"The presbytery has lost none of its charm, nor the garden its brilliance." Gaston Leroux
At the edge of Western civilisation, where the ancients located the extreme edge of the oïkoumènê (the inhabited land in Greek), Syunik is a land that is hostile at first sight. The steep slopes of its mountains, the scarcity of its waterways and the aridity, which is enhanced by the summer heat and the icy cold of winter, make it one of those few regions where only the will of man allows him to survive, to relentlessly restart a labour that is perpetually reduced to nothing by the raging elements. As if nature had not put enough obstacles in the way of the rugged inhabitants of these mountains, war and the evils that accompany it, death, misery and grief, have since the 1990s at least, upset the fragile equilibrium that men, rooted in their trust in God and strengthened by Him, had built up over the centuries.
The village of Tegh, a few hundred meters from the border with Artsakh, where bullets now whistle, is an example of a community in danger. There, as in many other places in Armenia, it is almost impossible to make a living from agriculture, the only source of livelihood for the village families, because of the current conflict.
Here, it is the bees that have, for centuries, made beekeeping, a veritable institution, and where generations follows one another without interruption, if not the wealth of Tegh, at least the perpetuation of the hamlet through the ages.
Old photographs belonging to one of the beneficiaries show the valley to the north of the village, where the association's project was carried out, filled with more than two hundred hives. The war for the liberation of Artsakh, which began in the late 1980s, put an end to this relative prosperity. After the victory and independence of Nagorno-Karabakh on September 2, 1991 (thirty years ago, almost to the day), the beekeepers left the mountain for the valley, now free from the Azeri occupiers, where the winter is less harsh and allows the insects can survive more easily.
This left the village without its main source of money. After the resumption of armed hostilities last year and the loss of more than half of Artsakh, including the lowlands where the beekeepers had settled, four families and their hives returned to Tegh. However, these beekeepers face a major problem: all the protections erected during the previous two centuries against the Armenian's oldest enemy, General Winter, the same one who defeated Napoleon in Russia, have disappeared. There is nothing left to protect the beehives from the winter frost.
David, the headmaster of the village school, is concerned about preserving life in Tegh. He contacted Aram, a fundamental pillar of the association in Syunik, looking for help to renovate the old shelter. Aram, interested in the project, submitted it, without hesitation, to the volunteers at the beginning of May 2021. It was adopted unanimously, through the voice of Enguerrand, their representative, who threw himself into the project and carried it through to completion.
Before giving an account, with ample descriptions and many details, of the work carried out, it seems appropriate to tell a bit the story of the beehive shelter. Ideally situated, on the slope of a small valley with a gently flowing stream at the bottom, halfway up the slope and enjoying the sunshine at all hours, the present beehive house was a presbytery two centuries ago. A rectangular house with apparently nothing extraordinary about it: made by rough stone walls held together by poor cement, three poor rooms, each with a small window protected by wrought iron railings.
Isolated from the village, and certainly living sparsely in the three rooms of the dwelling, the priest, who was then in charge of the village of Tegh, lived at ease there to pray and meditate on the Holy Scriptures. However, time passed and with it came its share of changes. Was it the harshness of the climate, the war, the unbearable poverty, or his flock's impiety? No one knows but God. The fact remains that one day the pretty, sunny building was abandoned, emptied of its holy occupant. It was at the end of the 19th century. The local beekeepers used it to store the source of their nectar when the cold threatened to kill their little workers. Notwithstanding this first use, the house was also used as a weapons cache when the conflict was at its height in the 1990s.
After forty years of relative neglect, following the departure of the beekeepers, the house was in danger of collapsing at any moment, and in a pathetic state when our volunteers found it. With its roof uncovered, its walls crumbling one by one, the rooms cluttered with rubbish and the excrement of the animals that had been housed there from time to time, the presbytery was a sight to behold. Volunteers rolled up their sleeves to give the old building a new lease of life.
After a long and tedious but necessary period of drafting the project plan, vast works finally began around the summer solstice. The volunteers, who were not slowed down by their desire to help the Armenians in misery, did not hesitate to get up at dawn to go to the building site, nearly forty minutes by car, a good portion of which was on a dirt track, at seven o'clock in the morning and leaving only at the Angelus in the evening, or even later on certain days when the progress of the project required it.
The break between noon and three o'clock was obviously necessary, as the heat of the Armenian summer could be overwhelming. This was a regular opportunity for volunteers and workers to bond over a hearty meal.
The renovation of the house began with the cleaning of the three rooms intended to house the beehives. The floor and walls were so dirty that our courageous volunteers had to clear the rooms and the terrace of the rubbish that littered the place.
Once this stage was over, the next step was to re-roof the presbytery and reinforce the walls of the building by applying a new layer of mortar. The building materials had to be transported from the car park to the storage area upstream. The mass of beams, heaps and bags of mortar, the obstacles posed by the piles of sand along the way and the hedges of thorny vegetation made the short journey, no more than 150 metres, an ordeal that will long remain in the memories of the volunteers.
With the equipment in place, the construction of the roof, to which a canopy was added in front of the south-facing entrance door, began. The volunteers helped the workmen to weld the metal beams of the new canopy and to lay the roof slabs, the wooden framework was completely rebuilt. At the same time, the volunteers also helped the workers in charge of restoring the presbytery. They prepared the mortar, which was then spread at on the joints of the stones to restore the load-bearing walls to their former solidity, walls that had enabled the house to survive two centuries of harsh winters and almost constant wars.
These challenging tasks were completed before the end of July 2021, after only a short month and a half of work. To crown the undeniable success of the undertaking, the association decided to add a commemorative plaque to the presbytery. The inscription, in French and Armenian, topped by the heart of SOS Chrétiens d'Orient, recalls the efforts and successes of both parties in the project. It reads in both languages: "The renovation of this former presbytery into a winter beehive shelter was financed in 2021 by the association SOS Chrétiens d'Orient ". The plaque was affixed to the west wall of the terrace on the occasion of the shelter's inauguration on August 26 2021. In addition to Vare, one of the four beneficiaries of the project, the workers who saw this as the crowning achievement of their efforts, the directors of the Hartashen and Tegh schools, our contact Aram, who had initiated the renovation, Armen, who was invited by his friends, as well as the volunteers and the head of the mission in Armenia, Corentin Clerc and his wife Camille, were present that evening.
After a speech of thanks from the director of the Hartashen school, which Aram translated for us, and a response of the head of mission, brief but beautiful, about the symbolism of bees, bearers of life through pollination, the red ribbon was cut. This was followed by a convivial buffet crowned by the unique experience of a local specialty: honey from the hive. The taste and consistency of the honey, alternately melting and crunchy, delighted the mission members.
From now on, beekeeping in Tegh can resume, assured that it will survive the harsh winter of the mountains of Syunik. With this activity, the economy, and therefore life, will find a new lease of life in this small village lost in Armenia, still threatened by Azeri bullets at every moment. The association can be proud to have added to this revival the renovation of a building, which, without being of extraordinary beauty, is part of the historical heritage of the village. After this exhausting work, the presbytery, protected like a green bower, almost a garden, by the valley that shelters it, is once again shining with its newfound youth. In short, in the words of Gaston Leroux in his masterpiece The Mystery of the Yellow Room: "The presbytery has lost none of its charm, nor the garden its radiance".
Paul, a volunteer in Armenia.