Syrian Olives in Artsakh

Special for the Armenian Weekly

As small and accessible as Armenia may be, I tend to hear about so many interesting and unique projects that it can actually feel strangely overwhelming at times. Whether it’s a woman who makes soaps for different skin conditions with local herbs grown in her own backyard, or a new company specializing in essential oils made in Armenia, my list of people to meet and interview continues to grow.

When we arrived, Hovig and Vrej automatically got into tour-guide mode and hoped that we didn’t mind having muddy shoes as it had been raining all day.
When we arrived, Hovig and Vrej automatically got into tour-guide mode and hoped that we didn’t mind having muddy shoes as it had been raining all day.

When I arrived in Artsakh (Karabagh), I had decided to focus on meeting a few people, learning how to make jingalov hats, and working on activities I had planned beforehand, thus crossing some “to-dos” off a long list. When my host-family—of Saro and Hasmik—and I went over the plans for the full day I would be there, Saro mentioned that I should meet two Syrian-Armenian farmers who had been living and working in Stepanakert for about four years already. I was instantly interested, but thought the extra meeting would make the schedule too hectic and started the “Maybe next time…” excuse. Saro quickly gave me a short preview of the Syrian-Armenian farmers, Hovig and Vrej, by saying they were focused on bringing local Syrian produce to Artsakh and Armenia. He mentioned olive trees, lemon trees, different plants and herbs, and I had to interrupt him to say that he had me at olive trees. Saro called them and arranged for them to pick us up in the center and take us directly to their farmlands between our meetings in different regions the following day. I asked Hasmik to swap my thyme tea for a coffee the following morning.

Vrej and Hovig first showed us the interior of their beautiful greenhouses. The first one had taken them about one and a half months to create, with many mistakes made, but the second one took only a week.
Vrej and Hovig first showed us the interior of their beautiful greenhouses. The first one had taken them about one and a half months to create, with many mistakes made, but the second one took only a week.

Monika and I waited in the rain in the busy center of Stepanakert when Hovig called us, saying to watch out for his white jeep with stereos on top. It stood out as much as we assumed it would and we jumped in their car and were on our way. We stopped for gas, where we had coffee number two and Hovig told us a little bit about their move to Artsakh. He mentioned they were the first ones from Syria to make the move here, as Yerevan is usually the first choice. He said his older brother Vrej had come to understand the area first and began to study farming, as that seemed to be the most realistic option in terms of sustainable work. Vrej said he could tell right away that the land and water was good, to the point that if someone “spit on the ground, a plant would grow.” They made the move with their families and settled in Stepanakert, but decided that they would bring a taste of Syria with them.

When we arrived, Hovig and Vrej automatically got into tour-guide mode and hoped that we didn’t mind having muddy shoes as it had been raining all day. With both of us wearing combat boots and because I have a mini-obsession with olive trees, we assured them that we were in “all-or-nothing” mode. The mud ended up adding about five pounds to each foot, but no regrets.

Vrej and Hovig first showed us the interior of their beautiful greenhouses. The first one had taken them about one and a half months to create, with many mistakes made, but the second one took only a week. They were four workers all together, with one from Yerevan and one who lived in a nearby village. They even established a greenhouse heating system that innovatively used wood powder instead of wood chunks and kept the greenhouse warm all night (rather than at hour-based intervals).

Hovig told us that his farm, techniques, and new ideas are open to anyone interested. He invites people—both his neighbors and strangers—to come and see what they have established, as it will only serve to benefit everyone, and to encourage more discussion and collaboration.

While we sipped some thyme tea in their greenhouse, Hovig and Vrej reflected, and said that they had made a lot of mistakes. “Armenians are hard-working people, but they do not want to work hard,” they laughed. He elaborated by telling us that the four different types of olive trees he planted would take seven to eight years to show fruit—and that this waiting period is the “hard work.” While others may be discouraged from planting kiwi trees, as they take 3 years to grow, the brothers planted theirs in May 2013, and since they can stand -20-degree temperatures, they expect the trees to bear fruit in less than 2 years.

They showed us some of the many plants they plan to sell in pots when they grow, including lemons, pomelos, limes, Palestinian oranges, mandarins, and even sweet limes, which Hovig happily described as a citrus with an edible peel.

Monika and I—so engrossed in learning about Hovig and Vrej’s trials, tribulations, successes, and visions for the future—eventually realized that we were going to be late to our next meeting. Before we left, I asked them if they were happy with their decision to move to Artsakh rather than Yerevan. Hovig smiled and replied, “Yes, as I do not want my children to only remember 1915. I want them to remember 1992 when we were also warriors and not victims.”

Hovig and Vrej drove us back to our original meeting spot, while we apologized for muddying up their jeep, and while they described in detail where they would take us and what we would do the next time we came to visit. We told them we would look forward to it all, including the day we would be able to buy Syrian olives grown in Artsakh.

As we left their farm and returned to the center of Stepanakert, I was left wondering if, as a result of Vrej and Hovig committing to growing olive trees—the ultimate test of patience and dedication—I would be able to see if I was patient and dedicated enough to be here to try those Syrian olives when they make their debut in Artsakh.

Lena Tachdjian has been living and working in Armenia since August 2011. She has a degree in philosophy and is a certified nutritional practitioner, having graduated with honors from the Institute of Holistic Nutrition. She blogs about nutrition and travel at She writes regularly for the Armenian Weekly.


  1. This is an amazing story.

    But something is perplexing: I thought olive trees cannot survive a winters like in Armenia and Artsakh: they need a Mediterranean climate. This is the first time I hear of olive trees being planted in a climate like Armenia & Artsakh.

    I know the Meghri region of in Southern RoA has some kind of a micro-climate, warm during winters. But how will olive trees survive in Artsakh ?

  2. Dear Hovik and Vrej,
    I have no other thing to say but a big CONGRATULATION!!
    A lot of people see only the negative, you didn’t want to see, you just wanted to do something and you did. This is a good lesson to all the pessimists and I wish you all the success.

    It will be interesting to know about,
    – how many hectars of land are you using?
    – how much was the cost of the land? Or if it is rental how much is the cost of lease.
    – meanwhile how are you paying for the cost of living since the trees will bear fruits only in 3 years.
    – how much do you anticipate as per year income once the trees starts giving the olives.
    Some more financial details as you see fit.

    All of this to encourage other people to follow your footsteps and we’ll see more people to come HOME instead of leaving the country.

    Keep on the good work,

    Movses Keoshkerian

  3. Don’t have much interest in Syria or its produce, but what is most important is the introduction of Western Armenian influence to the region. The East has been cut off from the mainstream for much too long. The Soviet and now Russian yoke is too overbearing.

  4. Avery: they might be growing kiwi out in the open and dwarf olive trees in the greenhouses. This would give them the opportunity to create an organic specialty product that is in high demand. If they are growing lemons and limes, they have it figured out for other tender tree varieties. I live in Canada and I have 6 fig trees. I had a delicious ripe fig at breakfast today. I know of another Armenian in my city who also has 6 fig trees. She harvested 250 fresh figs last year. We grow them in large pots outdoors for 3 seasons of the year. They have to be brought into a garage or greenhouse or shed in the winter. Armenian produce is underestimated by tourists who shop at brand name American stores, and buy the same junk they can buy at any mall. When you go to the Shuga and buy handmade woolen articles, you are getting an exceptional product you will find hard to duplicate anywhere else. Not only are they carefully made by expert craftsmen, who take pride in their work, but the wool they use is from hardy mountain sheep, and it often still has the lanolin in it, making it waterproof.
    When you buy Armenian jams, they are made with fruit that has not been sprayed—they can’t afford the chemicals. They use a minimum of sugar and rely on the sweetness of additional fruit because sugar is expensive. The jams are made in small batches. You can see that this makes an exceptionally superior product. It would sell in high end stores at premium price here.
    Bravo to these entrepreneur farmers.

  5. This may as well have been called “Cilician olives in Artsakh”. There is no difference between “Syrian produce” and “Armenian produce”, because the produce in question was Armenian before Syrian, or anything else for that matter. “Syrian Food” is in fact largely of Armenian origin, by way of the Armenian Genocide survivors who settled in Aleppo.

  6. Avery, east and south of Artsakh are actually very warm, palm trees grow in Marduni! It is because these region’s elevation are only a few hundred meters. If i recall well, these farmer’s land are mainly in southern Artsakh, close to the iranian border, you can grow anything you want over there.

  7. Dear Raffi,
    You are right.This I know because i also thought of starting a similar one -A Tree that has a special kind of X that is grown only in 2 regions of spain.Where i have lived for near 24 yres and ea year i visit kin there. However,the farmer(s) 2 of them I contacted here told me you have to do the planting quickly after taking the small bush like tree stump whatever to where you wish to plant it.I still cherish the idae, becasue the dry fruit from those trees could be marketed in Europe and US or any country and be a good source of income for Artsakh.But then ..I also was there for 2nd time for supplying special machinary, to be exact a small measn of conveyance -small motocycle type diesel on it that could transfer their fare(grapes all kind of fruits to AT THE VERY LEAST (MARZ) centres or important centre, instead of buyer coming over and buying their fruits whatevert at very low cost. I have heard complaints of these farmeers in RA also on TV many times over..that they do not have means of conveyance..and the one i had(have9in mind is with a clock on it that the village chief could hire it to many , one at a time…but then our brethren in RA/Artsakh are busy handling BENEVOLENT PEOPLE´S WISHES ONLY

  8. This is why Russian and Persian translation of Artsakh is Black Garden. Farmers can plant almost anything in this fertile, God-given, Armenian land!

  9. I was visiting Stepanakerd in 2008 noticed in the market tomatoes beans eggplant all kinds of fresh vegetables I was afraid to ask my host the origin of them,it was too early for the local produce , the next day we visited a friend of his as we cross the river went around the bendthere were rows of green houses with all the vegetables winter and suumer,I was tald it doesnt get too cold,soon as snow touches the ground melts.
    was so happy and pleased.

    • Shayen, greenhouses are quite common in Armenia as well. Farmers grow vegetables in winter time in Armenia. We always had tomatoes and cucumbers around New Year.

  10. This story makes me so happy. Locally grown produce in Armenia is 1000% better than anything that is imported. That Armenians are growing Syrian olive trees (that originate in Cilicia), well that takes me over the moon. I want to be using extra virgin first cold pressed olive oil asap.

  11. for example in iran you can see olive tree in mountain condition, olive tree has many variety although origin variety from mediterranean artsakh has best condition for growing lemon and olive better than meghri

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