The Karabakh highlands rise between Azerbaijan and Armenia, an open wound between the two countries. Once home to a patchwork of Armenians, Azeris, and nomadic Kurds, a vicious, ethnically driven war in the wake of the Soviet Union’s collapse left Azerbaijan technically in control of the area. But in practice, the self-declared Nagorno-Karabakh Republic, headed by Armenians and recognized by no other country, now rules over this remote corner of the world, withered by isolation and under-development.
Yet perched atop a barren cliff, overlooking the wide expanse of the fertile Karkar River Valley, stands an incongruous phalanx of budding Mediterranean olive trees, flanked by row upon row of sprouting greens. A nearby greenhouse faithfully replicates the blossoming spring of the Syrian agricultural center of Latakia, the balmy humidity inside a jarring contrast to the bracing cold of a Karabakh winter. Packed inside are pots of lemons, apricots, kumquats, and flowering gardenias, all uprooted directly from coastal Syria and transplanted to this contested corner of the world by an enterprising immigrant family bent on recreating a patch of Syria abroad.
The rolling Karabakh highlands are highly contested. Populated almost exclusively by ethnic Armenians, the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic is technically still a part of Azerbaijan under international law. Photo: John Arterbury
The Asmaryans, one of only a few Armenian refugee families from Syria to now call the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic home, have spent more than a year sculpting this untidy patch of land in a bid to bring some Levantine sensibility to a post-Soviet landscape.
“It’s hard. It’s difficult,” Hovig Asmaryan explains, lacing cup after cup of lemon balm tea with gobs of honey freshly culled from his own hives. “In Aleppo we were businessmen.”
Starting a farm wasn’t a natural choice for Hovig, but once in Karabakh he realized that a cadre of businesses knit together by the war dominated the local economy. Rather than going against these powerful groups to continue in sales, the Asmaryan brothers decided to look to their parents, long-time farmers who passed away a few years before the Syrian war, for inspiration.
Once a businessman more at home in the city, Hovig Asmaryan is taking the commercial risk of a lifetime: starting a farm in a new land. Photo: John Arterbury
Hovig could have hardly imagined his new life just a few years ago. In pre-war Aleppo, the Asmaryan clan enjoyed a vibrant lifestyle, mingling freely with their Arab neighbors, proud to be members of Syria’s ornate social fabric. But in 2011, long-simmering social ills gave way to protests, eventually rending that once rich social tapestry apart.
The family decided to leave in late 2012, hiring an old business associate with opposition ties to negotiate their passage through a mosaic of government and rebel checkpoints to get to the Turkish border. They eventually found refuge in the Armenian capital of Yerevan—an unwelcoming place for refugees, as the family tells it—and promptly set out for war-scarred Karabakh, where, strangely, they felt a sense of belonging.
“People here also passed through war and they understand the meaning of being a refugee, so they are looking more to understand you, your situation, which you cannot find in Yerevan,” Hovig says.
The choice to leave proved sound. The Asmaryan family warehouse in Aleppo, he says, was first looted during fighting and then appropriated by militants from Jabhat al-Nusra, al-Qaida’s Syria franchise, for use as a sharia court. Unlike the majority of the nearly four million Syrians that the UN refugee agency estimates have fled since 2011, the Asmaryans are sufficiently well off, thanks to their former commercial ties, to try to start over.