Washington (AP) April 27, 2004: An expedition is being planned for this summer to the upper reaches of Turkey’s Mount Ararat where organizers hope to prove an object nestled amid the snow and ice is Noah’s Ark.
“A joint U.S. and Turkish team of ten explorers plans to make the arduous trek up Turkey’s tallest mountain, at 17,820 feet (5,430 meters), from July 15 to August 15, subject to the approval of the Turkish government,” said Daniel P. McGivern, President of Shamrock–The Trinity Corporation, of Honolulu, Hawaii
So read the first two paragraphs of a news release distributed worldwide by the Associated Press on April 27, 2004. The release went on to say that the expedition would be led by Ahmet Ali Arslan, a mountaineer, photographer, artist, writer, and holder of a doctorate from Erzurum University who, out of a total of perhaps fifty climbs that have been made up the mountain, has made nearly half of them himself. McGivern and Arslan told reporters at the Washington Press Club news conference announcing the expedition that they had been greatly helped in their reconnaissance by satellite photos commissioned by McGivern that, taken in the summer of 2003 during the greatest thaw of mountain icecap snow in 200 years, enabled them to target a promising region toward which the expedition should head.
Appearing almost immediately in every major newspaper in the world, the news release reminded us all once again that, though several millennia old, the story of Noah and his Ark still retains the power to captivate.
We all know the story. Despairing of His creation, God brought forty days of flood and downpour to the Earth but allowed one unusually righteous man, Noah, to ride out the tempest with his family in an Ark containing male and female representatives of every species on Earth. The divinely sanctioned vessel—a pitch-lined wooden box the size of an ocean liner—finally came to rest on Mount Ararat, now in Turkey. As the waters receded, Noah and his sons and their wives began the slow process, eventually successful, of re-populating the planet.
But Did It Really Happen?
On the basis of archaeological evidence, we know today that a huge flood did take place in Noah’s time. Taking inventory in 1965, researchers at London’s British Museum stumbled on two cuneiform tablets mentioning the Flood. Written in the Babylonian city of Sippar in 1640-1626, B.C., they told of how a water-god named Enki revealed God’s awful plan to a priest-king named Ziusudra. Ziusudra really existed; he was the king of the southern Babylonian city of Shuruppak, around 2900 B.C., and he is listed as such in the earliest column of the Sumerian king-list. The priest-king built a boat and survived, and there is actual evidence of a gigantic flood at the site of Shuruppak itself.
So apparently there was a flood, but it was confined to a fairly small area. Moreover, the date 2900 B.C. conflicts with geological evidence uncovered by the archaeologist Sir Leonard Woolley who, while excavating the Sumerian city of Ur in the 1920s, came across strong evidence that a flood had occurred in the region sometime between 4000 and 3500 B.C. “Still,” says author-researcher Paul Johnson, “The savior-figure of Ziusudra, presented in the Bible as Noah, thus provides the first independent confirmation of the actual existence of a Biblical personage.”
But this is only a small bit of historical evidence. And modern science has raised countless valid objections to the story of the Ark: How could an entire planet be flooded? How could two of every species on Earth have fit inside one Ark? These cavils notwithstanding, though, the story of Noah has never ceased to beguile us, and Mount Ararat has continued to sing its siren song. Why? Sir Isaac Newton thought he had the answer, and it is an astonishing one (See the companion article, Sir Isaac Newton’s Case for Why Noah’s Story Matters, in this issue, also by John Chambers.) But, Newton’s brilliant theories aside, there has never been a single corroborated sighting of the Noah’s Ark, and while there are people who have descended from the mountain sure that they were grasping in their hands a piece of the true Ark, not a single one of these pieces has ever turned out to be authentic.
With its twin peaks separated by a 25-mile expanse, and 17,011 feet high, Mount Ararat rears up suddenly, sometimes blindingly, from the arid eastern plain of Turkey 10 miles from Iran and 20 miles from Armenia (formerly the U.S.S.R.). So powerful is the mystique of the Ark, which may or may not rest there, that not until the 19th century did anyone dares to climb Mount Ararat. The scuttlebutt of ancient times had it that local residents sometimes scraped pitch from the sides of the Ark and brought back pieces of bitumen to use as amulets, but there is no proof that anything like this happened. From the Byzantine Empire on (4th century A.D.), Christians and Moslems alike were certain that a divine interdiction existed against scaling the mountain and profaning the holy vessel. They were convinced that God would reveal the Ark only on Judgment Day. The travelers Marco Polo and Sir John Mandeville passed by the mountain in wonder, noting in their diaries its splendors but not even dreaming of attempting its heights. Not until 1829, as far as we know, was Mount Ararat first successfully climbed, by a German professor of natural philosophy then living in Estonia. But was the divine interdiction still in force? The professor had started off from St. Jacob’s Monastery in the little town of Ahora on the northwest side of the mountain. In 1840, Mount Ararat erupted for the final time, completely destroying Ahora and leaving a precipitous gorge where the monastery had stood. A second climb in 1845, by another German professor, was successful and apparently not followed by catastrophe. In 1856, a team of British, mostly ex-soldiers, scaled the mountain. They did not find the Ark, but they persuaded their skittish Kurdish guides that British aplomb had finally broken the divine interdiction of Mount Ararat.
So now, to a degree, the spell was broken. But the many ascents of Mount Ararat that would follow would mostly bring hoaxes, false hope inflated by Christian piety, and broken dreams. In the latter part of the 19th century fraud abounded, while the 20th century has brought no trace of the Ark. For years the rumor persisted that a military expedition sent up Mount Ararat by the Tsar during World War One had come back with photographs of the enormous, barn-like interior of the Ark. None of these photos has ever materialized, even though author-researcher Charles Belts was able to interview very old inhabitants of the area who, 60 years after, remembered soldiers talking about seeing the Ark. In the 1950s, the Frenchman Fernand Navarra was the center of an ongoing saga that saw him again and again produce pieces of the Ark that proved to be almost, but not quite, authentic.
In 1957, Turkish air force pilots claimed they had spotted a boat-shaped formation near the mountain. The government did not pursue the sighting, however. For much of the time, the entire area, including Mount Ararat, was off limits to foreigners because of Soviet complaints that most of the explorers were U.S. spies. The expeditions of the American astronaut Colonel James Irwin, who had walked on the moon, gave the feat of climbing Mount Ararat a certain cachet. But this fundamentalist Christian space cadet got little for his efforts excepting a fall down the mountainside that nearly killed him. These are only some of the stories of adventurous modern-day climbs that now attach to Mount Ararat—but of all the stories none has ever ended with proof that the Ark exists. Will the McGivern-Arslan expedition succeed where all others have failed? By the early autumn we should know. Perhaps the divine interdiction is stronger than we think. Or perhaps Noah has a surprise in store for us.
(Above) Researchers say this satellite view shows Noah’s Ark jutting out from the snow on Mount Ararat.
(Upper right) Mount Ararat.
(Middle right) Filtered close-up believed to show beams jutting through snow.
(Lower right) Said to be the best ground photo of Noah’s Ark sitting on the mountain ledge. Note: Proponents say the windows at the top of the Ark are evenly spaced for ventilation.
At the end of every summer, glacial meltback flows beneath the Ark’s believed location. Snow summer 1973. Turkish photo of suspected Ark, 1989. The same location was found last September by satellite after the greatest glacial meltback since the year 1500.
(Photos © 2004 Shamrock–The Trinity Corporation)