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Noah and his Ark

 

While returning to the bus we passed 'Noah's Garden', a restaurant featuring an interesting sign quoting Robert Gordon (Lord) Byron:  

'If the Scriptures are rightly understood, it was in Armenia that Paradise was placed. – Armenia, which has paid as dearly as the descendants of Adam for that fleeting participation of its soil in the happiness of him who was created from its dust. It was in Armenia that the flood first abated, and the dove alighted.'

I was immediately interested. Elsewhere I've accused Byron of responsibility for the modern world. Read more...

Using my handy device I determined that Byron had been here twice: in 1876 and 1880; on the first occasion also climbing Ararat. But the quote mostly caught my attention because Byron was a religious agnostic and had no belief in the authority of the Scriptures.  As I soon discovered the quotation needs to be read in context.  It's part of a polemic, written for a largely Christian audience, drawing attention to the beginnings of the Armenian Genocide (see below) that was underway at the hands of the Turks.  Byron would later die while attempting to expel them from Greece. That's a whole other story.   

But it again drew the Biblical flood story to my attention.  Like the writings of Shakespeare much of the 'history' informing the authors of the Jewish Bible - the Old Testament - is drawn from earlier works (and religions). For solid evidence of this eclecticism visit the Jewish Museum in Jerusalem.  The Biblical 'flood' or 'deluge' myth is clearly 'elaborated' from the much older Epic of Gilgamesh, in turn inherited from earlier Mesopotamian legends and thus in part from the Zoroastrians and their 'end of days'. 

Modern scientists tell us of a series of global mass extinctions that changed all life on the planet - the last being 65 million years ago when an asteroid collided with the Earth. The Epic of Gilgamesh tells of one much more recent, a ten thousandth of that time ago.

A global flood is a nice idea for a global extinction at the hands of a disappointed god but impractical. Those ancient mythologists had no way of knowing the relative heights of the tallest mountains or even that the Earth is an oblate spheroid (slightly flattened sphere) with relatively little (0.13%) water, by volume.  The may well have thought it was flat. Huge, devastating floods can and do occur quite often, including tsunami, but they are strictly local.

According to the Biblical version of this ancient myth, about five thousand years ago God was unhappy about how the world had turned out. He had capitulated control by allowing the devil's apple to free mankind to manage his own affairs. What a disaster! So he decided to scrub his canvas and start all over again:

And the Lord said, I will destroy man whom I have created from the face of the earth; both man, and beast, and the creeping thing, and the fowls of the air; for it repenteth me that I have made them

But looking around he found just one man who together with his family warranted saving.  So he sent a message to Noah telling him how to build an Ark that would survive the coming flood and would be big enough to carry enough animals to restock the planet for his future use:

And, behold, I, even I, do bring a flood of waters upon the earth, to destroy all flesh, wherein is the breath of life, from under heaven; and every thing that is in the earth shall die.
But with thee will I establish my covenant; and thou shalt come into the ark, thou, and thy sons, and thy wife, and thy sons' wives with thee.
And of every living thing of all flesh, two of every sort shalt thou bring into the ark, to keep them alive with thee; they shall be male and female.
Of fowls after their kind, and of cattle after their kind, of every creeping thing of the earth after his kind, two of every sort shall come unto thee, to keep them alive.
And take thou unto thee of all food that is eaten, and thou shalt gather it to thee; and it shall be for food for thee, and for them. KJV

And so it came to pass. After the flood had had sufficient time to cleanse the Earth, Noah sent out a dove that eventually returned from Mt Ararat with a green olive twig, indicating that the deluge had subsided sufficiently to make landfall there.  Unfortunately one of the unicorns and the dragons didn't make it.

You might think I'm a little sceptical. Yet I'm not alone, except for some Christian, Muslim and Jewish fundamentalists, the retelling of this myth is generally regarded as a parable; an implicit warning to sinners, like those of Sodom and Gomorrah; a mystical metaphor of some other kind that could mean anything; or a simple fairytale.

The authors obviously knew that Mount Ararat is very high and seems more so because it stands on a plane. So it was a good choice for the first landfall.  But they probably hadn't actually seen it, because at first glance it's obvious that there are no trees of any kind above the tree-line, let alone an olive tree. Ok, so perhaps the twig was flotsam - but what about carrying two  'of every creeping thing of the earth after his kind'.  How big was this thing?

Apart from the many other holes in this story, there is insufficient water on Earth to cover 'all the lands' to the top of Ararat at over 5,000 metres, nor has there ever been.  Water makes up less than 0.13% of the Earth's volume and while it could cover a perfectly smooth crust to a couple of kilometres, a principal element of the myth is a mountain, not to mention the other terrain.  Unbeknown to the ancients, who lacked the necessary skills and surveying instruments (or satellites) Mt Ararat is not as tall as nearby Mount Elbrus, the highest mountain in Europe, that stands 5,642 metres above sea level. As the waters subsided it would have been evident to a large ship in the vicinity long before Ararat popped up. 

 

See album

Mt Ararat - over 5,000 metres of sea level rise would be required to submerge it
Yet to cover 'all the land' would require water another four kilometres deep to cover Mt Everest - quite a lot of water
And the dove procured an olive twig from the top - have a look at it - an olive grove - really?

 

Anyway it's an interesting speculation. Where might extra water have come from?  In addition to the oceans and land based ice, now predominantly in Greenland and Antarctica, the crust contains a considerable amount of ancient groundwater (mineral water) yet even if all this water was forced out and added to the oceans, the average sea level rise would be around 52 metres (ref). This is somewhat short of the nine kilometres of sea level rise required to cover Mt Everest.

Nevertheless Ararat was once in Armenia and features on the Armenian coats-of-arms. It towers on the horizon in Yerevan as a kind of taunt. So the Noah myth is pretty strong, helped along by crazy fundamentalists trying to prove that it's true.

Some even assert that Ararat was indeed the tallest mountain in Noah's time because it's a semi-active volcano that last erupted in 1840, so in an earlier eruption the top four kilometres blew off.  Our bubbly local guide, who told jokes, laughed a lot and like the hero in Slumdog Millionaire, seemed to think was a guide's job was to tell gullible tourists tall tales as if they were true, mentioned this just before saying that her next mission was to take some tourists to the top of the northern mountains to experience the negative gravity that prevails there. 

 

 


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