The Olive Tree and Armenia


Tales of Symbolism, Resilience and Dreams

According to the Old Testament, when Noah released a dove to see if the floods had receded, it returned with an olive leaf in its beak. Genesis 8:11 in the King James Bible says, “And the dove came in to him in the evening; and, lo, in her mouth was an olive leaf pluckt off: so Noah knew that the waters were abated from off the earth.” How far that dove must have flown to find an olive branch is beyond the scope of my knowledge and imagination.

In 1974, Yasser Arafat, in a historic speech at the UN General Assembly said, “I come bearing an olive branch in one hand and a freedom fighter’s gun in the other. Do not let me drop the olive branch.” It was the first time that a non-state representative addressed the United Nations.

The olive tree’s powerful symbolism in many cultures and religions is rooted in history and tradition. It is referred to as the “blessed” tree and represents eternal life, wisdom, peace, hope and longevity and much more. Olive trees can grow to be thousands of years old. They are resistant to drought and fire; their trunks can grow to a circumference of 30 feet and they continue to bear fruit for hundreds and hundreds of years.

The first time I saw an olive tree was in Kessab, Syria 25 years ago at the ancestral home of my husband’s family in the village of Kaladuran. I was there for the early autumn harvest and watched as my father-in-law brought burlap sacks full of beautiful green olives he had picked from his orchard. In fact, their home which was nestled between two mountains along the shores of the Mediterranean Sea was surrounded with olive trees. I was a city girl, raised in Canada and the process of picking olives that would then be processed and sold as olive oil from a quiet seaside village by the Mediterranean was awe inspiring. I also had a goat slaughtered to honor my arrival to the village, but I still can’t talk about it.

Finding good quality olive oil in Armenia, or any olive oil for that matter, was almost impossible when we came here. We knew that olive trees could not grow in Armenia because of the climate (they fare well in warm-temperate weather conditions, primarily in Mediterranean countries), hence no local production and since olive oil was not widely used in local cuisine, its import was rare and irregular. When we were able to get our hands on some, we used it as sparingly as possible. One year my husband’s aunt came to Yerevan from Kessab. She was in her late seventies and was traveling outside of her village for the first time in her life on a plane. While she was clearly over the moon about traveling on an airplane and coming to the homeland she had remembered to bring a bottle of olive oil she had prepared herself from their olive trees. I think that just might have been the best gift we had ever received.

Today, imported olives and olive oil are widely available although quite expensive. With the many shortcomings in economic and agricultural policy in the country, Armenia continues to depend on the import of different goods and produce on an ongoing basis. But Armenia is a bizarre place. Perhaps even an extraordinary place where the most unlikely opportunities present themselves and where dreams, however ambitious, can be realized.

There is a man, a farmer from the village of Alvank near Meghri on the Armenia-Iran border who decided 11 years ago to plant 5000 olive trees. [2] He believed not in the impossible but in the possible and along with his brother decided to get into the olive business. When asked why he did his answer was simple: because he thought the weather in Meghri would work and no one else had bothered to try. Although he lost almost half his trees that first winter due to severe weather conditions, today almost a decade later he is harvesting olives in the country. A pretty remarkable feat considering that for the first time, instead of selling fresh, raw olives through word of mouth as he had been doing for the past three harvests, he will be processing them in a small factory he built and packaging them for sale.

Syrian-Armenians fleeing the war in Syria have also decided to try planting olive trees in several locations in Armenia and Artsakh. And why not? The olive tree is a hardy and adaptable plant. With the proper care and attention and the optimal location, Armenia might begin to develop a small olive tree industry.

As it turns out, thousands of years ago Armenians introduced the olive tree to Palestine. Aly Gadira, the curator of the Zaitounah (Olive) Museum in Tunisia told the Kuwait News Agency back in 2004 that “…the most ancient documented sources available report that the olive tree was brought into Palestine from Armenia 4000 BC and then taken by the Phoenicians to Greece and later to North Africa, particularly Tunisia.”

I don’t know if this is true, I have no reason to question the source, however I would not be surprised because we are something like the olive tree itself – hardy and adaptable.




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