Nursery, which is so kind.
Everybody in this world goes through something difficult in his life and has his own pain and struggle. I am trying to learn live a new life without my kind, handsome, strong and very funny husband. The big help in this not easy task are my amazing daughters with their kids and families and of course my favorite work at ATP.
Armenian Tree Project Comes to America
Meg: What do you do for ATP as Community Outreach Manager?
Anahit: My main responsibility is implementing the Building Bridges Program on the West Coast. Building Bridges brings environmental education into diaspora schools and links Armenian-American students with their counterparts in Armenia. Environmental issues provide a powerful connection between the diaspora and the citizens of Armenia and strengthen cross-cultural collaborations. We reach out to schools to help make these connections and work with administration, parents and students to implement environmental education in participating schools.
In 2011 when I started my work on the Building Bridges program, there were only four schools on our list in California. At present, I am proud to report that we have more than 60. These are public and private Armenian and some non-Armenian schools, Saturday and Sunday Armenian Church schools, Armenian Student Association of different Universities and colleges.
Armenian Students’ groups involved in our BB program on visiting Armenia during vacation in summer plant trees with ATP staff. This is usually a red line of their trip.
In 2016 we participated in 10 Armenian Festivals in California, including the Navasartian Festival and Games in Los Angeles, Armenian Festival in San Francisco and Costa Mesa, Glendale St. Mary Apostolic Armenian Church Festival.
In 2016, we reached about 10,000 students through distributing Building Bridges magazines, EE lessons and ATP presentations.
Read: Discover the intriguing history of the Armenian alphabet!
Persistence is a Valuable Trait Throughout the History of Armenia
Meg: You have been described as “persistent.” I have also been told by people of Armenian descent that they believe persistence is a cultural trait, without which the Armenian people would have perished. Would you agree with that assessment -- both about yourself, and the culture?
Anahit: I agree that persistence has been a significant trait throughout the history of Armenia, but not uniquely so. I think it is a trait of any nation that has a long history and has managed to preserve its statehood, language, culture and traditions through the centuries in spite of wars, revolutions, earthquakes, etc.
I think that persistence and patience are two qualities that are very close to each other.
To be successful, you need to believe that persistence makes every person better and stronger and teaches you to move forward in life no matter what happens and to see good in every situation and stay positive. Everyone has failures in his life and it seems sometimes that there is no hope, but he needs to keep trying and success will come. If you have made mistakes, there is always another chance for you. And what a wonderful feeling you have when you reach your goal! You cannot compare it with anything else and this feeling is worth waiting for years to experience it.
The other reason that makes you be persistent and patient is the universal truth -- life puts everything on a balance, no matter how much time will pass. Any injustice is temporary. If one deserves success, one will definitely get it.
Each of us can think of someone with very average mental abilities, but with great inner drive, who managed to go much further than people with superior talent.
Can a person learn it? Yes, he can.
These qualities were cultivated at my time at the Pedagogical University for five years. To be a successful teacher meant to put a goal for students and reach it with them no matter how smart they were. The more persistent and patient the teacher is, the result is better.
Persistence is essential in any job. I brought these qualities in my today’s work as well. Effective management is first of all discipline. My strength lies solely in my persistence and patience.
Many of the images above courtesy of www.armeniatree.org
Publisher and editor of People Are Culture (PAC). This article was created by original reporting that sourced expert commentary from local cultural standard-bearers. Those quoted provide cultural and historical context that is unique to their role in the community and to this article.