Searching for the tombs of Noah’s family
In the summer of 2003 I participated in a series of Bible conferences for Adventist ministers in Armenia, Georgia, and Southern Russia. While driving north from Yerevan, Armenia’s capital, to Tiblisi, the capital of Georgia, we stopped along the highway to take photographs of Mount Aragatz, the highest mountain in Armenia at 13,419 feet (4.400 meters). This mountain rises about 30 miles (48 km.) north of the traditional location of Mount Ararat, located on the other side of the border with Turkey (see Figure 1, with map of the region).
Bible readers, of course, are acquainted with Mount Ararat in connection with Noah and the Flood, for it was “on the mountains of Ararat” that the ark came to rest as the waters receded (Genesis 8:4, NIV). A few days after the ark rested, “Noah came out [of the ark], together with his sons and his wife and his sons’ wives,” offered a sacrifice of gratitude to God, and settled in the region (vs.18 and ff.). “The sons of Noah who came out of the ark were Shem, Ham and Japheth; and from them came the people who were scattered over the earth” (Genesis 9:18, 19).
After I returned home, I checked on the internet for many close-up views of various locations on Mount Aragatz.1 From a study of these photographs, I was convinced that there were some rock-cut carvings on the southern slope of this mountain just above Lake Qare (about 9,000 ft., 2.700 m.). I wanted to examine these carvings, so I went back to Armenia in June of 2004, accompanied by a professional photographer friend.2
Findings at Lake Qare
On June 28, we set out for Lake Qare on Mount Aragatz, accompanied by a guide and our host, the president of the Adventist Mission in Armenia. A decent road runs up to that lake, as the Armenian Institute of Physics studying cosmic rays is located there. After a series of delays, we arrived at Lake Qare and discovered that there was much more snow, ice, and mud than I had anticipated (Figure 2).
Upon arriving at the parking lot at one end of the lake, our guide asked me where I wanted to go. I pointed to the slope of the mountain nearest the parking lot, where I felt we might find some carvings. Instead of following a trail that appeared to be the most direct route to that slope, our companions suggested that we take the other way around the lake. As we reached the far point, I saw a large rock, about 4 x 6 feet (1.2 x 1.8 m.) in size. Approaching it, I noticed the figure of a large snake cut into its upper edge. From this I knew we had made a find, because in the earliest alphabet the snake stands for the letter N (from Semitic nahash = snake). This is also the first letter in the name of the biblical Noah. The rest of the relief and carved inscription can be deciphered as “the dove took wing from the ark here.”
Identification of this first carved stone led to a search for others in the same area. A total of seven carved stones were found within an area of about 25 feet (8 m.) from the first stone. Four of these depict outlines of the heads of various members of Noah’s family—Shem, Ham, Japheth. The men are named in the inscriptions (which must be read right to left) but the women are simply labeled as “wife (ashat) of….”
One of these carved stones is important for determining the nature of the large mound on the other side of the lake. This stone was scored horizontally about two-thirds of the way up, to demarcate the peak. The figure of a man is shown on the right side of this peak. There is a two-word inscription written beside this figure: Noach = Noah and qeber = tomb, grave.
Reading the inscriptions
I first noted the script used here on the other side of the border while visiting the Durupinar formation near Dougbayazit, Turkey, in the summer of 1998. It came as a complete surprise to find a couple of brief alphabetic inscriptions there, since I had previously assumed that any writing found in this area near the landing of Noah’s Ark would be cuneiform. But here it was in an alphabetic script related to Proto-Sinaitic, the earliest written alphabet of mankind, known originally from turquoise mines in Sinai from the mid-second millennium B.C. and more recently from the early second millennium B.C. found in Egypt. Here was an earlier form of that Semitic alphabet found first in Eastern Turkey and now in Armenia.
This stone, with the two-word inscription (Noach qeber = Noah’s tomb), seems to be a model or a marker of the burial mound of Noah that is found across the lake, in plain view of the carved stone. Unfortunately, this interpretation did not occur to me until a couple of months after I returned home.
A larger carved stone located nearest to the edge of the lake shows a more extensive scene that can be deciphered (Figure 3). In the right lower corner is Noah with his hand lifted up as he is shown releasing one of his birds. The dove (yonah) shown above him on the right, while the raven (oreb) is shown in the other upper corner. In the left lower corner opposite Noah, the ark is shown sitting on Ararat. There are faint inscriptions for each one of these features. This scene implies that the mountain upon which the ark landed was this one and not the other one 30 miles to the south.
After we had been hiking for a little over an hour, a storm came up. So we had to leave the site prematurely. Nevertheless, we had been able to accomplish more than I expected.
The tomb of Shem
Much to my dismay, we were not able to get back up Mount Aragatz for further explorations. However, another horizon of research opened up for us. After a couple of days of sightseeing in the Yerevan area, we left for the town of Sisian, a three-hour drive south of Yerevan. On a Friday morning we drove just 3 kilometers south of Sisian to Zorats Qarer, which is a large field of megaliths that some call the Armenian Stonehenge. While the standing stones at Zorats Qarer are not as tall as those in Stonehenge in England, there are many more of them and they are spread out over a much larger area (Figure 4). Some Armenian anthropologist or archaeologist has numbered most of them with white paint. The highest number that I saw was 180 and there may well be more than that. They are spread out close to over a quarter of a mile, in distinctive rows (Figure 5).
We spent more than two hours photographing about 60 of these standing stones. Many of them have short inscriptional labels or reliefs, in varying degrees of illegibility because of weathering and overgrowth of lichens. The inscriptions, when legible, utilized the same early alphabet that we had seen on Mount Aragatz.
For lack of any better explanation, the common Armenian interpretation of this field is that it may represent ancient astronomical markers, similar to Stonehenge. But Zorats Qarer is quite different from Stonehenge—especially in that at its center there is a tomb. The important question then is, Who is buried in the tomb? The weathered inscriptions provide the answer to this question. A number of them refer to the tomb of Shem and his wife. One of the clearer inscriptions can be read on one of the markers (Figure 6). The word qeber is written down the left side of the stela. Then the name of Shem with its three short and simple letters is written down the right side of the stela and again, in smaller letters, down the lower part of the center. Other names of the men in Noah’s family are found here too, but none of them have the word for “grave” associated with them. Thus the important grave at the center of this complex should be that of Shem and his wife. (Or his wife may be buried in the secondary tomb just to the south of the central grave.) This site is located approximately four hours south of, I believe, what is the burial mound of Noah and his wife on Mount Aragatz.
The tomb of Japheth
With our spirits buoyed considerably by the discoveries at Zorats Qarer, we took another excursion to a large valley three hours’ drive south of Sisian. The valley was deep, and a switchback road wound down to the bottom where we took a pleasant swim in a geothermal spring. Then we followed the winding road up the other side of the valley to the Tatev Monastery.
I was surprised to find more Noachic type of inscriptions on three very large blocks of stone in the courtyard of the monastery. The monks who built the monastery about A.D. 1000 were careful to preserve the back sides of these three stones when they carved their own inscriptions on their front sides. On the back sides of those three stones the name of Shem can be read in the middle stone, Ham is found on the right, and Japheth on the left. Where the monks obtained these old blocks of stone is unknown to us, but it presaged of an even more important discovery as we retraced our route back down into the valley and up on the other side.
As we came up out of the valley on its north side, our host and driver said, “Oh, I forgot to take you to this observation point.” As we walked out onto the observation point on a promontory (Figure 7), I noticed two strata of rocks, the modern rocks on the top to provide the viewpoint and the older rocks underneath. These older rocks were carved with badly weathered inscriptions and reliefs similar to those we had seen on Mount Aragatz and in the field of megaliths at Zorats Qarer. This time the carvings revealed a connection between the word for “grave, tomb” (qeber) and the name of Japheth, another one of the sons of Noah.
This collection of inscriptions indicates that this promontory was not paved just for the use of modern tourists, but in ancient times it served as the site of the burial of Japheth and his wife. To emphasize the connections of this site with the family of Noah, there are carvings of his three sons on top of the columnar rocks just across the road from this lookout. In that location, Shem and his wife were carved on the right, Ham and his wife in the middle, and Japheth and his wife on the left.
To summarize the results of our explorations in Armenia, it can be said that very good candidates for the locations of the burials of three men (plus their wives) have been identified in Armenia: (1) Noah and his wife in the burial mound on the inside of Lake Qare at the 9,000-foot level of Mount Aragatz, one hour’s drive north of Yerevan; (2) Shem and his wife in the grave at the center of the megalithic field of Zorats Qarer, three hour’s drive south of Yerevan; and (3) Japheth and his wife on the promontory overlooking the valley where the Tatev Monastery is located, six hours drive south of Yerevan.
Other visits to the area are expected to expand and refine the results of this research.
William H. Shea (MD, Loma Linda University; Ph.D., University of Michigan) served as medical missionary, seminary professor, and associate director of the Biblical Research Institute of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists. Although retired, he continues to lecture, travel, and write as a specialist in ancient languages. His email address: Shea56080@aol.com.
- On Internet, log onto www.masis.am, select Mountains and then select Aragatz
- Rollin Weber of Palm Desert, California, took the photos that accompany this article.