Mt Ararat: Noah’s Ark

Mt Ararat: Noah’s Ark

Myth, Legend or Historical Event.

I grew up with the biblical story of Noah’s Ark, reinforced by the Nursery Rhyme “The Animals Came in Two by Two”. At that time it sounded like rather a nice thing to do to save all the animals. Clearly I had not thought about the very unpleasant notion of killing all the people.

My world was small – life and education in a country village in New Zealand/Aotearoa was limited. For many years, the history and geography of Britain was just about as close as I got to the world beyond our borders. Mt Ararat, and where it was geographically was well beyond my comprehension.

I always enjoyed the picture book illustrations of Noah and his Ark, and the animals. I love the iconography of religious art illustrating the Noah’s Ark biblical story. It is most interesting to follow the evolution of Ark inspired art over the centuries.

Over the years, I had occasionally read of searches for Noah’s Ark on Mt Ararat, and elsewhere. Despite various claims that remains have been found, there is no evidence to support any of the claims. It was not until I travelled to Armenia and Eastern Turkey, and saw Mt Ararat that I became more interested in the story of a great flood.


Travelling through the Caucasus, Armenia was the place from which I first set eyes on Mt Ararat. I shall never forget that first view. Very blue sky, not a cloud in sight, with this beautiful snow capped mountain rearing into view. A somewhat embittered Armenian guide made it quite clear that Mt Ararat was Armenian – even though a redrawn border following the Treaty of Moscow and Treaty of Kars in 1921 resulted in Mt Ararat being under Turkish control.

Mt Ararat could be seen from almost everywhere in Yerevan it seemed. Even my hotel room provided a panoramic view of the mountain. The view in the morning was accompanied by coffee and the evening by wine. Sitting on my balcony enjoying some excellent Georgian wine watching the mountain fading away as night fell provided a perfect start to the evening.

Listening to some members of the Yerevan Opera singing at the Zvartnots Temple provided one of those spine tingling moments of sublime beauty – viewing Mt Ararat through the archways of the Temple while enjoying the singing made for an unforgettable morning.

The Armenian guide’s complaints of historical wrongs inflicted on Armenia were never ending. Her bitterness tainted the narrative – she was unable to impart the historical facts in a dispassionate manner – quite understandable, but not for a tour guide.

It became obvious though that Mt Ararat is a revered symbol for Armenians, not just the sour tour guide. The centre of Armenia’s Coat of Arms includes a depiction of Mt Ararat with Noah’s Ark sitting on top. There were Noah’s Arks everywhere, from ornaments to beautiful wooden toys.

Mt Ararat featured in numerous ways commercially, including Mt Ararat Brandy/Cognac. As a cognac lover, I can vouch for the deliciousness of Mt Ararat cognac. A private tasting at the Ararat Brandy Factory provided the opportunity to taste 5, 10 and 20 year old brandy.

Eastern Turkey

To view Mt Ararat in Eastern Turkey I visited Dogubayazit, which is approximately 15km from Mt Ararat and 35km from the Iranian border. Driving south from Kars, as we neared Dogubayazit Mt Ararat appeared in all its glory – again, as in Armenia, not a cloud in sight. We couldn’t stop at the best viewing point – apparently over the previous few months, tourist vehicles had been attacked by young men armed with heavy sticks.

Our hotel in the town had a huge mural of Noah and his Ark on Mt Ararat. Other than that there seemed to be no commercial acknowledgement of the biblical tale. Mt Ararat was visible from many places during both days we were in Dogubayazit. Lunching at a spot with the mountain reaching far up towards the sky in front of us, it was impossible to visualise it being under water.

Dogubayazit is one of the few places I have visited where I was hesitant to go out on my own, especially after the story of young men attacking tourist vehicles, and the delightful Turkish archaeologist’s comments that Ataturk’s reforms had never reached this far eastern part of Turkey. That is, men still had multiple wives, and it was not unknown for women, while cleaning windows, to fall to their deaths. There were also stories about Dogubayazit being a marketplace for drugs coming from Afghanistan.

The hesitancy was brief. I ventured out after dinner. There were very few women out and about, and those who were were pretty much covered up. I felt perfectly safe

Flood Narrative

I began to think about the flood narrative after seeing Mt Ararat. I had not seriously believed that there was a Noah to whom God commanded to build an Ark. It seemed practically quite improbable that all the animals on earth could fit in the Ark along with their food and water. Is the narrative in Genesis literally true, or was it just a mythological story? Could there have been a historical event behind the story contained in Genesis?

Many cultures have a great flood story, but only two are similar to the biblical story. The Epic of Gilgamesh and the Epic of Atrahasis, both of which were passed down orally before being recorded, and both pre-date the biblical story told in Genesis.

Each of the stories have a god who decides to punish humankind by unleashing a flood. The Noah character (Utnapishtim in Gilgamesh and Atrahasis) were warned, and told to build a boat. The dimensions of the boat differ – the Mesopotamian boat was to be round, or maybe square, and to be a reed boat. Noah’s boat proportions, described in Genesis 6.14-16, resulted in either a box shape, or a ship shape, depending of how the dimensions in Genesis are interpreted. No matter what the shape of the Ark was, all have similar characteristics – a door, stalls, several levels and a window among others.

Replica Noah’s Ark, Kentucky – The Ark Encounter.

The extent and duration of the flood differs from 7 days, 6 days and 7 nights and 150 days. The reasons for the god’s desire to destroy humankind varied between the sins, noise and overpopulation.

The resting place of the boat also differs. Genesis 6-7 has the Ark coming to rest on the Mountains of Ararat. Gilgamesh favours Mt Nisir (Nimush). Mt Pir Omar Gudrun, in Iraqi Kurdistan, is thought to be the Mt Nisir of Gilgamesh. The description of the end of the flood is missing from Atrahasis, so it is not known where that boat landed.

Mt Ararat is the favoured landing place of Noahs Ark. There is a slight problem however. According to some archaeologists, Mt Ararat was formed after the “great flood”. Biblical scholars have pointed out that God did not refer to Mount Ararat, but to the Mountains of Ararat, in an area called Urartu (Hebrew equivalent of Ararat) which could mean that the Ark came to rest somewhere in the Land of Ararat.

The Abrahamic Religions have similar Noah and the Ark narratives. The Old Testament in the Bible is much the same as the story in the Hebrew Bible, and both have the Ark coming to rest on Mt Ararat. The Quran also has a similar story, although The Quran, Sura 11.44 has the Ark coming to rest in Judi.

I have not provided any references, for a couple of reasons. Firstly, this is a travel blog, not a research paper, and secondly because translations have differed so much over the centuries that for each of these stories there are several different versions. The bible I looked at was the King James version. My copy of the Epic of Gilgamesh is the 210 version published by The Folio Society, and translated by Andrew George.

Atrahasis and Gilgamesh were inscribed on clay tablets with cuneiform script. The Gilgamesh flood tablet, and part of the Atrahasis flood tablet are in the British Museum.


I believe there was, historically, a great flood. Archaeologists have found evidence of such an occurrence. There are numerous theories about the cause of a great flood, many of which do not favour the view that (a) God was the cause. I am more inclined to believe the non god causation.

One thing I am sure of is that travel, for me, provides a great deal more than the pleasure of seeing and experiencing different countries and cultures. It motivates me to research the history of the places I visit, ancient and modern.

Caucasus Part 3 – Armenia

Caucasus Part 3 – Armenia
Haghpat Monastery

Armenia has a lot of monasteries. Within 18 km of the Georgian border, we visited the monasteries of Haghpat and Sanahin founded between the 10th and 13th centuries. They are set on a mountain surrounded by rolling hills, very green grass, numerous varieties of colourful wildflowers, with views into the Debed gorge.

The serenity and beauty could only have encouraged the monks to eat, pray and love (the beauty of the landscape) and create a library.

The stone bas reliefs in the Armenian churches and monasteries seduced me from the moment I set eyes on the first ones at Haghpat. I have always regretted not buying a book I found in Yerevan, which contained a huge collection of images of bas reliefs in Armenia.

Bas relief of Kings Smbat and Gourgen holding a model of the church at Haghpat Monastery.
Sanahin monastery.

Even the services of Mrs Sour, a sullen, angry, anti Turkish and pro-Soviet Armenian guide, did not spoil Yerevan – although it certainly meant that her choice of restaurant and entertainment provided me with a prejudiced view of both. One meal, which was particularly disgusting, consisted of a lump of white stuff, optimistically called meat, and a mess of stuff called wheat. The entertainment that evening was dreadful. Singing so bad that it could not distract me from the food.

Hilary Clinton made my brandy tasting experience less than optimum. I had been looking forward to my late afternoon visit to the Yerevan Brandy company which produces Ararat, a cognac style brandy. A tasting had been arranged before dinner. Brandy tasting in the morning it not quite the same, but that is what we did.

Clinton was in Yerevan expressing concern over border clashes between Armenia and Azerbaijan – and to taste brandy apparently. Hers was the morning slot we ended up with, and she got our spot. Perhaps her concerns would have been less concerned after brandy. I hope she enjoyed her pre dinner brandy.

Mrs Sour donned her anti Turkish hat for a visit to Sardarapat, a war memorial commemorating the place where the Armenians turned back the invading Turkish troops. Mrs Sour also provided commentary on the “genocide” of Armenians in Eastern Turkey. In fairness to Mrs Sour, on a later visit to Eastern Turkey the Turkish guide, though not sour, completely denied that a genocide had occurred. She said the Armenians had all started moving back to Armenia, and had died of illness on the way.

Sardarapat Memorial.

Mrs Sour had a bit to say about Mt Ararat. She stated that Ararat has always been considered by Armenians as their spiritual home, and that it should not be in Turkey. Mt Ararat loomed large on the horizon, and I had a perfect view of it from my hotel room.

Enjoying a glass of wine on my balcony that night looking out to Mt Ararat, I did a quick search and discovered that over the centuries Mt Ararat had been contained within many countries borders. It seemed that during the Bagratuni Dynasty around 9th century CE, Ararat was in Armenia, but was annexed by the Byzantines, and various others in the late 12th century for a century or so. The Ottoman Empire claimed it in the 1400’s. It wasn’t part of Armenia again until 1918 until 1923. The area had become part of the Soviet Union, and following the Treaty of Kars in 1923 which carved up the area, Ararat was placed in Turkey.

There is obviously something I have missed, because Ararat has only been part of Armenia for a very small period in the scheme of things. The passion seemed misplaced. On a later vist to eastern Turkey, I visited Dogubayazit, which is close to Mt Ararat. I discerned no passion about the mountain at all from the Turkish guide. Maybe the mountain should go to the passionate.

Geghard Monastery

This medieval monastery is sited in a canyon, and was carved out of rock from the top down. There are a number of churches, bas reliefs and tombs in the complex. The monastery no doubt attracted a lot of pilgrims as it was said to contain the spear used by a Roman soldier to stab Jesus and a part of Noah’s Ark. Lucrative indeed to have 2 relics. The hole in the centre of a dome allows a ray of light to shine into a church, which at certain times of the day would no doubt shine onto something significent would also have encouraged pilgrims.

Lunching in a garden near Lake Sevan, shaded by huge mulberry, apricot and fully laden cherry trees, I watched 2 women making bread in a floor oven heated by a fire. One woman rolled out the dough, threw it to the other woman who tossed it around until it was very thin. The dough was then slapped onto what looked like a large pillow, which was then placed against the side of the oven, leaving the dough to cook. The bread was delicious.

Lake Sevan is spectacular, perched 1900m above sea level and surrounded by stark volcanic highlands and plains. On its only island – now a peninsula – sits the medieval Sevanavank monastery, which is reached by climbing a long flight of steps, with wonderful views of the lake and snow topped mountains in the distance.

Sevanavank Monastery.

Yerevan boasts a singing and dancing fountain. I ventured out into Republic square in front of our hotel to view this one evening. I kid you not, the fountains really do dance. The music that night was from Aida, and the fountains did justice to the music.

Temple of Garni

This hellenic temple, dedicated to Helios was once a pagan temple. It was built in the 1st century CE, and collapsed in an earthquake the 17th century CE. It rose from the dead, being reconstructed in the mid 20th century.

St Gregory the Illuminator Cathedral Yerevan.

St Gregory, also called Yerevan Cathedral is modern cathedral, which was completed in 2001. It celebrates the 1700th anniversary of christianity in Armenia, and has beautifully decorated ceilings. This was the only church we visited which was a functioning place of worship.

Traditional Armenian hand made dolls.

Miss Sour became a little less sour, and ever so slightly animated when we visited the creator of these beautiful traditional dolls, in her home. Her home was in one of the Soviet style apartment blocks, one less than pleasant legacy the Soviets seem to have left everywhere they occupied.

The doll creator is a nuclear physicist, but now creates and exports dolls. She has won many prizes for her creations, and the dolls range in size from these small examples to almost baby sized.

The reason for Miss Sour’s slight animation became apparent while we were being shown the dolls. She had a platform and an example for her pro-Soviet views. She treated us to a tirade about how much better off Armenians were under Soviet rule. They had homes provided, education was free, as was medicine. There was full employment. The doll creator was an example. Educated and then employed as a nuclear physicist. No such roles were available without the Soviets, so in order to support herself the nuclear physicist created and exported dolls.

The Ruins of Zvartnots Temple

This temple, was constructed in the 7th century CE, destroyed by an earthquake in the 10th century CE, and partially reconstructed in the mid 20th century. While exploring these ruins we were captivated by the voices of opera singers from the Yerevan opera. They were singing among the ruins without accompaniment, other than birdsong from the numerous birds darting and soaring above us. A joyful encounter, listening to beautiful voices and looking across to Mt Ararat.

It would have been most interesting to talk to a larger cross section of the populations of each of the countries visited. Conclusions based on such very limited encounters are impossible to come to. Azerbaijan, a muslim country, felt quite different to Georgia, which is chistian. Georgia and Armenia are both christian countries, but Georgia seemed a great deal more joyful than Armenia. If Miss Sour is indicative, perhaps the Armenians mourn the break up of the Soviet Union and the Georgians do not.

Noah’s Arc

There are so many examples of Mt Ararat and Noah’s Arc in Armenia from ornaments such as these to the coat of arms which incorporates a silhouette of Mt Ararat. I saw few such symbols in Eastern Turkey. Maybe the mountain should go to Armenia. The people may then compete with Georgia for joyfulness.