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.



Chiesa San Michele, Anacapri

Churches in Italy never fail to impress. Architecture, paintings, sculpture, mosaics, history and so much more.

Chiesa San Michele has something I had not previously seen in the numerous churches I have visited. It has a ceramic floor of Majolica tiles, called the Garden of Eden. Dating from 1761 there are approximately 1,500 tiles showing Adam and Eve as they are expelled from the garden. Leonardo Chiaiese was the craftsman who created this masterpiece, depicting the serpent in the tree, the expulsion and some of the most glorious animals described in the bible.

Facade of the Church of San Michele, Anacapri.

To properly appreciate the entire floor, it is necessary to climb up to the gallery.

View from Gallery.

Having viewed the entire floor, I then descended down to the ground floor to examine the floor in detail. My favourite animal/creature I think was the unicorn, closely followed by the elephant, the camel and the owl.

There is, of course more to see in Chiesa San Michelle, but the majolica tiled floor is unique – the art and general decor is secondary.

Looking over the majolica tiles toward the altar.

Capri is so beautiful, has so much to offer historically and is so much more than just the blue grotto. This church was an unexpected delight.

Last Judgments

Last Judgments

Christian, Muslim, Orthodox, Buddhist, Hindu and Egyptian artists, among others, have been creating images of Last Judgments for many centuries. It is fascinating to compare not only the different faith’s interpretations of what the judgment day will look like but also the different interpretations of heaven and hell over the centuries. For example, the torments for those bound for hell often reflect the society’s punishments prevalent at the time. In some centuries, god is stern and vengeful, in others benevolent.

Michelangelo’s Last Judgment in the Sistine Chapel, Rome is probably the most viewed and commented on work of art dealing with the judgment day, and was inspired by Dante’s Divine Comedy. Michelangelo created this fresco along the whole length of the alter wall. His work is of the Italian Renaissance period, and was created around 1536-41. He depicted himself as St Bartholomew. The gates of hell, bottom left, appears to be the mouth of a cave.

Michaelangelo – Last Judgment. Sistine Chapel, Rome.

I was suprised to find an Armenian quarter in Isfahan, Iran, which was established in 1606. The Vank Cathedral is an Armenian Church, built in Safavid style, with an Islamic dome. The Cathedral was completed in 1664 and contains a medieval depiction of the Last Judgment, called “Heaven, earth and hell.” Note the gates of hell in this painting, lower left. Quite a number of last judgments gates of hell are monsters, with the damned being fed into its mouth.

Heaven, Earth and Hell, Vank Cathedral, Isfahan, Iran.

A Russian Orthodox Icon of the Last Judgment can be found in the Dormiton Cathedral, in the Kremlin in Moscow, and is dated around 1408. The torments of hell are more gentle than usual, although the beast on the left, and the numerous devil figures are menacing enough.

Last Judgment, Dormiton Cathedral, Kremlin, Moscow.

Driving through Southern France, I came across one of the oldest Last Judgments I have seen. I was visiting Conques, which was a major stop on the St-Jacques de Compostela Pilgrimage route from Puy En Velay.

The Church of Sainte-Foy (1050-1130CE) has a stone carved relief on the tympanum of the Judgment day. God is depicted in the centre, and by the look of the torments of hell, he was not a benevolent god.

Angkor Wat in Cambodia is a Buddhist temple complex, originally built as a Hindu Temple. The Judgment by Yama is a 12th Century bas relief, and is a 60 metre long panel dedicated to the Judgment of Yama. Yama, in Buddhist mythology is a wrathful god, and is based on Yama of the Hindu Veda.

The panel is in two tiers depicting heaven and hell. There are 37 heavens and 32 hells. Each level of hell contains a spot where those not good enough for the first level get tipped down to the next, and so on. It is very difficult to photograph, so I only have a couple of images of the detail.

I loved the religious art in the Ethiopian Orthordox Churches, and was very pleased to find a Last Judgment in St Georges Cathedral, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. It was created by Maitre Afewerk Tekle in 1958.

When visiting the Reza Abbasi Museum in Teheran, I came across a late 19th century Muslim last judgment, by Mohammed Modabber. Titled “Day of the last Judgment” it has a monster on either side at the foot of the painting. It seems that the one at the right would be the gates of hell, as tormented souls are entering the mouth of that monster.

Day of the Last Judgment by Mohammad Modabber, Reza Abbasi Museum, Teheran, Iran.

When visiting tombs in Egypt, I was always drawn to images of the weighing of the heart ceremonies. The Ancient Egyptians had a complex journey after death. The heart was kept in the body so that it could travel with the deceased to the underworld. The deceased finally reaches the Hall of Final judgment. The final part of the judgment was the ceremony where Anubis the god of the dead weighed the heart, which contained a record of the deceased’s actions in life. The heart was weighed against the feather of the Goddess Ma’at. Souls heavier than the feather would be devoured by Ammut. Those with lighter souls would ascend to a heavenly existence. Ammut’s mouth could be compared to the depictions of monster’s mouths in various christian images.

I have not seen any one image which captures the entire journey. The most graphic images are those of the heart weighing ceremony.

Images of Hunefer’s Judgment.

On the journey to heaven, the dead sailed in solar boats. If ancient Egyptian Last Judgment images included the entire day in one image, the journey through the underworld, the heart weighing ceremony, the 12 chambers of hell and the solar boats would all appear in one image rather than as a scroll, reading from left to right (as depicted in Books of the Dead).

My absolute all time favourite Last Judgment is Hieronymus Bosch’s Garden of Earthly delights. That painting is the feature image above. It is a triptych oil painting, created between 1490 and 1510. The torments of hell are among the more hideous warnings to sinners of the fate that awaits them if they do not repent. Seeing this painting was the highlight of my visit to the Museo de Prado, in Madrid.

For the very best Gates of Hell, you need look no further than Auguste Rodin’s sculpture of the Gates of Hell, depicting a scene from the Inferno, from Dante’s Divine Comedy. The sculpture was begun in 1880 and took 37 years to complete.

Gates of Hell, Auguste Rodin – Musee Rodin, Paris.

The last judgments featured are but a very small example of the many last judgments I have seen. Wassily Kandinsky painted a last judgment in 1912. Unfortunately I have only seen reproductions, as the original is in private hands.

Wassily Kandinsky – Last Judgment.

Future travels will involve tracking down modern images of Last Judgments.