Harvill Secker £16.99

Ararat: In search of the mythical mountain, By Frank Westerman

Climbers of all creeds are captivated by Mt Ararat

Frank Westerman is not the first man to become obsessed with a mountain, but his book is as much about himself as it is about Mount Ararat. While he gives us a comprehensive account of the mountain's mythology and history, and tells the story of his determination to climb it, he also explores a more personal issue: that of his loss of religious faith.

Westerman was brought up in the Netherlands among strict Protestants who believed in the literal truth of the Bible. His grandfather insisted that the earth was 6,000 years old. His mother reacted with horror when the young Frank showed her a school essay that began with the statement that man was descended from the apes. But his own faith dwindled and died: "It seemed to me that my faith had been chipped away at gradually, more or less without me noticing," he recalls. It had, he says elsewhere, "trickled out of my life", and he wanted to know why.

His own attempt to explore the reality and myth of Ararat was to be, he notes, "a sort of pilgrimage, but then again, the pilgrimage of a non-believer". Along the way he recalls childhood experiences, enjoys discussions with geologists, mountain guides and fellow travellers, and recounts the story of the mountain and attempts to conquer it. A particular hero is Friedrich Parrot, who was first to climb to the summit, in 1829. When he came down, unfortunately, he found it difficult to get anyone to believe him.

On the border between Turkey and Armenia, Ararat was for years the front-line between Nato and the Soviet bloc, and is still highly militarised. But it also forms a border between Christianity and Islam, and, in a sense, between belief and scepticism. Westerman explores the many versions of the story of Noah's Ark – which according to Genesis came to rest on Ararat – in the Christian, Jewish and Islamic traditions, and also in older and more remote versions. He is particularly good on the Book of Gilgamesh, providing an admiring account of how the book, with its pagan version of the flood myth, came to be pieced together at the British Museum by George Smith, a self-taught assistant in the Assyriology department. But he also shows that the myth continues to cast a powerful spell, particularly on Christians of an evangelical bent who are still searching the mountain for remnants of the Ark; many of them in the belief that the discovery of the Ark will lead directly to the Day of Judgement. One ark-seeker was James Irwin, a former Apollo astronaut, who claimed – some time after the event – to have sensed God's presence while he was walking on the moon. He made six trips to Ararat without finding anything.

To get on to the mountain at all takes remarkable persistence. Westerman details his struggles with Turkish bureaucracy as he attempts to get the correct documentation for his climb. Apart from anything else, the area is a war zone, with the struggle between Turkey and Kurdish separatists just the latest in a long line of conflicts. "What kept most climbers at bay," he notes, "was not the three- or four-day climb itself, or the need for crampons and an ice axe. A far greater threat was the rattle of machine guns heard in the region from time to time."

Nonetheless, he perseveres, acquiring a large pile of equipment, a handful of altitude-sickness pills, some boots that blister his feet, and masses of advice. He also goes on an odd training exercise: wadlopen is the apparently popular Dutch hobby of mud-walking, which involves wading through the deep sludge around the coastline. A vividly-written chapter reveals it to be both utterly exhausting and potentially life-threatening. It is, Westerman says, sometimes called "horizontal mountain-climbing", and you can see why.

This is an episodic, discursive book, with some episodes less relevant than others. Nonetheless, the book is studded with information, skilfully constructed and fluently written. The translation from the Dutch, by Sam Garrett, is relaxed and colloquial. He has surely broken new ground by providing English translations of Westerman's text messages home: "CAMP 2 4100M" reads one. "NRBY SNW & CLDS. NO TRBL W/ALT SCKNES."

Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Dornan as Christian Grey in Fifty Shades of Grey

film Sex scene trailer sees a shirtless Jamie Dornan turn up the heat

Arts and Entertainment
A sketch of Van Gogh has been discovered in the archives of Kunsthalle Bremen in Germany
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Eleanor Catton has hit back after being accused of 'treachery' for criticising the government.
books
Arts and Entertainment
Fake Banksy stencil given to artist Alex Jakob-Whitworth

art

Arts and Entertainment
'The Archers' has an audience of about five million
radioA growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift is heading to Norwich for Radio 1's Big Weekend

music
Arts and Entertainment
Beer as folk: Vincent Franklin and Cyril Nri (centre) in ‘Cucumber’
tvReview: This slice of gay life in Manchester has universal appeal
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
‘A Day at the Races’ still stands up well today
film
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tvAnd its producers have already announced a second season...
Arts and Entertainment
Kraftwerk performing at the Neue Nationalgalerie (New National Gallery) museum in Berlin earlier this month
musicWhy a bunch of academics consider German electropoppers Kraftwerk worthy of their own symposium
Arts and Entertainment
Icelandic singer Bjork has been forced to release her album early after an online leak

music
Arts and Entertainment
Colin Firth as Harry Hart in Kingsman: The Secret Service

film
Arts and Entertainment
Brian Blessed as King Lear in the Guildford Shakespeare Company's performance of the play

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
In the picture: Anthony LaPaglia and Martin Freeman in 'The Eichmann Show'

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Kirkbride and Bill Roache as Deirdre and Ken Barlow in Coronation Street

tvThe actress has died aged 60
Arts and Entertainment
Marianne Jean-Baptiste defends Joe Miller in Broadchurch series two

tv
Arts and Entertainment
The frill of it all: Hattie Morahan in 'The Changeling'

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny may reunite for The X Files

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Clarkson, left, and Richard Hammond upset the locals in South America
TV
News
A young woman punched a police officer after attending a gig by US rapper Snoop Dogg
people
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third
books

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game are both nominated at the Bafta Film Awards
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Isis hostage crisis: The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power

    Isis hostage crisis

    The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power, says Robert Fisk
    Missing salvage expert who found $50m of sunken treasure before disappearing, tracked down at last

    The runaway buccaneers and the ship full of gold

    Salvage expert Tommy Thompson found sunken treasure worth millions. Then he vanished... until now
    Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

    Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

    Maverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
    Assisted Dying Bill: I want to be able to decide about my own death - I want to have control of my life

    Assisted Dying Bill: 'I want control of my life'

    This week the Assisted Dying Bill is debated in the Lords. Virginia Ironside, who has already made plans for her own self-deliverance, argues that it's time we allowed people a humane, compassionate death
    Move over, kale - cabbage is the new rising star

    Cabbage is king again

    Sophie Morris banishes thoughts of soggy school dinners and turns over a new leaf
    11 best winter skin treats

    Give your moisturiser a helping hand: 11 best winter skin treats

    Get an extra boost of nourishment from one of these hard-working products
    Paul Scholes column: The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him

    Paul Scholes column

    The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him
    Frank Warren column: No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans

    Frank Warren's Ringside

    No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans
    Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

    Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
    Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
    Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

    Comedians share stories of depression

    The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
    Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

    Has The Archers lost the plot?

    A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
    English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

    14 office buildings added to protected lists

    Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee