The four-peaked Mount Aragats rising from the plains and rivers at its foundation houses snowfields in its craters, which have been decreasing over the recent decades, as several studies have demonstrated.
Mount Aragats is significant not because of its mere physical presence: it is also a divine symbol in Armenia. Aragats has been a sacred place in both pagan and Christian Armenia. Gregory the Illuminator, who was the key contributor to the conversion of Armenia to Christianity in the 4th century, is believed to have been bathed in the light of a holy lantern during one of his prayers as a sign of eternal vision and purity.
Mount Aragats has been “revived” in the middle of the 20th century when a number of scientific projects commenced on the mount at the initiative of USSR experts. And today, on its striking slopes reside an old astronomical observatory that once has been the heart of the USSR research project, as well as the research facility called Cosmic Ray Division maintained by a team of four devoted scientists.
Like the majority of the world landscape, Mount Aragats is threatened by the climate change: its snowy peaks and glaciers have been shrinking during the last decades.
This aspect fascinated a British photographer Toby Smith. With the help of Project Pressure, a charity documenting the glaciers of the planet, and a small grant from the Luminous Endowment for Photographers, Smith was able to see with his own eyes how the climate change breaks down the communities and settlements on the mount.
Smith initially planned to pay a visit to Mount Aragats in summer to document the local climate at the least harsh time of year, but some circumstances forced him to travel to the mount in maybe the least convenient month of the year, November. His local guide Mkhitar Mkhitaryan picked him up at the airport to immediately head towards the mount. They climbed as far as they could by car before camping overnight.
They resumed the climb to the top early in the morning at 3 AM. It took them two hours to reach the top, which welcomed them with limited visibility due to the intense snowstorms that had accompanied them during their whole trip to the peak. They didn’t stay there for long, only for about 2 minutes. Smith managed to take a photo of a frozen cross installed atop the mountain. Smith later said that this particular photo is one of his favorites because the cross had been a part of a past project that started unveiling as Smith found out more about this mysterious ancient country.
In the end, Smith’s project that he named “Heaven and Earth of Aragats” focused more on showcasing the vanishing livelihood of those who depend on Aragats rather than on the shrinking of the mount’s glaciers.
The mount has a mystic ability to bring together people of different layers of society and ways of life, as well as incomparable legends and tales that were born on Aragats but spread far beyond its slopes to the passionate minds of those who considered this country their home.
Smith says, “The shepherds don’t have to do with the physicists, and the physicists don’t have much to do with the [religious sites]. It’s the mountain that bounds them all together.”
A detailed photo report can be viewed on the website: National Geographic