Mining Memories on Cyprus

My co-author John de Gruchy and I have sent off our book Sawdust and Soul to our publisher (to the “typesetter,” our editor said!). If all goes well it will appear this winter and you’ll hear more about it then. And so I can return to my work about the mine in Cyprus and the life there of my mother’s family. We visited in 2012 (you can check out the blogs under “Travel”) and are now set to return in February of 2015. At the same time we will take a once-in-a-lifetime trip to visit the ancient wonders of Egypt. There will be more about that later. Right now I want to reflect on the Cyprus work, which I am calling “Mining Memories on Cyprus.”

This phrase has stuck in my mind because I am indeed going thru the work of digging out memories that have moldered on paper and photographs for almost a century. Some have been extended to me by relatives, some have been hidden in materials I already had. Not only is this book about mining at the world’s oldest copper mine, it is about mining my memory. It is archaeology of the heart.

I recently discovered that a plain black journal book that I thought was one of my great-grandfather’s diaries was in actuality a daily log by my grandfather, who was the mining engineer at Skouriotissa mine. Indeed, it records in terse, matter-of-fact entries, the decisive and traumatic conclusion of his work there in 1925. On page six I find this set of entries for March:

18.            Fall of ground N. C Blk- C.D. stopes between 9:15 + 9:30 a.m. 10 killed

19.            Ervin Ali taken out dead on night shift

20.            Salih Imbrahim taken out 10:00 am.

Ahmed Shiali out 3:00 pm.

Behardin Niazi out on night shift

Hassan Mulla Ramoding “            “            “

22.            Moustafa Hussein taken out 1:00 am.

25.            Andreas Vassilia out in afternoon last body.

While accidental death has plagued mining throughout the ages and still does today, this catastrophe pointed to major issues in the whole operation that led to my grandfather’s departure as well as of the director of the mine 09 Alexander Gnoutoffin the ensuing months. These people — both the dead and the living — were not just names in a book. We have several pictures of the miners he worked with, complete with their names. They spoke Cypriot Greek, Turkish, Russian, Cornish, and English – at least those are the ones I know – but they were engaged in a common work that brought out their best and their worst.

In a later entry about his day of departure he records that one of his employees, a “White Russian” named Alexander Gnoutoff, by that time sporting a full beard, came into his office and smacked his cheek with a kiss to express his thanks and high regard. My grandfather, a very buttoned-down and self-disciplined ramrod of an engineer, was moved to record this little human incident.

Like the ancient bottles, flasks, jugs, and lamps they dug up at the mine, this little jewel spoke to me of the humanity of what occurred in this sweaty, dirty, and very dangerous work. So here’s just one little piece, based on his own words, that will find its way into the book.

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Alexander Gnoutoff

            prickly whiskery

            smacked me

            on the cheek.

It nearly took me

            off my feet

            in the office

            at the mine

            where we had worked and

            seen ten men in death

            dug from the stopes like Roman artifacts

            re-buried wet with mourners’ tears.

And he a refugee

            from Bolsheviks

            fled to this haven of heartache

            of sulphurous gas

            and copper ore.

And me an engineer

            my work now ended

            with his kiss

            Good-bye.

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2 Responses to Mining Memories on Cyprus

  1. Penny Morse says:

    Fascinating. The human drama was holding it’s breath, waiting for you, Bill, to share with the world, to let them live again.

  2. Aneliese says:

    So cool and interesting. Can’t wait for the book!