The first instinct of those who arrive in Alaverdi is to leave as soon as possible. And it would be an unforgivable mistake.
All because of the huge complex of copper processing that - outlived the fall of the Soviet Union - remains the only true master of Debed, barren river canyon between Georgia and Armenia.
Topped by a chimney stack always ready to breathe clouds of sulfur trioxide, adamant in its megalithic architecture of ocher bricks and toxic sweat, it stubbornly tries to win the trust of residents, as well as occasional visitors, without ever pinpointing the only argument capable of revealing its exceptional nature.
It is true. Despite health adjustments have been started since 1997 by Manes & Vallex CJSC, a Vallex Group company in charge of reviving one of the oldest industrial centres of the Caucasus, the suspicion that the air purification filters are never running poisons minds, even more than the lungs or fetuses.
Neither it reassures much the fact that the main emission smokestack moved on the mountain behind the town in 2012, as the currents of wind end up investing even villages nearby, such as the ancient monastery of Sanahin.
Yet there would be no monastery, without copper: a bond so uncomfortable, as neglected in the reconstruction of the origins of what, for good reasons, could be considered Armenia's alchemical hotbed. Indeed, the Latin word “Aramen", old diction to indicate copper, and the name Armenia, reveal much more than a simple assonance.
Certainly these were not the worries of Soviet citizens who, since the 70s, dared to speak out against an industrial exploitation so much exasperated, that had made the air totally unbreathable, as well as an harbinger of more and more cases of abdominal cysts. Many are gone and barely 400, of about 1,000 employees of the Bolshevik Copper Age, remain today, but how the typical Armenian way wants, they prefer to take condescending positions rather than accusatory.
"The situation has been improving - deputy mayor Artur Varosyan admits - we could do more, of course, but it is good enough. At least for now". If the complex had to close, Alaverdi would die a second time. And, according to the most, definitely, considering that 80% of its workforce is employed in the complex of copper processing.
In girl’s copper-streaked hair, restless curls teased by the hot air of midday, it shines the same beauty of that land tinged with immense mineral treasures.
She brings only a little backpack on her shoulders and has the moderate step of those who savour every detail, every moment, nearly a pilgrim veneration for a long-awaited and finally appeared destination is moving her. Whether she comes from Italy too, by chance or by fate, the way of the journey will tell only. Undeniable, however, is the warmth melting the smile, when our paths discover to have a dear friendship indirectly in common.
"I lived here for several years when I was a child - she says as we move away from the cabin under a merciless sun, climbing into the main square - and every corner still guards vivid memories. The outdoor games with friends, my father's strikes in defence of the environment, the ski vacations on the mountains nearby. My family lives now in Yerevan, the capital, but despite I’m often returned to Armenia for promoting my country from a tourist point of view, here I have not set foot anymore".
When she paused, frowning a little while she picks at blackberries from the bushes on the way, the surrounding silence seems charging of an uncertain wait. Taxi drivers stare at the horizon without too many illusions, leaving the cows all the time to graze in the flower beds, before returning to act as shuttle between the valley and the village. It’s Saturday and no one in Armenia is never in a hurry. Holding bags of groceries tight in her fists, an old woman smiles smugly, as if she had just heard the news of a kept promise.
"My old house is up there - Tsovinar advises, pointing her index finger to the road climbing up from the main square - but I doubt it has been maintained in good conditions. Well, yes, some of my neighbours have continued to live in the condominium, but everybody wants to leave, here! Maybe to Russia, where Armenian workers are always appreciated. If it was valued properly, the monastery could guarantee us far greater opportunities rather than “touch&go” visits: together with Haghpat, its twin on the opposite mountain, it has been recognised World Heritage Site, while the nearby museum of Mikoyan brothers still raises many questions about the origin of MiG fighters and the struggles of power in Ussr. Yet Sanahin has always been seen as a place of revelation. It would be better saying, indeed, as a necessary step to transform yourself; so I'd like to convert the old apartment into a guest house for research stays: follow me, please, you will be amazed to see what it hides”.
Leaving behind the Bridge Hotel, whose rooms of unsuspected Old England style shine in the flaked body of a last Party monolith, Tsovinar’s home is the first confirmation that Sanahin's people possess uncommon qualities. In her apartment there isn’t any wall that is not painted with extraordinary illusionistic effects: on one side it opens up Lake Sevan under the snow-capped peak of Azhdahak volcano; on the other, plants laden with fruits of wisdom or feathered animals bloom; over our heads, white clouds glide with ease and open up the golden question of Sarmoung.
Why has Sanahin magnetically attracted the thinnest minds of history and, not least, just Gurdjieff? What does the legendary Book of Peacock, kept in its library, contained? But, above all, why has no invader ever dared to raise his sword on these old precious tomes? Surely what could not centuries of invasions and military retaliation, it found easy game in the bureaucracy of Communist Party. The suspicion that behind his long hand there was Stalin’s deliberate direction - who died shortly before accusing his former partner and Alaverdi's citizen, Anastas Mikoyan - it stretched ambiguous shadows, however. If the youngest Mikoyan brother was estimated for its aeronautical projects, setting for the birth of formidable Mig fighters, the oldest one never offered a convincing explanation about the fact he was the only Commissioner spared by anti-Bolshevik forces during his arrest in Baku, in 1919. Having health diseases and devoured by terrible doubts during the last years of his life - doubts then justified by Anastas’ sudden change of flag at Krushchev’s arrival to power - the maximum secretary of the Soviet Communist Party suspected he could have set himself free smuggling something extremely valuable for his British captors, including several members of Freemasonry among them.
After the break of the ecclesial service, which had made the monastery the main center of the Armenian Apostolic Church, the priceless treasure of the library started to be scattered. Watchful to store every sacred text could come in handy in case of attack, proving to be protected by the same God who was driving the hands of the conquerors, Sanahin had developed a miraculous and renowned tradition far beyond the Caucasus.
"Even before the Christian foundation, attested around the tenth century, they came here for health treatments, for advices or just to learn - explains Karen, another unusual villager, apparently employed as an electrician at the hotel Bridge, actually avid scholar of every historical source on the monastery - it was known that Sanahin's library kept a unique and ancient wisdom. It housed a school of initiation, of "illuminators", as well as extraordinary calligraphers. Just count the khachkar crosses scattered around its buildings, along paths or under its arcades: to these massive stones, inlaid with leaves, bunches of grapes and sun disks, they attributed special powers, in so far as those who had the opportunity to stretch their body on the cross, they could then be considered protected from any harm”.
Whatever time it is, at the first rays of dawn or under the twinkling of the stars, running into Karen is almost inevitable. Flowered shirt, new Stilyagi jeans, impeccable hairdo perm, he may quite rightly be considered one of the secret keepers of the sacred complex, today threatened by infesting oat grass and supported by scaffolding showing even less attention than those expended by the Party in the '70s. Sanahin, however, still preserves architectural details that undermines researchers' reconstructions: are there connections between the use of double and triple column, in reference to the fantastic animals carved on their capitals? And do the lights of the ceiling, from which bright circular beams penetrate at different times and seasons of the year, evoke mystical splendour only? Why, then, has the adjoining church of Harutyun two altars?
If the custodians of the monastery had all Karen’s awareness, or artist Arto Kocharyan’s, whose paintings and sculptures decorate not only Tsovinar’s houses but also the squares of Yerevan, Alaverdi might be considered the most precious treasure of entire Armenia. Or maybe not Alaverdi itself, but rather that ancient wisdom which, through the inspiration of its mysterious monasteries, revived in local artists, despite our today society asks them just brisk business, instead of arcane truths.
"Sculpting kachkhars invites to confront ourselves with a visual language whose we lost the keys of understanding - an old friend and Arto Kocharyan's collaborator observes, among the most renowned Armenian masters in Soviet times, now living in an atelier-villa just a few meters up the Mikoyan museum - but still able to give depth to our gaze. Few are aware of the link of kachkhars with the ancient Egyptian symbol ankh, but just overturn the prospect and you’ll notice how the Christian tradition has only shifted the focus on the cross itself. At the opposite vertex, observing better, there is always a disc representing the sun during its infusion of energy to the cross, expression of the material polarity. Ankh appears the principle of fertilisation/generation and, not surprisingly, is still used to indicate the female sex, as well as the copper element. A combination not at all random, as the myth of Aphrodite’s birth shows”.
As the second best conductor metal which innervates the earth, copper is particularly suitable to extract - or “generate” as Alchemists would say - gold and silver through the electrolyte purification, but it is also able to influence the angular speed of the planets.
Basically, where it is associated with water, it reveals itself as an element facilitating fluids circulation, sliding life through an attractive or repulsive action, lying in abundance not only in foods known for their therapeutic properties, such as garlic, cabbage or carrots, but also in the liver and female genitalia. In addition, inside the tail of an highly familiar bird: the peacock.
White smoke from the Vallex chimney stack. Was the proven ability of the therapeutic Sanahin school possibly related to the study of copper properties? And are these same alchemical researches, in which the seven basic metals are associated with planets, at the origin of the interdependence between gold and solar cults? If Sanahin’s book of books went really lost, the geography of elements, just like the movements of the stars, are the only aid to redraw the map of Sarmoung’s footsteps.
Suddenly the water of an old wash house swallows my reflex and Tsovinar’s. I look at her surprised, fearing she will disappear, and in the fluctuating doubt between desire to stay and need to go, I understand that the giant of copper processing will decide once again. A few meters from Vallex signs, just near the marshrutka stop, a clear rule is in force: if it is necessary to travel on long distances, drivers go back on the road at one condition only; looking at which height the sun has been arrived. As over, so below.