The office building of Hellenic Copper Mines, Ltd., is a serene oasis perched among the hills of broken ore at the top of the mountain of copper ore that is Skouriotissa. Palm trees welcomed us to the building, where we
were taken into the office of Constantinos Xydas, the CEO and on-site Director. Though it was the end of a long day, he welcomed us warmly, curiosity in his eyes.
“So, you have ancestors who worked here?”
Ancestors. The mine is full of ancestors. Constantinos is the third generation to work there. His son, in the adjacent office, is the fourth. But for Constantinos the ancestors of his memory stretch back to Caesar, who gave Cyprus to Cleopatra, to Herod, who worked the mines before leaving for his historic role in Christianity’s beginnings, to Aristotle, who mentions it in one of his writings, and to Agamemnon, who received copper from the King of Cyprus in preparation for the Trojan War. Indeed, it is the oldest operating copper mine in the world. (You can get more information about the Hellenic Mines in the articles by Natalie Hami and elsewhere on line. Here’s a satellite picture, with green arrow showing mine offices, yellow the old monastery.)
“You know, copper was also a form of money in those times. In ancient times it was cast in the shape of an animal hide to show the connection between wealth in animals and mineral wealth.” Hellenic Copper Mines took this as its logo, tying the modern work of mining to its ancient roots and meanings. In his son’s office he showed us a copper replica of such a “hide.” At current prices it must be worth over $20,000. That’s a lot of camels!
He walked over to a shelf and pulled out a book. “Have you seen this, holding out a copy of David Lavender’s The Story of the Cyprus Mines Corporation?” I had heard about it, but not read it. He laid it on the conference table and I opened it to the index. Both my grandfather and grandmother were listed, the entries provoking more stories and fragments of recollections from my younger years. It was only recently that I had learned that the predecessor of Hellenic Copper Mines, a Cypriot corporation, was an American firm founded in part and then run by Harvey Mudd, who went on to help found the college named in his honor in southern California.
Seated in this spacious office, a white board on the wall telling of “strategic planning” and “safety regulations,” we spoke of the human connections around this mine over the centuries. I was tasting the communal bonds of miners in our own West Virginia, married to the mine, and sometimes buried in it. As we talked about the historic dangers of mining and the technical challenges it has always posed, he laid out in short form how the current operation works. The ore, some of it tailings from previous mine works, is crushed into increasingly fine bits that are then passed through a series of large vats of various solutions to concentrate it. In the final stage it is put in a large vat, just below his window, where the copper is removed by passing an electric current through it. This electrolysis produces copper that is 99.999% pure. The only thing that leaves the mine is pure copper. It is all done on site.
“In the near future we hope to install wind turbines and solar panels to provide our electricity. The mine will be almost self-contained ecologically.” This is not the mining of our memories – or our fears. Even a cursory inspection of our everyday lives shows us that we can’t imagine our lives without the products that come from mines. Yet we bemoan the ecological and aesthetic loss of mining itself. My trip back to Skouriotissa was not simply a trip back to distant origins but a look at a possible better future within an ecological framework. We are married to the earth, but it is a lover’s quarrel always hoping for a reconciliation. Somehow, it was appropriate that this age-old mine, named “Our Lady of the Slag Heaps (Skouriotissa),” would speak of a better marriage, of a hope for reconciliation with this earth.
As we expressed regrets that we had to leave, Constantinos looked at his cell phone. “I never really leave,” he said. ”I’m on call like a doctor. But before you go, I want you to have this.” He pulled some bill caps with the
Hellenic Mines logo on them from a drawer and then pulled out a little pouch, dumping a heavy copper key chain in my hand with a souvenir copper medallion. “A little something to remember your time here.”
I would not need anything to jog these memories, but the tangibility of the copper, with the logo of connection to its ancient origins, and the symbolism of keys opening new doors to my own past and self-understanding will always be a treasured catalyst of my imagination.
When we got back to old Nicosia Natalie led us through the narrow streets to a café where we rested with local dishes (and a beer!), talking about the day and the article she would write. We then drove back to Larnaca past the wind turbines glowing in the setting sun.