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 September 12, 2003 

Greedy Harvest?: Historic gardens in peril as urban development spreads

The location was not chosen randomly for cultivation Safaryan says. .

A garden regarded as a historic cultural monument is in danger of being destroyed by urban expansion in Yerevan.

For 3,000 years, Dalma gardens, near the Genocide Memorial, have been cultivated for wine-making and other grape products.

If the Yerevan Municipality's urban development program is realized, the historic landscape will yield a street and a highway and businesses. Some sources familiar with the situation say the Franc Mueller company wants to build a watch factory in the area.

Environmental activists, including the Union of Greens oppose the destruction of the gardens, but are not hopeful of stopping the development.

Dalma gardens covers 530 hectares and are believed to have been planted in the beginning of the 7th century BC in the neighborhood of a town then called Teishebaini in the Araratian Kingdom (Urartu).

In the 1950s an excavation of the Karmir Blur ("Red Hill") monument beside the gardens found seven vaults with 420 wine jars with 800-1200 liters capacity each, testifying to the antiquity of the vineyard. Research performed on grape seeds found in the jars revealed that they belong to the sorts of vine such as Yezandari, Kharji, Askiari and Mskhali growing in Dalma these days.

Carbonized vine-shoots have been found as well. Under the order of academician B. Piotrovski those shoots were researched in 1962 by winemaker and winegrower Derenik Safaryan.

"Grapes are divided into three groups," he says. "The first two groups are roundish and oval containing no seeds. They are Nazeli and Sultana sorts and they have been growing in Dalma up to now. From grapes they were making raisins which have carbonized. Three thousand years ago people knew that raisins must be made from unseeded grapes. I found seeds in the third group of grapes. It was Askiari sort, which is growing in Dalma as well."

The gardens are irrigated by the 2,800-year old Dalma aqueduct, originating near the Davitashen bridge. Flowing through an underground construction it covers approximately five kilometers and flows out of the ground near Tsitsernakaberd (the Genocide Memorial), on the edge of Dalma gardens.

"Before excavations people didn't know where the water comes from. It was a mystery for them," remembers Safaryan.

Fields that have produced grapes since the B.C. years might become the site of a watch factory.

There was information about two underground channels in the records found during excavations carried out in the 1950s. One of those channels was Dalma aqueduct dug through basalt layers.

According to tradition, in the beginning of the 19th century, when the aqueduct's passage was blocked because of landslides, Persian Khan Hussein Ghuli ordered to open it. The word the Khan used sounded like "dalma", giving the gardens their current name.

Safaryan says the location for the gardens was not chosen randomly. It has a south-western angularity and in such a geographic position lighting as well as thermal conditions are more productive for gardening.

Approximately 80 grape sorts and dozens of mulberry, apricot and apple varieties have been cultivated in Dalma gardens until recently.

Safaryan's father was one of Dalma gardeners. In 1919 at the times of the first Republic of Armenia he purchased an area of 2.5 hectares.

"We had 15 sorts of apricot and different sorts of grapes. The whole family was working in the garden. It was our only source of income."

In 1938 Soviet authorities confiscated Dalma gardens from Safaryan's family and other gardeners and handed it over to collective farms.

When Soviet authorities were widening Yerevan towards the south-west they passed over Dalma gardens and didn't build them up leaving them as a historic-cultural heritage and oasis of fruit gardens.

Since the 1990s local authorities have leased out Dalma gardens for private cultivation. The leasing contracts extend until next year.

In 2000, the City of Yerevan proposed a program of developing Dalma gardens and presented that program to the Government. It was planned to build roads and highways through Dalma and divide the rest of the territory. Part of the territory would have gone to the Yerevan Beer Factory, and the Hovnanian Ltd. company had intended to build a golf driving range.

It appeared the plan had been scrapped, following protest meetings held by the Union of Writers. (Since 1987, when an environmental movement started in Armenia, the Union has been the focal point of meetings and a source of disseminating information about ecological issues.)

"Chief architect of the city Narek Sargsyan told me that the meeting had been important and the gardens carried value," says head of the Union of Greens of Armenia Hakob Sanasaryan. "However, in reality, authorities had just put the program on hold."

Last year, the Yerevan Municipality again proposed the project. It is now pending approval of the Government of Armenia.

"There is a draft project for constructing the road but as of yet there are no investments. A decision hasn't been made. There are still other roads to be constructed before beginning on Dalma. It must be done step by step," says architect of Yerevan municipality Hrachia Vardanyan.

A simple survey of the area, however, shows that development is rapidly encroaching the area of the gardens.

An ancient aqueduct provides irrigation for the gardens.

According to municipal records, some 100 hectares boarding the gardens have been sold by the municipality, and in the past three years have been developed into restaurants, hotels and saunas.

Adjoining Dalma and considered a part of it, is another gardens, Sardar. The Sardar gardens is on the list of Monuments of Armenia, a classification that should protect certain properties from development. Still, the gardens have been developed on all sides and only a fraction of the gardens is left.

In 1996 the rest of the garden was given to the Republic of Iran for building an embassy a mosque and a hotel. However, thanks to the efforts of the Union of Greens that program has not been realized.

"Those days our meeting with the ambassador of Iran was of great importance," says Sanasaryan. "We informed (the Iranians) about the significance of Sardar garden and after that construction works had been stopped there."

Since 1927 Sardar garden had been property of the Institute of Winemaking, Vine-Growing and Fruit-Growing as a scientific and research territory. Eighty varieties of grapes were tested there. A building constructed in 1895, with its wine vault and collection of wine samples is the only thing left of the Institute.

"Nothing is left of the collection garden," says Derenik Safaryan. "They will penetrate that center too and they will build houses there and the whole history of vine-growing will be destroyed."

The Greens are concerned that Sardar and Dalma gardens will be destroyed by officials who see real estate value more clearly than historical value. The Greens say that Dalma's status as a historic-cultural monument will only increase its "shadow" sale price.

"In a few years Dalma will turn into a memory," says Sanasaryan. "Every official wants to see trade of territories during his time in power. Dalma is a territory for getting big bribes."




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