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The search for Noah’s ark

Noah’s ark has fascinated everyone—from Noah’s time to our own. From evangelicals to movie makers, from evangelists to youthful campus crusaders, the ark gets everyone’s attention.

But where is the ark? Some in recent times have boldly declared that it has been found, and wonder why the scholars have not publicized the good news. As an archeologist, I ignored the questions for years for a number of reasons. First, common sense suggests that a wooden structure like the ark, exposed to thousands of years of rain, snow, and ice, and experiencing the annual process of freezing and thawing, would long ago have decayed.

Some have suggested that pre-Flood “gopher” wood had unusual strength. But we really know nothing about the “gopher” wood of Noah’s ark. We assume it was a type of cypress. But was it as indestructible as some suggest? Maybe, maybe not. If it was, why do not paleo-botanists find samples of antediluvian “gopher” wood still littering the surface of the Earth? Surely, not all “gopher” wood became petrified wood; some of it had to have floated and remained on the Earth’s surface after the Flood, just like the ark. What has happened to all that wood? My assumption is that, like the wood of Noah’s ark, it decayed long ago.

Second, neither the Bible nor the writings of Ellen G. White—a respected author for Seventh-day Adventists—support the claim that God has preserved Noah’s ark as a witness to those living in these last days. If Noah’s ark is as important to God and final events, He would have revealed that message through His prophets (Amos 3:7). After Genesis 8, the Bible remains silent about the existence of Noah’s ark. Further, the argument that Noah’s ark has a special place in God’s end-of-the-world plans undermines the biblical use of the rainbow as God’s post-Flood, visible covenant between God and humans (Genesis 9:11-17). In fact, the rainbow, as a sign of God’s dependability, is carried through to the Book of Revelation (4:3; 10:1).

From the biblical record, it’s clear that Noah and his family left the ark behind them and looked to the rainbow as the sign that they could trust God. The ark was something of the past. The rainbow was the sign of the future.

For these and other reasons, I believed that searching for Noah’s ark might well be a waste of time—until 1992. That year, I agreed to write two articles about the claimed discovery of Noah’s ark.1 Those articles were in response to claims by a Seventh-day Adventist that God had guided him in the discovery of Noah’s ark and many other ancient artifacts. Since then, the subject of Noah’s ark has taken up much more of my time than I ever expected.

Looking for the ark

What I have discovered is that there are some very sincere, committed Christians who are scientifically and enthusiastically looking for Noah’s ark. There are also some whose work is difficult to classify. Most of the former group call themselves “researchers” and take into account all evidence: that which supports their beliefs and that which does not. In other words, they talk about both their positive and negative evidence as they seek to find the ark, wherever it may be.2 They acknowledge that it has not been found, although they believe it still exists, and they are actively involved in looking for it.

There is another group of people who claim they have found Noah’s ark. Many of them adopt professional-sounding titles and try to confuse the ill-informed with bogus claims. They ignore negative evidence to their claims and use false artifacts to support their conclusions. Sometimes this latter group is represented by journalists who, on slow news days, write about the finding of Noah’s ark, while producing no substantiating evidence.3 This article will ignore this second group and focus on the serious ark researchers.

The search for Noah’s ark has been largely limited to a region in eastern Turkey because of the biblical statement that the ark came to rest in “Ararat” (Genesis 8:4). Often missed in the reading of this verse is that it says the ark settled in the “mountains of Ararat.” No specific mountain is named in the Bible as the resting place of the ark.

The name Ararat is the equivalent of “Urartu,” a people and place of Old Testament times, located in what is today eastern Turkey. The Urartu were strong adversaries of the Assyrians. When Genesis 8:4 speaks of the “mountains of Urartu” it implies that the ark could be anywhere within the country of Urartu, since all of this region was mountainous. The size of this area, which in later times became Armenia and is now the Kurdish part of eastern Turkey, is quite large (see map).

The highest mountain in the region is the 5,138 meter (16,852 ft.) Büyükagsri Dagsi, which is commonly called Mt. Ararat. Mt. Ararat is located north of Lake Van (which was the heartland of ancient Urartu), just north of the town of Dogsübayazit. Actually there are two Mt. Ararats, a “greater” and “lesser” one. Both are the remnants of volcanos, and both stand out from their surrounding countryside. This mountain range is snow-capped year round with permanent glaciers. Obviously, searchers looking for Noah’s ark have been attracted to this tallest of the mountains, not to one of the low lying hills or to a valley.

Specifically, people have claimed to have either found hand-hewn wood high on the slopes of the mountain4 or to have seen the ark itself. Testimonials to its existence are so numerous that this article does not have space to evaluate them all.5 I have chosen three recent claims as examples of the anecdotal evidence that leads searchers to expect the ark to be on Mt. Ararat.

Navarra’s reports

In his book Noah’s Ark: I Touched It,6 Fernand Navarra, the French industrialist, reports his four climbing expeditions (1952, 1953, 1955, and 1969) to Mt. Ararat. His 1952 ascent led him to what he suspected was Noah’s ark. In 1955, accompanied by his 11-year old son, Navarra discovered in a deep crevasse pieces of “hand-hewn” wood. He cut off a five-foot piece of the wood and later reduced it to several smaller pieces to pack them more easily. When reported in Europe, his find was seen by many as certain evidence that Noah’s ark, or at least remnants of it, still existed.

After much negotiation and delay, Navarra returned to eastern Turkey again in 1969 on an expedition sponsored by the Search Foundation. Again, with much effort, near the same spot as his discovery in 1955, the group uncovered several small pieces of wood. Many believed, including the participants of the expedition, that remnants of Noah’s ark had been found. Unfortunately, the evidence (i.e., the wood itself) testified otherwise. When Navarra’s original find underwent Carbon 14 (C14) testing, the wood was found to be only a few hundred years old. Previously, when Navarra had his treasured wood evaluated by several institutes, each had given old dates, but they had used subjective visual guesstimates as the basis of their analyses and their conclusions.7 When the Search Foundation returned with its finds from the 1969 endeavor, they sent samples of their wood to several organizations for C14 analysis. According to the reports, all of the pieces of wood, including Navarra’s original piece, dated to the Christian era8–not to Noah’s time. Other mountaineers of Mt. Ararat have also discovered pieces of wood, but only Navarra’s original find has been scientifically dated. One can conclude that finding wood on the mountain is, in and of itself, no sure proof of the discovery of Noah’s ark.

Greene’s photographs

Some claim to have taken photographs of the ark. Unfortunately, such photographs are always unclear long-distance shots that are open to a variety of interpretations. Or the photographs have become lost, stolen or otherwise unavailable. One of the most interesting of these stories is that of George J. Greene. In 1952 he was working as a mining engineer in eastern Turkey. One day, as he was flying near Mt. Ararat, he spotted what looked to him like a large ship near the top of the mountain. From his vantage point in the helicopter, he spent several minutes taking pictures of the object from as close as 90 feet. After returning to the United States, with photographs in hand, he tried unsuccessfully to organize a team and return to Mt. Ararat. None of his friends seemed interested. Surprisingly, no newspapers reported his story. After a number of years, Greene left the United States for other adventures. Unfortunately, he was murdered by bandits in British Guiana (now Guyana) and the pictures of the ark were lost, although about 30 people claim to have seen the photographs.9 Despite the impressiveness of this account, some who claim to have seen them are not sure that what they saw was a boat.10

Davis’s claim

The most credible sounding anecdotal evidence of recent times is the report of Ed Davis, who claims to have viewed the ark from less than a mile away.11 Davis was a U.S. army sergeant, stationed in Hamadan, Iran, during World War II. While there, he became friends with a young man named Badi, who was attached to the military as a civilian driver. From Hamadan, it is possible to see Mt. Ararat on clear days. Badi told Davis that his family lived in a village at the base of Mt. Ararat and had visited Noah’s ark many times. In fact, Badi’s family considered themselves protectors of the holy relic. Eventually, Davis went with Badi’s family to see the ark.12 Badi’s father, Abas-Abas, led the expedition but, before they left the village, Davis was allowed to see cages and other artifacts that the family said had been brought from the ark to the village.

Abas-Abas led the group on a three-day trek. They stayed in caves each night. After three nights, they were less than one mile from the ark. Davis could see it from that point. Unfortunately, their three days of hiking were spent in fog, with rain continuing night and day. Due to the poor weather conditions, they were unable to climb down from a ledge to the ark or to look inside it. According to Davis, the ark was broken into two parts, but both halves were (in 1943) well preserved. During this trek, no photographs were taken, but subsequently, Davis was given a picture of Abas-Abas’ village. After he returned to his military base, Davis penned these words in his Bible:

“Went to Ararat with Abas. We saw a big ship on a ledge in two pieces. I stayed with him at the big house. It rained and snowed for ten days. I stopped in Tarharan and got some supplys [sic] and got warm and rested up. Also some new clothes. Lt. Bert was glad I got back. He was scared for me. He was afraid I would get killed I think. I am glad I went. I think it is the Ark. Abas has lots of things from there. My legs are almost healed from the horse back ride.”

Many serious ark searchers considered Ed Davis’ story as prime evidence, not only for the existence of the ark, but also for its location. Only if the government would allow them free access to the mountain, they think they could find the ark, based on information Davis had provided.13 Davis even passed a polygraph test about his claims.

Conclusion

Still, I remain cautious. No hard evidence is available to see, touch, or consider. Evidence has to be weighed for credibility. Anecdotal evidence is minimal evidence, because it is so often unreliable. Have we not seen how in courtrooms eyewitnesses often disagree? Davis may have seen something, but what? In fact, astronaut Jim Irwin’s many flights and photographs in and around Mt. Ararat, including flights through areas suggested by Davis’s account, did not produce any pictures of Noah’s ark.

The natural inclination of Eastern peoples is to please their guests. This innate kindness may be one reason why some have reported sightings of Noah’s ark. A three-day trek, with fog and rain night and day, and a viewing of about a mile is not conclusive evidence. For a foreigner to be shown two natural outcroppings from the distance of a mile and to be told they are two halves of Noah’s ark, would not be unusual, especially if a family was trying to please a friend. It would not even be unusual for those outcroppings to be believed to be the stone-hardened Noah’s ark, in local traditions. This is not to suggest that such is the case in Ed Davis’ story. It is to say that, without objective evidence, it is not possible to know what anyone has seen, touched, or experienced.

As to other accounts, my own suggestion is that some of the older people who have claimed to have seen Noah’s ark when they were children, may actually have been visiting a boat-shaped geologic feature about 16 miles southeast of Mt. Ararat.

We have no evidence that Noah’s ark exists today. Did it ever exist? For that we have the security of the Word of God and the presence of the rainbow.

David Merling (Ph.D., Andrews University) is an associate professor of archeology and history of antiquity at Andrews University and curator of the Horn Archaeological Museum. His address: Institute of Archaeology; Andrews University; Berrien Springs, Michigan 49104; U.S.A. E-mail: merling@Andrews.edu

Notes and references

1.   They were published in the Adventist Review, May 20 and 27, 1993.

2.   See Don Shockey, Agri-Dagh (Mount Ararat): The Painful Mountain; Artifacts From Noah’s Ark Found on Mount Ararat (Fresno, Calif.: Pioneer Publishing Company, 1986), p. 38.

3.   For example, the story of the Kurdish farmer Resit, reported in the newspapers in 1948. Supposedly, an entire Kurdish village saw the ark. A team led by an American college president set out to find Resit and view the ark for themselves. Unfortunately, after making the long trip, they could find no one named Resit nor his village nor anyone within 100 miles of Mount Ararat who had heard of the story. See Lloyd R. Bailey, Noah: The Person and the Story in History and Tradition (Columbia, South Carolina: University of South Carolina Press, 1989), p. 88.

4.   Because there are no trees on the mountain or anywhere near it, the natural question is, “How else might wood come to be high on that mountain, unless it was originally part of Noah’s ark?”

5.   Shockey suggests 200 sightings. See his book, Agri-Dagh, p. 41.

6.   Edited by Dave Balsiger (Plainfield, New Jersey: Logos International, 1974).

7.   Rene Noorbergen, The Ark File (Mountain View, Calif: Pacific Press Publ. Assn., 1974), p. 134.

8.   Ibid, pp. 142-144.

9.   See Violet Cummings, Noah’s Ark: Fact or Fable? (San Diego, Calif: Creation-Science Research Center, 1972), pp. 213-223.

10. See Bailey, p. 89.

11. See Shockey, p. 7.

12. Ibid, p. 37.

13. Shockey, p. 42.


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