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.
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
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.
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.