In Praise of the Gasli Tree

Gasli Tree
Vahe H. Apelian, Ohio USA, 22 November 2012
 
Gasli Tree
The Kessabtsis call the laurel tree Gasli Dzar (tree) or simply Gasli . It is native to Kessab and most likely also to that part of the world we refer to as the Armenian

 

Cilicia. Its Latin name is Laurus nobilis. The name conveys majesty and leaves a sort of a “nobless oblige” impression. It is indeed a majestic tree growing as tall as18 meters (59 feet). That may be the reason that those who baptized the tree with its scientific Latin name called it nobilis.

 
In English the word laureate has come to signify eminence. It is associated with literary – poet laureate – or military glory. It is also used for winners of the Nobel Prize. I cannot tell if the word laureate was coined after the tree or whether the tree was named after the word that had evolved somehow to signify achievement that bestow upon the individual a high social status. The ancient Greeks considered wreathes made from laurel as symbol of highest status. The Romans depicted golden crowns made in the like of laurel tree (Gasli) leaves as a symbol of victory.
 

Vahe H. Apelian, Ohio USA, 22 November 2012
 
Gasli Tree
The Kessabtsis call the laurel tree Gasli Dzar (tree) or simply Gasli . It is native to Kessab and most likely also to that part of the world we refer to as the Armenian

 

Cilicia. Its Latin name is Laurus nobilis. The name conveys majesty and leaves a sort of a “nobless oblige” impression. It is indeed a majestic tree growing as tall as18 meters (59 feet). That may be the reason that those who baptized the tree with its scientific Latin name called it nobilis.

 
In English the word laureate has come to signify eminence. It is associated with literary – poet laureate – or military glory. It is also used for winners of the Nobel Prize. I cannot tell if the word laureate was coined after the tree or whether the tree was named after the word that had evolved somehow to signify achievement that bestow upon the individual a high social status. The ancient Greeks considered wreathes made from laurel as symbol of highest status. The Romans depicted golden crowns made in the like of laurel tree (Gasli) leaves as a symbol of victory.
 

Ovid, the Roman writer, tells the story that the nymph Daphne was transformed into a laurel tree to avoid being pursued by Apollo.  I am not sure if the Greek myth has anything to do with the Romans to have their victory symbol shaped after the laurel tree – Gasli – leaves. I have my own thoughts as to why the Greeks and the Romans may have picked laurel leaves  – say – over rose pedals or any other leaf.  The laurel trees – Gasli – are evergreen. Their leaves do not assume a rusty color during the fall, unlike the leaves of the many naturally grown trees such as in New England. There does not seem to be a later season for the laurel tree. Its leaves remain sparkling green during the four seasons of the year and throughout the life of the tree. The tree simply looks ageless.  This unique feature of the laurel tree leaves makes a good reason for it to symbolize enduring achievement. The crisp, attractive, the uniform shape and color and their orderly spacing on a branch give the Gasli leaves more of a reason to be decorative symbols.
 
The Gasli appears not to lend itself to domestication. It grows in most unlikely places.  It takes root within the rocky crevices and it does it on its own terms. Try to plant it in your backyard, more likely than not, you will not succeed. If gold is the golden metal among the metals, then laurel tree (Gasli Dzar) is the golden tree among trees grown in the wild. It is imposing, majestic, pleasant smelling and aloof.
 
GroupGasli trees have been and continue to be a source of income for the Kessabtsis. From the berries

 

the Kessabtsis extract the oils that make the famous Kessab soap, known as Ghar soap. Ghar means laurel in Arabic. LaurApel is one of the main manufacturers of laurel soap in Kessab. It is situated in Keurkune and it products have reached Japan. According to their Website it was Hagop Atikian who introduced the manufacture of laurel soap in Kessab in early 1940’s. He is one of the early graduates of the famed Kessab Oussoumnaserats Varjaran, the Kessab non-denominational high school, the Kessab Educational Association founded in 1922. It is the first Diaspora Armenian High School to be recognized by a foreign country, France, allowing its graduates to pursue their education in France, and many did. Hagop Atikian, as a young graduate from the University of Sorbonne, upon his return to Kessab, advocated making use of the abundant Kessab Gasli trees and to make soap from its famed laurel oil and taught the Kessabtsis the basics for soap manufacture. The manufacture was first initiated by the Churukian Family of Kessab and continues with their daughter Ani and son-in-law, Steve. Hagop Atikian is also a revered educator and author of Armenian history.

 
Besides being a source of income, Gasli is also very much ingrained in Kessab culture and somewhat to its cuisine as well. The Kessabtsis call its ripe black berries as fruit-Gasli Bdugh (laurel fruits). Harvesting the ripe black berries used to be a much looked for social event. The attached picture depicts young Kessabtsis mounted on donkeys, protected against the colder autumn weather, on their way harvesting Gasli Bdugh – laurel fruits- as late as in 1978. The Kessabtsis look forward in anticipation for the autumn passage of migratory birds they call summun and kartavok. They taste delicious full of laurel oil aroma because they feed on laurel tree berries.
 
The branches of the tree serve as skewers par excellence. Those who have tasted freshly hunted birds prepared over fire on skewers made from laurel tree (Gasli) branches, can attest to the exquisite taste, especially when the birds are eaten with bread oiled by squeezing the birds during the grilling in freshly prepared oven (toneer) breads. Laurel leaves, commonly known as bay leaves, impart taste to a cooking but should not be consumed. They are not digestible.
 
Spoons made from laurel leaves are used to taste foamed grape molasses. During the autumn the Kessabtsis get engaged in the preparation of grape molasses. The process is called massara. At one time it was by far the most anticipated social event in Kessab extending well into the night.  Ms. Effie Chambers, the beloved missionary in Kessab from 1904 to 1912, in a letter to her Board in America complained that the school year is short and getting the kids attend school gets harder during the autumn because of the preparation of grape molasses that the Kessabtsis consider a time to be merry. Kessabtsis continue to do massara in kessab and as far away as in Los Angeles and in Fresno. The freshly made warm grape molasses is scooped by ladles made from gourd and poured back into the container from a distance creating a most exquisite tasting foam, the Kessabtsis call prpoor, which is then scooped with Gasli leaves that leave on the taste buds an unforgettable exquisite taste. Wooden or metal spoons do not come near to the Gasli leaf spoon in imparting the taste of the prpoor.
 
The late Stepan Panossian depicted a picture of Gasli branch with leaves and ripe berries on the cover of one his books depicting life in Kessab, which is also famed for its apple and grape trees, The 1978 Vol. 3 National Geographic attested to the Kessab’s “crisp apples that burst upon the tongue” and “grapes that cluster sweet and heavy on the vines”. However no other entity can possibly symbolize Kessab and its resilient native Cilician Armenian population as the tall, erect, eternally green Kessab native laurel tree – the famed Gasli of Kessab.
 
 
7 comments
  1. From Athens to Rome to Cilicia & Kessab

    From Athens to Rome to Cilicia to Kessab…..All knew the fragrance and charm of the laurel tree. In addition to that, Vahe incorporated and linked the historical, botanical and cultural aspects of the 'gesli' so well that he even portrayed me in the article. I am the young guy sitting on the donkey on the right with Garo Apelian and Hagop Kerbabian, partners in that summer "gesli" fruit collection and sale campaign for the preparation of the ghar soap. I encourage Vahe and all the readers in his attempt to enlighten and preserve the historic and cultural heritage of Kessab and Keorkune.

    The photo in the article incidentally  was in autumn of 1976, during the bloody Lebanese civil unrest, when together with Garo Apelian, we took refuge in the serenity of Keorkune’s nature and the open hearted hospitality of  its people. It was like ‘heaven’ away from the ‘hell’ situation in Beirut……..

    It has been only few years back….  Now  this same ‘heaven’ is threatened, the serenity of nature is destroyed, the green ‘gesli’ trees are under fire, and most of all, the safety of this same hospitable villagers are endangered. They do not deserve this calamity. We pray that “heaven”  will be restored in Keorkune-Kessab , and  once again the ‘gesli’ leaves will proclaim the victory of peace and prosperity.

  2. Well-Researched Article

    Well-researched article; I greatly enjoyed it and learned a lot.

    The article reminded me of summer camp at Okuzolug as a child. I recall washing my hands using the berries–young Kessabtzi friends demonstrated the secret of this "Ojar Dzar". I still recall the sweet fragrance. And I am glad to learn the name of the tree after five decades:"laurel tree Gasli Dzar".

    Thank you, Vahe.

  3. Gesli tsar

    Thanks for the article Vahe. I have fond memories of playing under and on gesli tsars at both of my grandparents courtyards in Sev Aghpuir and Keurkeuna in the 1970s. Thank you also for using the cover of my dad's book as an illustration. When my sister Arpi and I were looking at different images to put on the cover of the book, something that will capture the essence of the book and of my father, we went through a number of images until we stumbled on that photograph. We both thought, "this is it!". When we showed it to my dad he nodded in agreement and said, "shad lav, shad lav…."

    1. Stepan Panossian

      Razmik, I am glad you liked the write-up about the Kessab Gasli.

      This is personal but non-the-less I take the liberty of sharing with the readers of Keghart.com that your late father, Stepan Panossian, more known among the Kessabtsis by the moniker he inherited from his father, Onbashe, was an exceptionally talented man and true representative of the post Genocide generation born in Kessab to parents who had survived the Genocide, often time orphaned.

      Stepan, for all practical purposes, had no schooling whatsoever. He was self taught.  He excelled as a gifted and innovative mechanics, a civic servant and as an author. He raised you, your two brothers and sister while actively participating in many organizations including the Kessab Educational Association.

      He visited Armenia numerous times to experience its emergence as a nascent independent country and wrote both in prose and poetry, not only in Armenian but also in Kessab dialect – Kesbenok – to keep the dialect alive.  He was a true artist both as a mechanic and as a writer. I read numerous times the poem he dedicated to your mother, his wife Sona, and remain moved by it as I remember it.

      I had a personal  relationship with him, however afar, and of course through our families as well who were close friends. Seeing you as a doctoral graduate from the London School of Economics and author must have given him a lot of pride, even though he was never vocal about it.

      He leaves behind a legacy of four books, cherished memories. May he rest in peace.

      Thank you for commenting on that write-up.   

    2. Great Job

      Vahe, I enjoyed reading the article. You did a great job. What I missed to do about the Gasli you did.

      All the given explanations are authentic and fulfilling.

      Onbashi (Stepan Panossian ) has written a poem, carved on flat stone under the Gasli tree of his parents' house yard. It praises that same tree with moving words. I am not sure if it is written in that book.

  4. Stirrups
    I noticed on the great picture of Garo Apelian (in the middle) & friends, that the stirrups are loops of rope adjusted for desired height and secured on the saddle – frugal, clever in its dual function as stirrups and handy rope to secure the donkey’s load as necessary.

    1. Stirrup

      Jack

      This article popped out on my Facebook account page as a memory.

      I read your comment again. It had never occurred as to how accurate your observation was and how "frugal and clever" was that arrangement. Yet it was just as you described and it also had one other useful function. My grandfather used to tie the free end of the stirrup to a tree  or a bush giving our donkey much latitude to graze and roam around but not get lost.

      Vahe

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