Sulfur Clouds and Sacred Sites: A Journey through the Debed Canyon
Story by Stephen M. Bland, photos by Stephen M. Bland and Klaus Richter

Visiting a historic town in Armenia where history was made and two UNESCO World Heritage sites stand, a visitor finds caustic air and a depressed population—except for two fresh-faced missionaries.

Debed Canyon in Armenia

According to everything I’d read, there was a cable car which connected Alaverdi to the town of Sarahart, high above it on top of the ridge. Sure enough, the vagonfunicular was there, but the cars hung static in mid-air, like discarded shoes on a telegraph wire. I asked the hotelier about it.

“No money,” she replied perfunctorily.

defunct vagon funicular car in Armenia

When lightning struck the motor assembly and generator in May 2014, the service was shut down for the first time in its 37-year history. Staff were sent home and told to await further instruction. The cars have lain dormant ever since. The staff never got those further instructions.

According to the last census in 2011, the population of the town was 13,343, down from 26,300 in 1989. You can’t blame those who have chosen to leave. In a 2012 film by Maria Saakyan set in Alaverdi—her last before her tragic death at the age of 37—the central protagonist describes the place as being “like a body eaten away by ulcers.” With unemployment rife, virtually the only jobs available offer residents a stark choice: poison or destitution.

Copper smelting in the region around Alaverdi dates back to 1770. Expanded by Russian and French investors, by 1903 output accounted for 13% of the total produced in the Russian Empire. Massive construction works during the Soviet era saw the town become a key hub of metallurgy and the chemical industry. With the influence of Moscow declining, under pressure from a nascent environmental movement, the current plant closed in 1988 at the cost of 5,000 jobs. Parts were sold off, including expensive filters which had mitigated the effects of caustic emissions. When the plant reopened as a scaled-down operation in 1997, nothing was done to replace the missing filters.

A Kingdom Becomes a Deadly Shell

It wasn’t always this grim here. Named after the seventeenth-century leader of a Turkic tribe, Alaverdi is a town on the banks of the Debed Canyon in Northern Armenia, a region rich in history. Permanently settled since the 2nd millennium BC, it has changed hands many times over the centuries, from the Kingdom of Van to the Sassanids, Arab invaders to the Kingdom of Georgia. In the center of town, a humpbacked stone bridge built in 1195 by Queen Tamar of Georgia—whose empire stretched into modern-day Turkey—attests to this illustrious past. At the corners of the bridge lie four stone lions, now eroded so that they resemble outsized lizards. Legend holds that when a real man finally crosses the bridge, the lions will come to life, quite a terrifying thought given their current state of decay.

Arriving in town, we were delivered to a hotel on Engels Street, directly across the Debed River from the Alaverdi Mining-Metallurgy Factory. Ushered inside by a woman with a stiff blonde perm, we were directed to our rooms, both of which featured televisions encased in wood which were purely ornamental. In fact, one of the rooms had no electricity at all.

I asked if there were any restaurants in town.

Niet,” she replied.

Could they make food available at the hotel?

“Niet;” though there was an instant kofe machina.

Aside from a handful of taxi drivers hanging listlessly by a bridge, the sunbaked streets were deserted. We walked for hundreds of meters past the derelict front of the sprawling factory, its broken windows behind a wall strewn with barbed wire. Atop a mountain at the back of the plant, a soaring smokestack belched a haze of sulfur dioxide into the atmosphere, which became trapped in the gorge, poisoning the town’s residents. The plant has around seven hundred employees, which coupled with the five hundred working at a nearby open-face mine, accounts for 80% of local jobs.

Abandoned smelting factory

In 2003, 1,389 children under the age of fourteen were diagnosed with respiratory illnesses. In full denial mode, the Armenian Copper Program repudiated the figures, implying that they were released by people jealous that they hadn’t been offered work.

“No one can deny the existence of emissions,” a company spokesman said, “but they don’t cause damage.”

In the center of town, many of the shops contained nothing more than mannequins decked in wigs and baseball caps, held together with Scotch tape. The only supermarket in Alaverdi was doing a brisk business, at least, an entire aisle chock-full of bottles of vodka with names like Kalashnikov Victory.

From Utah to Alaverdi

By a bend in the river to the west of town, we were halted by a jocular cry. Dressed in a white shirt and a polka dot red tie, a fresh-faced teenager with a mousy ducktail introduced himself as Nixon and his fellow American as Rios.

Mormon missionary in Alaverdi

Nixon and Rios were from the Utah Church of the Latter-Day Saints of Jesus Christ, known to the layman as Mormons. Aged eighteen and twenty-two respectively, they’d been in Alaverdi for six months trying to spread the good word without much success.

 “It’s like my surname, man,” Nixon explained. “They call me Brother Nixon. It’s like super-cool. We’re waiting for a bus up to our house in Sarahart; it’s been an hour, but…” he tailed off with a shrug and a fierce grin.

As the sun began to set, we crossed the viaduct into a residential neighborhood which was relatively brimming with life. At the foot of the valley, a fruit and vegetable market offered a thin variety of produce. Watching over proceedings from a wooden bench, a quartet of well-oiled elderly men were enjoying bottles of vodka. On a wall opposite them, in an unusual marriage, graffiti celebrated Bob Marley and Che Guevara. Posters of politicians peeled from the walls of pink tuff high rises, the residents of which had rigged up ingenious pulley systems to save them from having to carry shopping up flights of stairs. Beyond this, graffiti of a bandana-clad Jesus with a hipster beard proclaimed: ‘Only God Judge Me.’ Closer to the factory, where the air quality made our eyes sting, spotlights reached into the night sky in otherworldly shades of orange, purple and blue.

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