British Photographer Captures Surreal Life on a Sacred Glacial Mountain

Mount Aragats is an intersection of divinity, science, and living off the land.

By Alexandra E. Petri
Published 31 Dec 2017, 12:09 GMT
Mount Aragats is a four-peaked volcanic massif. Shortly after World War II, observers discovered the presence ...
Mount Aragats is a four-peaked volcanic massif. Shortly after World War II, observers discovered the presence of snowfields on the sides of the crater basin, as well as permanent glaciers within the crater. Analysis in recent decades indicates that the glacier’s surface area has rapidly retreated.
Photograph by Toby Smith, Getty Images Reportage

In Armenia, Mount Aragats looms overhead as a permanent fixture in the sky, a four-peaked volcano massif that rises from rivers and plains around its base. The mountain is more than just a physical presence: It’s also a divine symbol. Gregory the Illuminator, the patron saint of Armenia who converted the country from paganism to Christianity in the 4th century, is believed to have been bathed in light from a holy lantern while praying there, a sign of eternal purity and vision.

As religion dug its roots into Aragats, daily life unfolded. Villages were formed as settlers carved out lives as herders and farmers. In the mid-20th century, new seeds began to grow on the mountain when the U.S.S.R. set up some of its core science initiatives on Aragats. Decades later, its dramatic slopes are home to an aging astronomical observatory, which was once the heart of the Soviet Union's research program, and the Cosmic Ray Division research facility just near the mountain’s summit held together by a team of four dedicated scientists.

And, like much of the global landscape, Aragats is under threat by climate change, its snowcapped peaks and glaciers slowly shrinking.

It was this aspect of the mountain that first captured the interest of British photographer Toby Smith. Partly funded by Project Pressure, a charity documenting the world’s glaciers, and with a grant from the Luminous Endowment for Photographers, he set out to document the way climate change disrupts the communities that still reside on Aragats.

A derelict observatory near the Cosmic Ray Division facility.
Photograph by Toby Smith, Getty Images Reportage

Smith planned to make the trip in the summer, when he would not only have an easy climb but also be able to document the amount of snowmelt at the summit. But, as is often the case, life got in the way. It wasn’t until that November—when it’s a “bad idea to be on the mountain” due to the harsh weather conditions and drastic temperatures—that Smith was able to embark on his journey.

His chance for the summit happened to come on the day he arrived for his two-week stay in the country. Smith’s local guide, Mkhitar Mkhitaryan, picked him up from the airport and together they headed immediately as far up the mountain as they could by car before settling in for the night to make the climb the next morning.

It was a two-hour charge to the top, which they began in the early morning hours at 3 a.m. When they arrived, there was limited visibility thanks to the blankets of snowfall and snowstorms that tagged along on his climb. They didn’t stay long— they left within about two minutes—but Smith took a photo of a frozen cross on the mountain’s summit before making the descent. That cross is among his favorite images, he says, as it represents a part of the project that began to reveal itself to him as he learned more about this mysterious country.

A scientist picks a mushroom for his grandson on the Byurkan Astronomical Observatory complex further down the mountain. Despite funding cuts, the center continues to conduct valuable work.
Photograph by Toby Smith, Getty Images Reportage

Smith’s project, which he titled “Heaven and Earth on Aragats,” ended up being less about showcasing a retreating glacier than it was about the disappearing livelihood of those who depend on Aragats.

The mountain has a strange way of uniting people from different walks of life and the disparate narratives that began with Aragats but extended far beyond its slopes to the warm hearts and minds of all those who call this country home.

“The shepherds don’t have much to do with the physicists, and the physicists don’t have much to do with the [religious sites],” Smith says. “It’s the mountain that bounds them all together.”

You can see more of Toby Smith's work on his website and follow him on Instagram.

A snowy vista captured from Mount Aragats Cosmic Ray Division facility.
Photograph by Toby Smith, Getty Images Reportage
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