Archaeology: Rock unleashes flood of evidence: It's not the Ark, but a discovery may shed unexpected light on the Noah story, reports David Keys

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THE PAST few weeks have seen the publication by three national newspapers of touchingly credulous articles reporting American claims that Noah's Ark has been found at an altitude of more than a mile in a remote part of eastern Turkey, 17 miles south of Mount Ararat.

In the Observer, the Daily Mail and the Mail on Sunday, these extraordinary claims were reported straight and virtually without comment - and were not subjected to even the most rudimentary critical questioning. On Sunday evening, an almost equally uncritical American-made documentary, The Quest for the Ark, will be screened by Channel 4. Only the Daily Telegraph and Sunday Telegraph viewed the discovery critically, and both were unambiguously hostile to the American claims. Certainly most academics would take this more dismissive approach.

As with so many other discoveries on the archaeological fringe, the truth may lie somewhere between the convictions of the believers and the position of total rejection adopted by traditional academia.

For many good reasons, the newly discovered so-called Ark - a large boat-shaped object which the Ark hunters have found in eastern Turkey - cannot be the original Noah's Ark, even if one were to accept the biblical claim that Noah and his Ark existed.

In the first place, it is made of rock] Second, it is one-and-a-quarter miles above sea level, so any flood reaching that height would have covered most of the world's land surface and would have required more additional water than actually exists on the planet.

Third, even if the location of the boat-like formation had been lifted up by geological activity, the maximum it could have risen since the earliest possible date of the world's major flood myths (approximately 18000 BC) would be around 1,500 feet, according to earthquake experts. This would only have reduced the site's altitude to around a mile, sadly not enough to improve the chances of the flood scenario.

But in a strange way those three facts do not necessarily invalidate any link with the Ark legend. Indeed, looked at from a different perspective, the discovery could shed new and unexpected light on the Noah story.

For it is known indirectly from early third-century BC Graeco-

Babylonian sources that visitors (perhaps pilgrims or tourists) used to go to a site in Kurdistan/ancient Armenia (the eastern Turkey region) to see the remains of 'the Ark'. And the original Hebrew Bible describes the Ark as having come to rest 'on a mountain in Urartu'. The ancient first millenium BC kingdom of Urartu translates today as 'Armenia' or in the Bible as 'Ararat'. The Muslim Koran says that the Ark came to rest on a mountain called Al-Judi.

The flood legend recurs all over the world - in India, Europe, South America and China as well as the Middle East.

Many different cultures claim their own particular mountains as the 'landing places' of their own arks. The Greeks chose Mount Parnassus. The ancient Babylonians believed it was Mount Nimush (probably near the modern Iraq- Iran border) and some modern Christian fundamentalists say it was eastern Turkey's Mount Ararat (an erroneous reading of the inaccurately translated King James version of the Bible).

It is therefore quite possible that, some time prior to the Graeco- Babylonion historian Berossos' third-century BC reference to the Ark, local people in Urartu (Armenia) noticed the boat-shaped object 7,000 feet up in their mountains and assumed (erroneously) that it must have been the remains of Noah's Ark - exactly as today's American researchers have done.

The late 20th century 'discovery' has made the news in a big way - and so, quite possibly, did the first millenium BC 'discovery'. It certainly made it into the pages of the Bible and the Koran, whose total joint circulation can still beat those of national newspapers any day. And there is reasonable, though admittedly circumstantial, evidence that this is exactly what happened.

Strikingly, the boat-like rock formation is exactly 515 feet long and at the Hebrew rate of 20.6 inches to the cubit this is exactly the same as the 300 cubits referred to in Genesis, although the width, 138 feet against the biblical 86 feet, is way out.

Next, the mountain on whose slopes the boat-like formation is located is called 'Judi' - exactly the same as the reference in the Koran. What is more, according to the American researchers, led by the shipwreck explorer David Fasold, many local place names seem to refer to events associated with the legend of the flood. A local town's name translates as 'crow on land', perhaps a reference to the raven or crow which Noah is said to have released first from the Ark. Then a nearby valley is called the 'Region of the Eight' - perhaps a reference to the eight humans who survived on the Ark.

So it may be that, although the discovery has nothing to do with the original flood or any original ark, it may have a lot to do with the development of the biblical and other accounts from perhaps the fifth century BC onwards.

The memory of the flood - which most likely occurred sometime between 18000 BC and 3000 BC - possibly inspired the good folk of Urartu some time between 1000 and 400 BC to designate the boat-shaped rock formation as the Ark. And the rest is history - or at least it could be.

One thing, however, is certain: there was a flood - probably lots of them. At one Mesopotamian site, Kish, a whole town was washed away, and archaeologists have actually found the multi-meter thick layer of water-borne mud responsible. The Tigris and Euphrates rivers often caused disastrous floods, but the greatest inundations were probably caused by the shrinking of the ice caps at the end of the Ice Age. Beteween 18000 and 3000 BC sea levels worldwide rose by 300 feet, and vast areas of the globe (including what is now the Arabian sea, south of Mesopotamia) were flooded. Sometimes sea level would engulf land at the rate of three feet per 50 years, and much more rapidly in times of storm surges.

But why did it all happen? The Bible says it was to punish mankind for its sins. But perhaps the ancient Babylonians got it right when they blamed the watery catastrophe on our numbers and our noise. According to Mesopotamian myth, the gods decided to drown us all because our noise kept them all awake at night. One god (obviously hard of hearing) took mercy on humankind and tipped off the Babylonian equivalent of Noah so he could build an Ark and survive.

And so, we're still all here, noisy as ever, to tell the tale.

'Quest for the Ark', the first of Channel 4's new Encounters series, will be screened at 7pm on Sunday 13 February.

(Photograph omitted)