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.


Northern Mesopotamia.

Travelling in a very small part of the Cradle of Civilisation – South Eastern Turkey.

Crossing the bridge beside the Malabadi Bridge, over the Batman Creek near the town of Silvan in southern Turkey, I arrived in Mesopotamia.

The Malabadi Bridge is a beautiful structure. A masterpiece architecturally dating from the 12th century. It is a spanned stone arch bridge, with a height of approximately 24m and length of just over 281 metres.

Mesopotamia (from the Greek, meaning two rivers) is referred to as the cradle of civilization. The world’s oldest civilisations inhabited this region, between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, and it was here that people began to read and write, create laws and live in cities. Today, most of Mesopotamia is in Iraq, but parts are in modern day Turkey, Iran and Syria.

Many empires, rulers and dynasties occupied Mesopotamia, from ancient times until today. The architecture, art and literature bears witness to the diversity of the history.

My travels were only in Upper Mesopotamia, now south eastern Turkey. I suspect I have left it too late to visit Iraq and Syria. Having looked out over both countries from the Turkish border towns will probably be the closest I will get.

Hasankeyf (ancient Assyrian name Castrum Kefa – castle of the rock), is being sacrificed to “progress”. The town has been flooded by the reservoir for the Ilisu dam on the Tigris River. On 5 July 2020, an article by Carlotta Gall appeared in the New York Times titled “An Ancient Valley lost to ‘Progress'”, ( which is well worth reading.

The Hasankeyf I visited is no more. This 12,000 year old settlement was once an important commercial centre along the silk road. Approaching the town, we passed cliffs, honeycombed with caves, which had been inhabited since Neolithic times.

Just prior to crossing the Tigris to enter Hasankeyf, the ruins of a 12th century bridge, which Alexander the Great may have crossed, came into view. I am sad to think that the ruins are now under water. No one will now experience standing on the banks of the Tigris looking at the piers of that bridge. Perhaps a generation who never experienced the wonder of that view will be content with an underwater view.

Hasankeyf stood on a rock, high above the river. It is hard to visualise the scene now. To sacrifice such a historically significant medieval site, with its palace, city walls, elegant houses and several mosques, including the Great Mosque, which was well preserved, is cultural vandalism. Some of the people who were displaced were the last of several generations of their family who lived there – some had even been born in one of the caves in the cliff.

Mardin, (known as Marida – of antiquity, Mardia by the Byzantines, Merde-Merdo-Merdi by the Syriac and Marde – Persian) where we were staying the night, is built on the slope of a hill, looking south over the great Mesopotamian Plain to Syria and Iraq. If we had telephoto eyes, it would have been possible to see the Persian Gulf.

Mardin has a very large number of Syrian refugees living in the city, in part because of the proximity of Mardin to the Syrian border. There has been a huge influx of Syrian refugees since 2011, and an escalation of the refugee crisis in 2014 meant a lot more Syrians were trying to leave their country. In October 2019 there were 88,000 registered Syrian refugees in Mardin – nearly 11% of the population.

Mardin is an architectural gem, with its ancient citadel and 14th and 15th century Islamic buildings – there are 14 historically important mosques in the city. The citadel, above the city was first built in 975.

The Citadel

The city has a medieval feel to it, with its narrow lanes and vaulted passageways under the upper storeys of houses. The old mansions are built of stone, decorated with carved stone fruit, flowers and animals. While strolling through this part of the city, people on their balconies invited us into their homes to taste their wine.

The most historically important mosque in Mardin is the Ulu Cami (Grand Mosque). Construction of this mosque began in 1184AD and was completed in 1204AD. I love the minbars, and the one in Ulu Cami, while not as impressive as many I have seen, was nevertheless attractive.

The refugee issue became apparent when we visited Deyr-az Zaferan, a Syriac-Jacobite monastery, 7km from Mardin. Although the monastery is open to the public, when we visited we were limited to a very small part. We were told that because the monastery was sheltering a large number of Syrian refugees.

The foundations were laid in the 4th century AD. There is an earlier underground chamber which is said to have been used by sun worshippers, as long ago as 2000BC.

The monks were nowhere to be seen. They apparently speak Aramaic – the language of Jesus. It would have been interesting to hear the language of Jesus spoken. I did hear Aramaic spoken a few months later in Ethiopia, so all was not lost.

Deyr-az Zaferan

I fell in love with the replica of Al-Jazari’s Elephant Clock in the Kasimiye Medrese in Mardin. Al-Jazari (1136-1206) was an Islamic scholar, mechanical engineer and inventor. He wrote a book, in 1206 “The Book of Knowledge of Ingenious Mechanical Devices. The Elephant clock is a splendid example of an Ingenious Mechanical device. It is a weight powered water clock, and stands 22ft high. The timing mechanism is in a water filled basin inside the elephant. The serpents play a part in the moving of the water.

Different cultures are represented on the elephant clock. The elephant is Asian, representing India, dragon like serpent represents China, phoenix on the top represents Egypt and the turbaned figure represents muslim cultures.

I really covet that clock.

The Elephant Clock

The market in Mardin was excellent. I rarely enjoy markets, and unlike other people, have never found a treasure or a bargain in the many markets I have visited. This market was very clean and tidy, with the usual wonderful array of food. The silk scarves were the loveliest I have seen in markets. There was also a lot of soap, made by the Syrian refugees.

Mardin market.

Harran (ancient Carrhae), now a village near the Syrian border, was an ancient city of strategic importance situated on the road from Nineveh to Carchemis. It was mentioned in the bible, (Patriarch Abraham’s family settled there – Genesis), but it was in existence long before biblical times. Ruins date back to the 3rd millenium BCE. Arriving in Harran, seeing the kumbets (mud brick houses, constructed without wood, which resemble beehives) and the ruins, transported me back to antiquity.

Local people no longer live in the beehive houses in Harran, but that did not diminish the feeling of antiquity. One of the houses is set up as if people live there. I loved the carpets and cushions.

I thought Stonehenge and the Egyptian pyramids were pretty old. Well, they are, but not as old as Gobekli Tepe, in north western Mesopotamia, about 20km from Urfa. Dating from around 9,500BC, the standing stones/T shaped pillars are 5,500 years older than the first cities of Mesopotamia, and are about 7,000 years older than Stonehenge and are from the neolithic period. Some of the pillars are plain, others have high and low relief stone carvings decorating them. The site is thought to be the first human built holy place. I have visited a lot of standing stones over the years. I am over awed by all of them, but I was blown away by those at Gobekli Tepe.

Urfa (Sanliurfa, Edessa, Adme) is in upper Mesopotamia, and is said to be where the prophet Abraham was born. He was born in Ur, but where is Ur. Ur of the Chaldeans is in southern Iraq, whereas Urfa is in northern Mesopotamia. The arguments for and against are fascinating, but I think I shall go with Urfa. I visited his birthplace in Urfa – a cave), saw the castle from which he was thrown by Nimrod, and dipped my finger into the sacred lake which Allah formed in place of the flames into which Abraham was to land. The burning logs were turned into fish. The lake is full of fish – descendants of the burning logs perhaps. The cave was pretty nondescript, but watching the devout pay their respects was quite fascinating. Kneeling and praying, and then, still on their knees, moving backwards out of the cave, to show respect.

After a busy day following Abraham, I retired to the roof terrace of my hotel with a glass of wine. Enjoying the views, and contemplating watching the sun go down, I was attended on by hotel staff. Madam cannot drink alcohol on the roof terrace, as it overlooked a mosque. Madam retired to her room without a view, so as not to offend.

The large noisy market in Urfa was as good as that in Mardin. I am always drawn to the spice stalls by the aroma, and the beautiful colours.

Spice Stall, Urfa Market.

Driving to Kahta, I had my final view of the Euphrates, and drove out of Mesopotamia.

It was not my last view of Mesopotamia. From Kahta we journeyed up into the hills to climb Nemrut Dagh to visit the surreal setting of a handmade terrace, on which sat monstrous seated statues of different gods. I have written about my visit to Nemrut Dagh in “A Recent Journey into the Distant Past” (24 July 2017). If you are interested, you can scroll down to my very first post.

Built by King Antiochus I in the Eastern Taurus Mountains.
Colossal Statues East Terrace, Nemrut Dagh, Eastern Turkey.

From Nemrut Dagh, there is a spectacular view across the Euphrates Valley, deep into Mesopotamia. A perfect place from which to farewell Mesopotamia.


A Recent Journey into the Distant Past.

A Recent Journey into the Distant Past.

Eastern Turkey – From the Black Sea Coast to Tarsus

Some Snapshots

I was positive I heard Aunt Dot offering me her camel for my journey from Trabzon to Kars, and beyond.  My camel, patiently waiting for me at the door, turned out to be a small bus.  Possibly for the best, since I only had three weeks to explore Eastern Turkey, and the camel may not have been up to it. I had obviously been influenced by Rose Macauley’s Towers of Trebizond.

Kars, a city on the Turkish border with Armenia was a huge disappointment.  Where was the snow?  My vision of Kars had been formed by Orhan Pamuk’s description of the city in his novel “Snow” and because the word Kar means snow, I did not think my expectation of the snow experience was at all unrealistic.  I was not prepared for the reality of Kars in late spring sans snow.  There was no doubt at all that the border was close by.  Armoured vehicles lined the road in to Kars, and military personnel were thick on the ground.

No such disappointment with the archeological site of Ani, 43 km from Kars, on the Armenian border. As I wandered around this site,  the capital of Armenia 12 or 1300 years ago, I was truly thankful on two counts.  Firstly, that the rulers of Ani clearly decided that religion was a good thing, because it gave me the opportunity to explore a large number of houses of god in varying states of repair, including  a mosque and a fire temple.  Secondly, that I do not live in a time where the number of houses of god are of any particular relevance.  Having travelled on the Silk Road in several countries, I was very happy to walk along another portion of it at Ani.

I visited Abraham’s birthplace – in two different places.  Firstly in Sanliurfa, previously Edessa (Alexander the Great) and Urfa (the Ottomans).  Secondly in Harran, a small town of beehive style mud houses said to be one of the oldest continuously occupied places on earth.  If there was in fact an Abraham, I think I will put my money on Sanliurfa as his birthplace. Illogical reasons inform my view.   Firstly, there is a rather nondescript cave in which it is said, Abraham was born.  The devout enter, pay their respects and then crawl out – backwards.  Why would you do that, if it were not really the true birthplace. Secondly, the site of a fire which had been lit for the purpose of casting Abraham from the castle above to his death became a lake, and so Abraham lived.

I have little time for St. Paul.  Anyone who believes that women are inferior to men does not deserve any attention from me.  On the other hand, I did enjoy the story of Daniel in the lion’s den, so a visit to Tarsus was scheduled.  St Paul may well have been born in Tarsus, but there is nothing in Tarsus to associate it with St Paul.  There is an old well, named St Paul’s well.  On closer investigation, I found a sign saying there was no evidence that St Paul had any connection with the well.  It was merely a very old well of the type that would have been around when St Paul was. Disappointingly, there were neither lions or dens to be seen.  I did see a site which was said to contain Daniel’s tomb.  Claims that Daniel is buried in Susa in Iran, Kirkuk in Iraq and in Egypt and Babylon mean that I cannot be confident that I saw the site of Daniel’s tomb.

The drive to Nemrut Dag from Kahta winds and climbs through part of the ancient Greek kingdom of Commagene founded by Mithridates.  The Roman Bridge of Septimus Severan, constructed in 200AD is still in constant use.  Walking over it, with cars and buses driving by, it was difficult to visualize the Romans walking and riding over this graceful structure.  The path down to the river was lined with yellow wildflowers in full flower, adding to the beauty of the site.

Roman Bridge of Septimus Severan.

Passing by ruined castles, and burial tumulus, the road wound its way upwards towards Nemrut Dag, the roadside ablaze with wildflowers.

The head of Zeus, Nemrut Dag.

Standing at the foot of Nemrut Dag contemplating the stairs which lead to the tomb of King Antiochus I, 1 kilometre directly up, a voice from behind called “taxi, taxi.”  Somewhat tempted, I turned to see a group of people leading donkeys to the foot of the stairs.  Watching the donkeys slipping and sliding up the pebble/rock route made the ascent by stairs decidedly attractive.  After numerous pauses to admire the view, photograph wildflowers and get my breath I finally made it to the top.  Scrambling up the path of gravel at the top of the stairs, I reached the east terrace, cut into the mountain top. The tombs of Mithridates and his son Antiochus are said to be in the mountain top.  If I had any breath left after the climb, it would have been taken away by the sight of huge seated headless statues.  The various heads, having toppled off at some time, were on the ground just below the statues.  The heads are around 2 metres high, and the seated figures are 8 to 10 metres high.  The statues blend Persian and Greek deities, reflecting Antiochus claim that he was descended from the Persian King Darius the Great, and also from Alexander the Great.

My journey had taken me along the borders of Georgia, Armenia, Iran, Iraq and Syria, sometimes so close that I could see over the border.  Soldiers and armoured vehicles lined part of the route, adding a not altogether comfortable dimension to the day.  I looked out across the Mesopotamia plains.  I put my toe in the waters of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. I saw spectacular kurdish dancing at a wedding.  I ate a lot of kebabs and I enjoyed one of the most stimulating holidays I have ever experienced.

Archaeologists, artists, historians, adventurers and dreamers alike will all find plenty to challenge and excite them in eastern Turkey.