Common Errors (2): Ararat

The wrong mountain

The wrong mountain

There’s something tragic about researchers who travel to eastern Turkey to find the remains of the Ark of Noah on an ancient volcano. Not just because it is sad that they need evidence to support their faith, but also because they are looking in the wrong place. There was no mountain named Ararat, and the Bible does not refer to it.

The King James Version is accurate: “the ark rested … upon the mountains of Ararat” (Genesis 8.4). Ararat is known from other stories in the Bible: it is a country in the southeast of Turkey and northwest of Iran, and is also known as Urartu (cf., 2 Kings 19.37; Jeremiah 51.27). The author of Genesis was, therefore, not thinking of a particular peak, but of a general area. However, medieval travelers like (perhaps) Marco Polo and (certainly) Odoric of Friuli identified the mountain that the Turks call Ağrı Dağı with the summit on which the Ark rested, and started to call it Ararat. It is a comparatively young name for a mountain that has nothing to do with the Biblical story.

As it happens, we know the summit that the ancients identified as the place where the Ark rested. In the second century BCE, the author of the apocryphal Book of Jubilees spoke about a mountain named Lubar in the land of Ararat (Jubilees 5.28 and 10.15), and so does the author of the Genesis Apocryphon (x.12, xii.8, 13). The Jewish historian Flavius Josephus calls this mountain Baris and correctly translates Ararat as Gordyene: the name of that area in his own age. He adds that people went up the mountain to take away bitumen from the wreck (Jewish Antiquities, 1.93).

This is confirmed by Babylonian sources. In his account of the Flood, Berossus also tells that there was bitumen to be found on the place in Gordyene where the Ark rested. The Epic of Gilgameš refers to a Mount Nimuš (text), which is identical to the modern Al-Gudi in Kurdistan and is mentioned in the Quran too (11.44). It is opposite modern Cizre, east of the river Tigris.

Eastern Christians, who have never listened very much to European theologians (not to mention their topographical identifications), still venerate the tomb of Noah, reportedly together with the Shi’ite and Sunnite Muslims of Kurdistan. Whether the patriarch is really buried over there remains to be seen; but however that may be, the eastern Christians remember a tradition that is about thirty centuries older than the one followed by the people searching for the remains of the Ark on the Ağrı Dağı.

<Overview of Common Errors>

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6 Responses to Common Errors (2): Ararat

  1. barcid says:

    “Not just because it is sad that they need evidence to support their faith, but also because they are looking in the wrong place.”

    I find this to be an interesting comment. The very essence of historiography is finding “evidence to support your faith” that such-and-such event happened at such-and-such time… i.e., one can’t just “believe” the Mycenaeans sacked and destroyed Troy; you need to excavate the site and find proof.

    A lot of religious people try to rationalize belief with scientific arguments… for example, some Judeo-Christians argue that Moses simply knew how to time the changing tides in the Sea of Reeds so he could evade the Pharaoh’s army, rather than parting the Red Sea. Others believe Moses consumed a hallucinogenic drug when he saw the burning bush, etc.

    But your statement seems to imply that these attempted rationalizations are either unnecessary or simply a waste of time?
    It seems dichotomous, and hard to reconcile this with your professional work, the nature of which requires you to check and double-check the veracity of everything you believe.

    Are you saying that this standard isn’t necessary for religious belief? Anyway, thanks again for another thoughtful and provocative post.

  2. I think that religious belief is not the same as historiographical faith. Religious belief has something to do with ethics; the sack of Troy has not. The sack of Troy is a fact, or it is not a fact, and that in itself is interesting to know; religious belief goes beyond that – it has consequences for daily life. At the same time, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam can exist with or without the Ark being a historical fact; as far as I am concerned, I think Christian organizations can spend their money on more important issues than expeditions to eastern Turkey – for example on creating a shelter for homeless people.

  3. barcid says:

    I see your point. I am not a religious person, so it’s hard for me to comment fairly on someone else’s faith.
    But history and theology are intertwined. Christians believe that Jesus was the Messiah, because he performed miracles.

    But if we can’t prove that he turned water into wine, etc., how do we know for sure that he’s the son of God and not an imposter?
    There were plenty of men who claimed they had connections to God, but Christians follow Jesus specifically because, as the story goes, he did extraordinary things. The factual evidence that Jesus performed these miracles is disputed. And yet there are plenty of historians who are also Christians.

    Do you think Jesus performed the miracles in the Bible, or does that even matter?

  4. I think it does not really matter; it is something Christians believe and it is therefore not necessary to investigate it. A Christian would argue that it would be “asking for signs”; as a historian, I think it is sufficient to know that people, back then, believed Jesus was capable of performing miracles.

  5. barcid says:

    OK, so I take it you are not religious? It seems like this would be hard to reconcile if you are.

    One last thing, while I’m thinking of it, and then I’ll stop pestering. Do you have any plans to do articles on Trojan War and/or the Hittite Empire for your Livius site in the future, or are you just sticking with the post-Bronze Age history?

  6. There may be a very general article about the Hittites, and a page on Hattusas, but you are right that I concentrate on post-Bronze Age.

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