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.

Myths and Legends – in search of St George and the Dragon

Myths and Legends – in search of St George and the Dragon

I had always assumed that St George was English. After all, he is the patron Saint of England and the English flag is the St George Cross. He apparently rode at the head of a group of Crusaders on their way to wreak havoc somewhere.

It was not until I started travelling that I began to notice images of St George in numerous countries other than England. St George also patronises lots of other places and organisations. He is the patron saint of Russia, Georgia (Caucasus), Ethiopia, Greece, Lithuania, Portugal and Venice, and other countries. The list varies.

St George is apparently one of the most venerated saints in many religions, including Catholicism, Anglican, Orthodox, East Syrian and Miaphysite Churches. He may, or may not have been born in Cappadocia, and was possibly a member of the Praetorian Guard for the Roman Emperor Diocletian.

Diocletian had St George executed in AD303 for refusing to recant the Christian faith.

Although St George is mythologised in the story of him slaying the dragon, the dragon was only recorded in the 11th century. He was quite obviously much more than a dragon slayer.

I do enjoy looking at the dragons, and the variation of dragons is vast. In fact it really was the dragons which initially caught my interest. Were the artists influenced by their culture and the period during which they lived? Or were they having a Hieronymus Bosch moment? Were there dragons about, on which the artists based their images? I have yet to come to any conclusion.

My hunting ground for St George is generally in churches and galleries, although not exclusively. A recent stroll around Stockholm produced a most interesting sculpture, with a very fearsome dragon.

A visit to the Italian Chapel in Lamb Holm, Orkney Islands, constructed by Italian POW’s during WWII, yielded a war memorial sculpture of St George slaying a less than fearsome looking dragon.

The Cathedral of the Assumption (Dormiton Cathedral) in the Kremlin in Moscow has one of the oldest icons, the 12th century red clothed St George, which came from Novgorod

The Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow contains numerous images and icons of St George, including what is believed to be the oldest known icon, from around 1030AD. A stone relief carving of St George slaying the dragon, adorns the entry to the Tretyakov Gallery.

The Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood in St Petersburg is a glorious confection. On a dull day it resembles an extremely decorative gingerbread castle. When the sun is shining, it resembles a brightly coloured marzipan creation. Mosaic portraits of saints, including St George adorn parts of the exterior.

St George could not be ignored in Georgia. He was everywhere. Murals, icons and glittering in gold atop a pole. There were several murals depicting St George slaying Diocletian, who looked like a very colourful dragon. Artists revenge.

Ethiopia is pretty big on St George. He is the patron saint of the country and the Ethiopian Orthodox Church and appears frequently in religious art and iconography. I found images in Addis Ababa, Lake Tana, Aksum and Lalibela. One of the 11 rock hewn monolithic churches in Lalibela, Bet Giyorgis is dedicated to St George.

Religious art and iconography in Ethiopia is joyful and a riot of colour. The dragon generally has a black devil sitting on it somewhere. A dragon, in the Middle Ages was often used to represent the devil, so adding a devil to the image is perhaps visually reinforcing the battle of good against evil.

Stone carved St George slaying the dragon are fairly common above church entrances in Sicily.

The 9th century Ben Ezra Synagogue in Cairo was not somewhere I expected to find a St George slaying his dragon. Ben Ezra was constructed on the site of a 4th century Coptic place of worship, El Shamieen, but only a shell of the church remained.

Etching of St George and the dragon in Ben Ezra Synagogue, Cairo.

The St George legend came to Australia with the British in 1788. After colonisation, the British in Australia used St George’s name for churches, suburbs, streets, rivers and regions in the Colony. It may be time to change the names of rivers and regions back to the names used by the First People. Clearly St George was not part of their story.

St George’s Cathedral in Perth, WA has a most interesting modern sculpture, titled Ascalon. “Ascalon was the name of St George’s lance in mediaeval romances, and is derived from the city of Ashkelon in Israel.”

Ascalon – “an abstract interpretation of the of the story of St George and the dragon.” Perth WA.

In case it is not immediately apparent that this sculpture depicts St George slaying the dragon, the description plaque on the sculpture reads “The angled pole, white billow and black base are reminiscent of the lance of St George, the cloak and steed of St George and the defeated body of the dragon.”

St George has, in today’s terms “huge market penetration and brand recognition” in numerous parts of the world. I do not recall any other Saint having such recognition. I like to think the dragon assisted. Without the dragon, St George may have remained a local saint, confined to the areas he inhabited.



I had never given bathplaces much consideration until my first visit to Rome, when I discovered historical bathplaces on a grand scale.  Since then, I have learned a lot about bathplaces and visited all manner of bath places.  Public, sacred, mythical, extant and archaeological remains of bathplaces have been viewed and studied, but generally not bathed in.

One thing is constant.  The mythical bathplaces are in drop dead beautiful surroundings.  Does this raise a tiny suspicion that tourists will be more attracted to a historical bathplace if it is in beautiful surroundings.  Alternatively, maybe historical and mythical figures only inhabited beautiful locations.

Rome gives us numerous bathplaces.  The baths of Caracella were apparently the second largest bathing complex.  There were cold, warm and hot baths, steam rooms and a large outdoor pool.  These are clearly bathplaces for the masses, and accommodated about 1600 bathers at a time. Mosaics, marble and sculptures decorated the baths.

Cyprus claims fame to two bathplaces, of the mythical type.  Aphrodite’s bathplace is near Polis.  The views on the way to the bathplace were far more enticing than the actual bathplace, which looked like a stagnant pond.  A great deal of imagination was required to envisage anyone bathing in the pond in the hope of attracting Adonis.  The trees around the the pond included a very nice eucaplyptus and I could imagine Adonis lurking among the trees.

Adonis’s bathplace is near Paphos, close to Kili village.  His bathplace also includes waterfalls, and swimming is possible.   Adonis died in Aphrodite’s arms in the pool – a better place to die than Aphrodite’s stagnant pond.  Well that is one version of his death.  I prefer the death by wild boar attack version.  Aphrodite, when running to help him, was pricked on the foot by a thorn.  Her divine blood dyed all the white roses red.  Imagine life without red roses.

Cleopatra had a bathplace at Siwa, in Egypt.  From my sumptuous couch, sipping my tea and eating dates I thought that Cleopatra probably lounged in the same place and enjoyed the same view.  She probably had wine, not tea and would not have heard, as I did, the sounds of a hard fought game of table tennis.  The pool was a murky shade of green, and not at all enticing.  I was disappointed to discover that there is no evidence of Cleopatra visiting Siwa, let alone bathing in the pool.

Lawrence of Arabia’s bathplace in the Wadi Rum, Jordan is approached through a cleft in towering cliffs, not far from the seven pillars of wisdom.  As the opening in the rocks narrrows, ancient petroglyphs can be seen, etched into the cliff walls.  Petroglyphs in the Wadi Rum evidence 12,000 years of human occupation, dating back to Thamudic times.  Lawrences bathplace pales into insignificance.  I didn’t quite reach the bathplace.  I slipped into a deep mud puddle from the rocky ledge I was navigating.  I could see several larger mud puddles beyond, which were too wide for me to jump over, so I opted for further petroglyph viewings.  I wonder if Lawrence appreciated the ancient rock art on the cliffs approaching his bath place.

The Queen of Sheba’s bath place in Ethiopia is possibly in the same realm as her palace near Lalibela – a myth.  The bathplace looked more like a lake, held back by a dam.  The archaeological site which was her palace has been found to contain building material dating from a few hundred years after she was around.

Possibly the most confronting sacred bath place is the Ganges, at Varanasi.  Setting out just before dawn in a very decrepit rowboat to view the sunrise and observe the faithful bathing in the Ganges was an experience I shall never forget.  Not because I found it sacred, but because the whole scene resembled a version of Dante’s Inferno.  The burning ghats looked liked the seventh level of hell.  The ghats were crowded.  The Ganges looked threateneing (to me).  The sun rising over the Ganges changed my perspecive.  The people bathing looked joyful and happy.  Is this what faith does for you?  Joy and happiness in a most polluted environment.

Hinemoa’s bathplace is a natural hot spring at Hinemoa Point, on Mokoia Island in lake Rotorua, New Zealand.  Hinemoa swam out to Mokia Island at night to meet her forbidden lover, Tutanekai, and recovered from the swim by soaking in a hot pool on Mokoai Island.

Contemplating these various bathplaces brings me consider G’mas place in history.  Where is her bathplace?  Okoririe hot pools in New Zealand is that place.  Not that these hotpools have been designated as such, but Gma is working on it.

An Obsession with Mosaics

An Obsession with Mosaics

Growing up in a small village in New Zealand in the 1950’s provided no opportunity for exposure to great art of any kind, let alone mosaics.

A visit to Italy, in 1995 provided an introduction to, and immersion in religious mosaics. From Rome, Florence and Venice to Southern Italy and Sicily, I became somewhat obsessed about seeking out the churches which held the most splendid examples – old testament stories, new testament stories, angels and cherubs, saints and sinners – all were represented.

St Prassede, a 9th Century basilica in Rome contains the most glorious Byzantine mosaics, and were among the very first religious mosaics I saw.


The Cathedral of Monreale in Palermo, Sicily was built between 1170 and 1189.  It contains Byzantine mosaics created by craftsmen from Constantinople.   Visiting the cathedral was a golden experience – as in it was as if I was in a golden cave. The featured imagine of Noah’s Ark is in Monreale, as are the following.

The Hagia Sophia in Istanbul has had a chequered history.  A church, a mosque and a museum – and perhaps a mosque again.  Mosaics from the church period were covered during the time it was a mosque and uncovered again when the mosque became a museum.  On my first visit, all of the mosaics were visible.  On later visits, some were inaccessible due to renovations.

The Chora Church in Istanbul also contains some interesting mosaics – my favourite being a representation of Jesus turning water into wine when the wine ran out at a celebration.


Religious mosaics were my introduction to this art form, but it was just the beginning of my journey.  On a visit to Cyprus, I visited the Paphos mosaics, and discovered mosaic floors.  These floors were in the homes of the wealthy, and were from the mid Roman period.  Myths and legends came alive for me in the floors.  Narcissus, looking at his reflection in a pool of water, the triumph of Dionysos and Ganymede and the eagle for example.

The National Archaeological Museum of Naples contains mosaics from Pompeii and Herculaneum, including panels from the House of the Faun at Pompeii.  These mosaics were created by Alexandrian craftsmen, who worked in Italy around the 2nd and 1st century BC.  The most famous, the Alexander mosaic, which was found in October 1831 in the House of the Faun, depicts a battle between Alexander the Great and Darius III.


Some of the mosaics recall scenes from Egypt – not surprising since the mosaics were created by Egyptian craftsmen.  Ducks with lotus flowers in their beaks, hippopotamus, snakes and crocodiles are examples.

I would recommend a visit to the museum prior to visiting Pompeii and Herculaneum – the images of the mosaics on your mind will bring the cities to life in a manner not possible otherwise.

P1020497Cave canem – beware of the dog, from the Casa di Orfeo, Pompei.

The Mosaics of Zeugma are on display in the Zeugma Mosaic Museum in the nearby city of Gaziantep, in Eastern Turkey, close to the Syrian border.  Zeugma was founded by a general from Alexander the Great’s army in 300BC and conquered by the Romans in the 1st Century AD.   The mosaics are from the Roman period, and feature exquisite mosaic floors and panels.  The mosaics, which were threatened by the building of a dam across the Euphrates in the 1990’s, were rescued and restored, and the museum was built to house them.


The mosaic above, known as the Gypsy Girl, is a Maenad – a follower of Dionysus and was a part of a floor mosaic.   I had difficulty in prising myself away from the compelling eyes, which seemed to follow me – imploring me to stay.

The  Zeugma mosaics depict characters from Greek mythology, flowers, birds, animals and fish.  Pictured above top left is the central panel of a mosaic.  The figure in this mosaic is “believed to have been a personification of the Euphrates as a river-god”.  The mosaic in the top centre is the Abduction of Europa.

This mosaic shows Aphrodite being carried across the sea in a cockle shell.  The inscription says “Master Zosimos of Samosata made this mosaic. The fishtailed centaurs are identified as Aphros (foam) and Bythos (the deep).


Aphrodite has been a favourite of mine since I became interested in Greek Myths and Legends.  I visited her “birthplace” near Paphos in Cyprus.  It took a lot of imagination to see Aphrodite rising from the sea froth – a glass of champagne helped.  I also visited her bath place, near Paphos – sadly, no Adonis turned up.  I prefer this depiction of Aphrodite being carried across the sea in a cockle shell by centaurs to Botticelli’s Birth of Venus in which she is arriving on the shore on a cockle shell with not a centaur in sight.  My imagination is stimulated by centaurs.

I hadn’t expected to see any mosaics in Egypt.  A visit to an archaeological park in the Kom el-Dikka neighbourhood of Alexandria, which contains one of the few surviving examples of mosaics from the Roman period, was a bonus. The Villa of the Birds contains a mosaic floor depicting numerous species of birds.

The Church of St George in Madaba, Jordan has a floor mosaic created in the 6th century  for the Byzantine Church which stood on that site.  This was a different kind of mosaic than any I had seen.  The mosaic is the oldest known map of the holy land and depicts an area from Lebanon to the Nile Delta in the south, and from the Mediterranean sea in the west to the Eastern desert.  The Dead Sea, Jericho and Bethlehem are shown, along with more than 150 towns, villages and places of interest.


The archaeological site of Umm ar-Rasas, near Madaba, contains some wonderful mosaic floors.  In the church of St Stephen mosaic floors date back to the 8th century.  The mosaic floors depict numerous different cities from the East and West of the Jordan River, and cities of the Egyptian Delta.  I was thrilled be given the opportunity to brush away the sand covering mosaics of lions yet to be protected. Even though I was not “discovering” the mosaic, in my imagination, I was.

An impressive collection of late Roman mosaic pavements can be found in the Villa del Casale of Piazza Armerina, Sicily.  The villa was constructed in around the early 4th century AD.  The mosaic collection is said to be the richest, largest and most varied in the world.  Whether this is true or not, the mosaics were certainly the most varied I have visited.  One of the most interesting pavements is in what is referred to as the Corridor of the Great Hunt, which depicted scenes of hunting, capture and transportation of exotic animals.

One of the rooms in the Villa displays several girls in bikinis.  They appear to be engaged in sporting activities – including discus throwing and ball games.  Clearly bikinis were around long before they became favoured swim wear in the 20th century.

Myths and legends are well represented.  Eros and Pan engaged in a battle, Ulysses and Polyphemus, Dionysus and a splendid mosaic depicting the Twelve Labours of Hercules. There are mosaics representing flowers plants, birds and animals and scenes of day to day life, including scenes from the coliseum

The beauty of mosaics, and the archaeology and history involved lure me everywhere I go.  There are so many more sites and museums I have visited not referred to, and there are still more to visit than I will ever get to see, despite my best efforts.

The additional benefit of my obsession with mosaics, is that I am continually learning and relearning the various myths and legends, bible history, battles and history of the times the mosaics were created.  I also love the animals, birds and flowers of the times.

Often when I am in a remote part of the world viewing mosaics, I think of that child growing up in the depths of country New Zealand, and reflect on how very fortunate the adult that child became has been.