Studying Heavens and Earth on Mount Aragats

Photos and text by Toby Smith

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Armenia's Iconic Peak
Text by Toby Smith

Mount Aragats is the highest point in Armenia and is a national symbol for Armenians. The mountain is featured on the country’s coat-of-arms and represented in the names and logos of countless Armenian companies, groups and collectives. The expansive slopes have seen historic Armenian capitals, fierce battles for their control with many historical fortress and settlements surviving multiple regime and religious conquests over the centuries.

The collapsed volcanic cone at the summit is, according to some interpretations of the Christian Bible’s Old Testament, the landing point of Noah’s Ark. Today the mountain ironically hosts an aging astronomical observatory which was once the heart of the USSR’s research program. Close to the summit is an atmospheric Cosmic Ray Detection facility - manned year-round despite the intense winter snowfall and gales at 3200m.

Aerial observations in the 1950’s showed the presence of permanent snowfields on the sides of Aragats’s upper crater cirque alongside moraines and glaciers inside the crater itself. A more detailed analysis in 1996 indicated a total glacial surface area of 5.5 km2 but this has been rapidly decreasing year on year. The glacial cover has been disappearing on account of the insufficient snowfall, changes in rainfall patterns and critically an increase in annual mean air temperatures.

On Aragats’s higher slopes, the numerous areas of seasonal snow cover and small glaciers melted throughout Spring and Summer feeding a network of tributaries to Lake Sevan and other important rivers and spring systems within the surrounding provinces. Aragats’s upper summit and valleys rise above a flat agricultural plain and contribute to the hydrology in all compass directions.

Those familiar with the mountain’s upper levels claim that the permanent ice has all but disappeared and is now found only in the crevices of north-facing slopes or shaded under scree fall. Tangible evidence of this recent, critical failure in the mountain’s hydrology is now only too obvious to the settlements and communities who live on downstream pasture. Entire herds of cattle, livelihoods and economic hopes are rapidly leaving this already deprived corner of Europe.

In collaboration with Project Pressure, a charity documenting the world’s glaciers, and with a grant from the Luminous Endowment for Photographers, photojournalist Toby Smith both circumnavigated and summited Mount Aragats in October 2016. The objective was to document the diverse narratives and situations all bound to and situated on the slopes of Mount Aragat.

Project Pressure is collaborating with world-renowned artists to create work that will inspire action and participation. Our purpose is to launch the world’s first comprehensive crowd- sourced glacier atlas hosted on an open source digital platform (MELT), a touring photographic exhibition, a documentary film and a book publication. ◊