A Duty Born Out of Love

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A Duty Born Out of Love:

Diasporan Volunteers Explore Their Roots

By Nancy Kalajian

Published in The Armenian Mirror-Spectator

February 3, 1996

Driving down an extremely bumpy, dirt road, high up in the mountains of Northern Armenia, it was easy top get distracted by the spellbinding scenery. Soon, we entered Gogaran and competed with cows for a place on the road, driving past children carrying buckets of water, and a woman with a kerchief on her head who instantly reminded me of my grandmother. At once, I wished I had spent my entire summer here in this village, experiencing life similar to that of my ancestors. Even though my visit was brief, I began to understand what participants experience in this remote village.

Gazing everywhere, I found my head bobbing this way and that, not wanting to miss a single beat. But then in the distance, we noticed many people at a construction site, some clad with hats, sunglasses and jeans. We had reached our destination, Surp Asdvadzadzin Church, in the final phases of reconstruction thanks to committed volunteers from the Land and Culture Organization (LCO).

From restoring ancient Armenian forts to helping with irrigation systems, hundreds of volunteers representing various ages and nations have spent their summers with the LCO, exploring their roots and preserving their culture. As described in their brochure, the LCO is a multinational organization that “focuses on the Land and the vital role it plays in the struggle for the preservation of its Culture.” For over 15 years, the LCO has worked on a multitude of projects in the Armenian villages of Kessab in Syria, the northern Aderbadagan region of Iran, and Armenia itself.

Located in the area of Spidak, Gogaran felt the effects of the devastating 1988 earthquake. Since that time, in Gogaran, the LCO has helped lay a foundation for a new kindergarten, rehabilitated some village homes, and continues to this day to reconstruct the village church, first erected in the fourth century.

The basilica of Surp Asdvadzadzin has undergone four reconstructions in its long history. “Unknown to many, Gogaran (originally known as Gyoran) is a very historic area. Through excavations that revealed dwellings, jewels and other treasures, we know that Armenian nobility once resided in Gogaran,” said Lucine Kasbarian of Teaneck, New Jersey, LCO’s 1995 Site Leader who led a total of 40 volunteers from Armenia, France, Italy, the UK and the U.S. in two separate one-month campaigns (in July and August).

Noticing the volunteers’ enthusiasm and hard work in completing the last stages of the church, despite the blinding sun and dust, was an inspiration. Various talents from within Armenia also support the project. Working with the volunteers are four paid laborers who mix cement and lift rocks; and four expert stonecutters imported from Leninagan (Gyumri). Even Henrikh Asatrian, the projects’ Chief Engineer, travels from Yerevan to Gogaran once a week, a journey that takes about two to three hours in each direction. Sixteen types of tuffa are being utilized in the reconstruction, using as much of the original as possible. Hundreds of years ago, khatchkars were even carved into some of the blocks of tuffa and they have been incorporated in the reconstruction.

“In the 17th century, only the village people put the church together, but they kept the original stones. It’s basilica-style. The first Christian churches had one nave since the Armenian style was not developed yet,” said Yerevan architect Stepan Nalbandian, who has worked on the Gogaran project for three years. The first Armenian to receive a fellowship with the Getty Foundation in California, Nalbandian teaches the history of art at a high school in Yerevan during the regular school year. Of the challenges of rebuilding during a time of transition, he explains, “During Soviet times, it was easier. Now it’s difficult. It’s expensive to get construction materials and master builders.”

The LCO volunteers’ experience was not limited to carrying heavy cement, water and rocks. Lectures on art, history and architecture, and excursions to religious and historic sites, and neighboring nature preserves were also provided. Volunteer Lisa Alexanian liked “when we rode horses in the mountains.” Back in Milan, Italy, she works with her father in studying antique carpets and sings in an Armenian church choir. “The people in the village are like my family. The older people are like my grandparents,” says Alexanian.

“Everyone in our group knew they came to work, not simply to visit Armenia as a tour group. Our volunteers wanted to see what living in Armenia would be like, and rubbing elbows with the villagers, seeing the typical lifestyles of day-to-day life here has accomplished this. We have complete access to the village community. I think the LCO’s intent to work with local communities succeeds so well because of our heavy interaction with native Armenians,” said Lucine Kasbarian.

Allison Kapoian, of Paramus, New Jersey, actively involved in the Armenian community in the U.S., said “I never realized how beautiful the land is and how vast. I feel that I’m living in another century – in watching them make cheese and gather honey.” And Kasbarian adds, “People who have never seen their homeland before feel overcome by the landscapes, fresh foods and hospitality. Living in Gogaran has broadened volunteers’ own sense of Armenianism. We have heard of our past and now we can see how Armenians live in the present.”

The reasons volunteers came were as varied as that of the tuffa. Maral Jakeman, of London, has an interest in history and Armenian culture. Jean-Christophe Baltayan, of Lyon in France, said “I came because my grand-dad died, and I wanted to build a church in his memory. I will come back next year to finish. I love Armenia because I am Armenian. It’s not a vacation, it’s work.”

“Surprised by the beauty and the sweetness of the hills,” Talin Zarmanian of Milan, Italy, said, “I wanted to see how Armenia has changed since the fall of Communism and what people needed. People need to learn the rules. They need to learn about economy and play this game.”

Armenouhi Petrossian, an LCO volunteer from Yerevan who is studying for a master’s degree in Armenian language and literature, remarked, “We were always interested in this work, the preservation of monuments. It was a duty born out of love for my culture that attracted me to the LCO. I have very good impressions. Each young Armenian must come here. People who come will form an opinion and gain knowledge. It will bring them closer to the native Armenian culture and mentality. The lessons you learn are about life in Gogaran and how people live their lives.”

Shant Petrossian of Glendale, California, a communications major at UCLA, knew of LCO through two cousins who had volunteered for previous summer campaigns. “I came without knowing anyone and we have no conveniences. Our luggage was even lost for over one and half weeks. Those things, the luxuries, aren’t important. People are so welcoming. It feels like I’ve been here for years. You forget what you don’t have. You forget how cold the water is because when we go to the river together, we have fun. You forget how heavy lifting the rocks is, because the staff make our work enjoyable for us. There’s team work.”

For Lori Manessian of France, a business school student, “the whole trip is unbelievable. Reconstructing this church makes us understand how difficult it was to build it years ago. I see people live differently, and even the poorest want to give something. Discovering their generosity was a great experience. Paris is a big city, so we don’t see this generosity there. Each person in the village cares for us and knows our first name.”

“I’m worried pictures won’t capture the essence of this experience. How can I go back and describe this? Each day of work is a new day. It’s the same and yet it is different,” said Petrossian. “In the village, I sat with four brothers and I thought they were brothers I never had!”

Months after their return to the Diaspora, the LCO volunteers are still, if not more, enthusiastic and excited about the experiences they shared in Gogaran. Many speak of the strong friendships made between the volunteers, crew and villagers. Sharon Anoush Chekijian, a native of Boston and pre-med student at Columbia University in New York, volunteered for the August 1995 campaign in Gogaran and is already planning to return next August. One of her fondest memories, “walking in the dark to try to find drinkable water,” was the most surprising. “One stream goes through the center of Gogaran and people would divert its water in the middle of the night so they could water their plants. So, early in the morning, we’d run into people watering potatoes. We thought the area was abandoned, but people were still up,” recalls Chekijian.

The restoration of Surp Asdvadzadzin in Gogaran will be completed during the summer campaign of 1996. All those who have worked on its restoration during the past six years are being invited to its dedication ceremony next summer. For further information about the LCO and its projects, visit http://www.lcousa.org.