Great Story from the BibleThe Book of Genesis tells the story of Noah and his family, who escaped the Great Flood in an ark loaded with animals. At the conclusion of 40 nights, the ark came to rest "upon the mountains of Ararat." Tradition and Bible literalists place this event in 2345 B.C. (the Genesis account was written some 1,300 years later), though geologists and archaeologists, citing the paucity of scientific evidence, doubt that any such massive flood ever took place.
If the flood did not happen, Noah and his ark did not exist, and the Bible is not inerrant. In the view of most scholars, the story should be read as one of many tales from all over the world of an immense flood and its chosen survivors. These stories do not prove that a universal deluge occurred; they seem to have arisen as responses to devastating local floods which encompassed, if not the whole world, at least the world its victims occupied.
To fundamentalists such an interpretation is unacceptable, and so for a long time hopeful seekers have searched for the remains of Noah's ark on Mount Ararat. There is a Mount Ararat; actually, to be more specific, there are two of them: Great Ararat (16,900 feet high) and Little Ararat (12,900). Connecting the two is a rock saddle between 7,000 and 8,000 feet high. These mountains lie in extreme eastern Turkey, along the border of Iran and Armenia.
In fact, Ararat is an ancient name for Armenia and, later, for a small northern district of that nation. The name was not attached to the mountain until around the eleventh century. Other sources, in any case, place the final resting of the ark elsewhere. The Koran mentions Mount Judi, associated with a mountain (subsequently renamed Judi after the Koran's account) to the south of Ararat. The first-century historian Flavius Josephus put the remains in what is now called Haran, a Turkish city near the Syrian border. Other ancient chroniclers had their own favored sites, most in Turkey but others in Greece, Armenia, and Iran.
Sightings and SearchesIn short, historical claims for an ark on Ararat are shaky indeed. Nonetheless eventually Jews and Christians who gave thought to the subject came to believe that the ark's remains were still on Ararat. The pseudonymous travel writer Sir John Mandeville contended straight-facedly that on a clear day one could actually look up and see the ark. Around 1670 a Dutchman named Jan Struys, captured and enslaved by bandits in Armenia, met a hermit-or so he would claim later--on Ararat. Struys, believed by his captors to possess magical healing powers, treated the old man, who in gratitude handed him a "piece of hard wood of a dark color" and a sparkling stone, both of which "he told me he had taken from under the Ark."
In the nineteenth century a number of wouldbe discoverers climbed the mountain without finding anything-until 1876, when James Bryce of Oxford University came upon a four-foot-long stick near the peak of Great Arafat. He declared it to be a piece of the ark. On August 10, 1883, the Chicago Tribune published this colorful, but apparently entirely fictitious, tale:
A paper at Constantinople announces the discovery of Noah's Ark. It appears that some Turkish commissioners appointed to investigate the avalanches on Mt. Ararat suddenly came on a gigantic structure of very dark wood, protruding from the glacier. They made inquiries of the local folk. These had seen it for six years, but had been afraid to approach it, because a spirit of fierce aspect had been seen looking out of the upper windows. The Turkish Commissioners, however, are bold men, not deterred by such trifles, and they determined to reach it.
Situated as it was among the fastnesses of one of the glens of Mt. Ararat, it was a work of enormous difficulty, and it was only after incredible hardships that they succeeded. The Ark was in a good state of preservation.... They recognized it at once.
There was an English-speaking man among them, who had presumably read his Bible, and he saw it was made of gopher wood, the ancient timber of the scripture, which, as everyone knows, grows only on the plains of the Euphrates. Effecting an entrance into the structure, which was painted brown, they found that the Admirality requirements for the conveyance of horses had been carried out, and the interior was divided into partitions 15 feet high.
Into only three of these could they get, the others being full of ice, and how far the Ark extended into the glacier they could not tell. If, however, on being uncovered, it turns out to be 300 cubits long [the dimensions cited in Genesis], it will go hard with disbelievers.
In 1892 Archdeacon John Joseph Nouri of the Chaldean Church reported that he had found the ark and even entered it. While there, he took the opportunity to measure it, finding-unsurprisingly-that it was 300 cubits long.
In the following decades a number of expeditions were launched. Most ended in disappointment, and a few others returned claiming sightings. A 1952 expedition led by wealthy French inclustralist Fernand Navarra produced samples of wood which, when first tested, were dated at 5,000 years. A later, more accurate test resulted in a disappointing finding: the wood was from A.D. 800 and probably from a monks' shrine built on the side of the mountain. A 1960 Life photograph of a ship-shaped depression on the mountain sent an expedition racing for an onsite look-at what turned out to be a natural formation created by a recent landslide.
In the years since then, there have been other expeditions and other claims, none especially note worthy. Most of the funding and personnel for these ventures have come from fundamentalist sources who reason that if Genesis can be shown to be accurate about Noah, its account of Creation can be trusted, too. Unfortunately the inflated pronouncements of "arkeologists," as they are called, have proven to be neither accurate nor trustworthy.
Critics have had no trouble pointing out the many flaws in arkeological thought. Scientists Charles J. Cazeau and Stuart D. Scott, Jr., remarked that "if the ark had come to rest near the summit of Ararat 5,000 years ago, it likely would have shifted by glacial movement to lower elevations long ago. To at least some extent, the ark would have broken up, the wood strewn about on the lower slopes of the mountain, easily accessible even to those who are not mountain climbers."
Charles Fort, the great anomaly collector and satirist, had this to say about Nouri's account, in words that apply to all of the arkeological quest:
I accept that anybody who is convinced that there are relics upon Mt. Ararat, has only to climb up Mt. Ararat, and he must find something that can be said to be part of Noah's Ark, petrified perhaps. If someone else should be convinced that a mistake has been made, and that the mountain is really Pike's Peak, he has only to climb Pike's Peak and prove that the most virtuous of all lands was once the Holy Land.